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GSMA mWomen

By Julia Burchell

Meet the UX Champion: Maura O’Neill on the importance of good user experience design

Maura O’Neill on the importance of good user experience design

In the final instalment in our series of interviews with our selection panelists, Maura O’Neill, Chief Innovation Officer and Senior Counselor to the Administrator, USAID, discusses the importance of good user experience design. If you’re headed to Mobile World Congress, join our Seminar, Meeting Women’s Wants & Needs Through Mobile,’ and hear Dr O’Neill speak on a panel about leveraging insights on women to design mobile financial services.

1. Why is user experience design so important?

Adoption of new technologies is largely determined by how a person engages with the device, and how comfortable s/he is doing so. To maximize benefit, the goal is to create a user experience that allows the person to continue returning to the technology and genuinely wanting to use it. The experience must be both enjoyable and rewarding. This is true for mobile phone use as well. As the rate of fear or discomfort rises – for those, say, who have never operated mobile devices – the importance of UX design rises as well. In the context of this design challenge, with a focus on women in emerging markets and developing countries, their level of comfort and familiarity with the device is what is going to lead to various benefits, including a greater feeling of independence, less reliance on the need for others to help them use the device, greater security, and increased access to information designed to meet their needs.

2. What characterizes a successful design?

Successful design is intuitive. It’s also culturally- and locally-specific and relevant. It resonates quickly with the user. It keeps the user coming back. Successful design encourages the user to dive into other options (on the mobile device) because comfort level has risen. It is tailored to meet the user’s needs. It factors in local trends that encourage widespread use – such as language, appropriate use of iconography, important values and norms. It pops at first sight in a manner that quickly resonates with the user and encourages them to engage with the device.

3. How can UX design improve women’s lives?

We recognize that there are many approaches to addressing the challenges of technical literacy and effective use of mobile technology. In order to drive uptake across the regions with the largest gender gap – caused partially by inability to use mobiles – we need to employ many options for tackling the issue holistically. One method is on-the-ground technical literacy training. Another approach is offering literacy courses via SMS or other platforms right on the mobile device. And yet another model is to redesign the mobile user experience. All (and others) are necessary to achieve a wide impact. For women in developing countries – beneficiaries of our development assistance – user experience is particularly important because many women have not interacted with ICTs and technology. Comfort level is therefore critical for driving any new, large-scale adoption. UX, if appropriately designed to meet users’ wants and needs, increases the comfort level and the ability for users (in this case, women) to dive into the content – whether it’s to communicate with friends and family, access new health services, search for a job, check local weather, or anything else available on mobile devices that may improve their livelihoods. UX is further critical for improving women’s lives when you factor in additional challenges in remote and rural areas, including access to electricity or distance from market centers; these too must be addressed to redesign UX.

4. What is the role of research in UX design?

Research affords UX designers the opportunity to understand potential customers and their unique traits and needs. Much like market research drives how new products and services are designed and launched, UX design must be based on empirical data – both qualitative and quantitative – so that the design has the best chance of being successful. There are also significant long-term cost and time savings associated with research, particularly for user experience – a company can always reboot a technology and put out another version if the UX doesn’t resonate well, but that company may lose brand recognition and appreciation (and investors) if they do this too often, at great delays and higher costs.

5. What are some examples of innovative UX design in emerging markets?

There are a great number of ‘development’ mobile apps coming out of emerging markets, especially from Kenya and India. Some of these apps are innovative in the problems that they are tackling, but the UX itself is not necessarily unique.

6. Why should the mobile industry invest in women as customers?

In truth, the market for currently targeted customers (young men in urban areas) is saturated. As we know, the next 2 out of 3 mobile customers will be women, largely in rural contexts. But women’s wants, needs and priorities are different than those of men. And women themselves are not homogenized – they differ vastly based on culture, income bracket, age and geography Therefore, new products, services and approaches need to be developed that align with women’s interests. It is greatly possible that these new services will also be applicable to men – as individuals and as family members of women – thereby creating new touch points for reaching existing male customers. The research performed to-date reflects such; the challenge now is for the mobile industry to determine what these products and services should be for each market and decide how they fit into the strongest business case that allows for increased ARPU, stickiness and retention among female customers.

Further, women are true networkers and relationship builders. The mobile industry should be focusing more on women as customers because their adoption, input and satisfaction has knock-on effects for others in their community. If women are willing to endorse a product based on their own use, this is a powerful marketing tool. Also, in many markets, woman make the bulk of purchases on behalf of the family – if mobile products target family needs, and women are charged with determining how money is prioritized and spent (even if men physically control the money, as if often the case in developing countries), then the industry benefits from investing in those with the greatest purchasing power.

Mobile operators have invested heavily in corporate social responsibility and it plays a critical role in addressing social inequities. But a market-based approach to investing in women and improving their livelihoods (and those of their families and communities) is much more powerful. This approach meets the mutual objectives of multiple stakeholders. And if a mobile industry investment is market-driven, it is likely to be more sustainable in the long run while benefitting from the on-going innovations within the sector.

7. Why is the Design Challenge a worthwhile initiative?

Expanding upon the answer in #1 as to why UX is so important, if we are to reach millions of women and help close the mobile phone gender gap – as is the goal of the GSMA mWomen Program – then we need to do so at great scale and with the partnership of the private sector, including mobile operators and software/hardware manufacturers. Technical literacy is one of the key barriers to effective ownership and use of mobile phones among women in the developing world. The private sector has a powerful and unique role in addressing this barrier, in its ability to reach a vast audience through the delivery of new products and services that provide great benefit to users. Without the private sector – companies that really control UX on mobile devices – we are limited in our reach and our ability to impact at scale.

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