Text-Free Interfaces for the Illiterate

Most computer applications are difficult to understand for those who are unable to read fluently. The heavy use of text in everything from menus to document content means that those who are illiterate are not able to access functions and services implemented on most computer software. According to the UNESCO, there are over one billion illiterate people in the world and 98% of this population lives in the developing countries.


Illiterate people do not have to remain cut off from computer applications this way. In particular, while there might be limits to what static textbooks can convey without text, computers are the ultimate multimedia device. Through the use of pictures, sound and video, they have the potential to be wholly understood by a person who cannot read.




“Text-Free Interfaces for the Illiterate” are design guidelines for computer interfaces that would allow any illiterate person and first-time computer user to extract required information with minimal or no assistance from anyone to use. For this project, we followed a user-centered design process where significant time was spent interacting with potential users of our system to recognize their needs and identify challenges they faced in accessing information. We spent nearly 300 hours in urban slum communities in Bangalore, India where our potential users lived and we spoke with more than 250 people during this project. The design guidelines which we recommended are:


·         Avoiding use of text

·         Heavy use of cartoon-style pictures

·         Voice output in local language

·         Heavy use of mouse-over functionality

·         Help instructions

·         Looping video to explain purpose and mechanism of application

·         Use of numbers in the interface because illiterate people can read numbers “0,1,2,3…”.


We applied these guidelines to designing three applications: a job-search system for illiterate domestic helpers, a health education system for illiterate patients and a map-navigation system for illiterate users. We formally tested whether potential users could use these interfaces and have found that our text-free designs are strongly preferred over standard text-based interfaces and that illiterate users are in fact able to use our text-free interfaces meaningfully.




Recently, we have also begun exploring design guidelines for mobile phones, and have conducted user-centered design with 80 end-users and potential users across India, Philippines and South Africa. So far we have looked specifically at applications for mobile banking. We have observed a number of challenges encountered by these users and potential users in interacting with existing mobile banking services and using mobile phones in general. Broad lessons from this study resulted in developing design recommendations.


We further conducted tests with another 58 potential users in India, in which we compared illiterate potential users on three systems that incorporated the design recommendations: text-based, voice-based, and (pictures + voice)-based interfaces. The tests confirmed that illiterate users were unable to make sense of the text-based interface. Additionally, while all the people who used the (pictures + voice)-based interface were in fact able to use this interface meaningfully, speed was faster and less assistance was required on the voice-based interface.


-- Indrani Medhi

Associate Researcher, Microsoft Research Technology for Emerging Markets Group


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