Half of the world is still not connected to the internet, and therefore, has no access to digital content and services. And those low-income, unconnected countries represent the future adopters of the internet and mobile technologies. Undoubtedly, big tech companies compete to gain these users’ attention, time, data, and a variety of projects, governmental and global initiatives have been established for connecting the unconnected.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by Google’s Next Billion Users initiative (HQ in San Francisco) for an expert interview. I had the pleasure to have an interesting and inspiring conversation with the core team, and learn about the research and design methods behind this Google’s project.
For those of you who are not familiar, Next Billion Users (NBU) is an initiative with an emphasis on the value of user research in the low and middle-income countries that face the challenges such as the lack of internet access and data plans, lack of storage on devices, older devices, to name the few. Google’s initiative conducts research about users around the world to learn more about what people need to safely and effectively navigate the internet. Based on this research, Google builds products for people in low-income countries.
Rare are the companies who conduct the research to truly know who their users are—what are their attitudes, preferences, needs, motivations, and overall dynamics for getting and staying online. This correlates to my previous post on the human-centric approach to connectivity and digital skills.
Google’s team at the NBU is based on researchers and UX experts and based on the understanding of people and their needs when they come online and building experiences specifically for them. Most of these new internet users who come online for the first time are from low-income countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and their experience is different from that of users in high-income countries in Europe or the United States.
New internet users experience the online world differently in connecting on their phones and in adopting new apps and tools, and it presents one of the challenges in internet adoption. It is their cultural background aand needs that are shaping the future of technology, in areas from financial inclusion, eHealth, to education and language translation. For example, farmers may use their mobile phones and data to check crop prices or build their micro-business online, or women who googled birth control options and information on disease prevention, or pupils learned some new words of English. The other main challenge is digital literacy, we’ll come to that shortly.
Inclusive tools and products
Digital inclusion is the major driver in the information society that enables constructive and positively empowering livelihoods in the economy, geopolitics, education, health, business. The next billion users are already shaping the internet dynamics, tools and products in these four majorways: a mobile-usage mindset and mobile digital natives, a sense for ubiquitous computing and natural human-computer interactions, developing digital literacy and 21st century digital skills, and addressing a need for localized content.
NBU’s mission of building for new internet users resulted in projects such as from offline content and modes in YouTube and Maps, to AI that can help kids read in multiple languages, apps that protect privacy on shared devices, and the new user experience in Google Pay (first launched in India). Those tools and software foster digital inclusion by reaching a global audience more quickly than ever. For example, Mojaloop, Open Source Software, is empowering organizations to create interoperable digital payment models to increase financial inclusion. For more information, see the infographics with the NBU initiative tools and products since its beginning.
Google is also sharing open-source tools and guidelines to help underserved and vulnerable communities. As I’ve talked years back, through the open-source and open learning resources for digital skills, we can address such big groups and communities in the local language. Low-income countries can benefit from the digital public goods technologies that rely on the open-source solutions offered by this Google initiative. By implementing the various digital tools and pursuing strategic policies, it will be possible to reach more of the most vulnerable groups in society and those who are left behind.
Digital literacy and the promise of online learning
Undoubtedly, digital literacy presents the relevant factor for digital inclusion. Digital inclusion is vital for six key sectors in local communities: health, education, financial services, business, government and agriculture. Corporations such as Google, have access to new markets and this leads to more jobs, higher profits, and economic growth. Higher levels of digital literacy bring advantages to everyone in society: people gain access to governance, educational and healthcare resources, offering the possibility of socioeconomic improvement for themselves and their families.
We’ve seen in the past 12 months, that global geopolitical disruption increases the importance of digital technology in our lives, work, education and health. Therefore, it is important to make expertise available that can help to increase new user’s understanding of and insight into digital technology, to learn how digital content, tools and services are developed and used, and finally, to influence improved livelihoods. And this 2021, in the current digital landscape, the revolution and revelation are in online learning, on the remote. More than ever, digital literacy remains a crucial component that binds companies, organizations, schools, young entrepreneurs, activists worldwide.
In this landscape, initiatives like Google’s Next Billion Users are relevant, as it focuses on educating and helping new users adapt to deeper changes like the rise of online learning. One of the solutions, together in networked partnerships, is to come up with the framework and recommendations for improving the level of digital skills, and creating tools and education programs. If governments, businesses, cross-sector organizations work together in innovative partnerships, we can make the internet better and more inclusive for the next billion online to come.
Learn more about the research and design methods behind Google’s NBU initiative with this collection of articles, best practices, and design methods.