Re-shaping the Expected Future: Novel Interaction Techniques for Base of the Pyramid Users and Challenges to the Orthodoxy for the Rest of the World.

Lead Research Organisation: Swansea University
Department Name: College of Science


Our concern in this proposal is for Base of the Pyramid (BoP) users, that is, those who are the most socio-economically disadvantaged. For these communities, there are several challenges to the digital utopia that governments and industry are regularly heralding. These range from low technological and textual literacy, a paucity of relevant, appropriate content, to a lack of affordable, high-bandwidth data connections. With the ubiquity of mobile phones, it is clear that now, and in the future, these platforms will be the most influential ICT solutions for these users in the poorest regions of the world. Understandably, a good proportion of the work in Human Computer Interaction for Development (HCI4D) and ICT for Development (ICTD) has focused on the technologically lowest common denominators - for example "dumbphones" and "feature" phones, the precursors to smartphones - to reach as many people as possible.

In contrast, this proposal addresses the need to look ahead to a future that promises widespread availability of increasingly sophisticated devices. The most likely future in the next 5-10 years is that BoP users will have access to handsets that developed world users are now taking for granted. This trend is exemplified by the affordability of so-called "low-end smartphones." The GSMA - the global industry body for mobile service providers, one of our partners in this project - predicts that this trend will continue worldwide, with these devices already retailing for as little as £30. These devices are equipped with rich sets of sensors, connectivity facilities and output channels (from audio-visual to touch-output). While there is plentiful research on how to use and extend these platforms for more "natural" interaction (e.g., creating mobile pointing and gestural interfaces), the work has largely been from a "first world" perspective. That is, the techniques have been designed to fit a future, in terms of resource availability, cultural practice and liteacy, that is out of joint with that lying ahead for BoP users. Our aim is to radically innovate for key future interaction opportunities, drawing on a network of organisations and individuals deeply connected to BoP users, along with BoP end-users themselves. These stakeholders have helped shape the proposal and will be integral to the work itself. The programme will be comprehensive and integrative, involving three driver regions in Kenya, South Africa and India, each allowing us to consider needs from three perspectives: the urban, sub-urban and rural.

In solving pressing problems of effective interaction for BoP users we will also seek new basis premises of HCI design in the wider developed world. In our view, the established information interaction techniques (like copy/paste) derive from desktop, textual and knowledge work framings of interaction. Mobile interaction articulates an alternative framework - sociality, personal narrative and highly context orientated practices of friendship, family and community. With the emergence of smartphones and their remarkable processing powers, the temptation to make them mini-PCs, with all the interaction principles to match, has led many HCI researchers to avoid designing for those social practices, blurring the distinction between the mobile and the PC. Given that most of those who have access to these devices are living in cultures where knowledge work is the norm, this tends to be accepted - sociality is often achieved through by-passing the device and engaging with 'apps.' The "living lab'' of our BoP communities, where exposure to and suitability of desktop UIs is very low, provides an exciting resource that draws attention to how users seek to appropriate mobile devices for social ends in and through the device itself. This in turn can provide the basis for uncovering new better basic and innovative HCI principles that can allow these ends to be more readily achieved.

Planned Impact

Knowledge impacts: Prior work has considered how to address current needs and contexts in Base of the Pyramid (BoP) communities. In contrast, we will innovate interaction methods for the future where BoP users have much greater access to higher technology. Commercial interest in these enabling technologies, as illustrated by comments from our project partners such as GSMA and IBM, is very high ("...excited by the potential the final plans have for making impact on mobile use for base of pyramid communities"; " to make a substantial leap into novel forms of interface"). The work will also see new forms of research method elaborated, with our work adding to the development of the emerging "research in the wild," grounded innovation and local-remote co-development approaches. These contributions are of value and interest to companies who wish to develop products and services in emerging markets, especially those without permanent staff resources in the regions of interest. The wider challenges to mobile HCI will contribute novel concepts and framings of interest to industry (see, for example, letter from Microsoft Research, UK).

Economy impacts: As data from the GSMA shows, there is a very large market of new users of advanced services in developing contexts. Our work will provide enabling technology and methods to allow service providers, device manufacturers and app developers to generate new products and services for this market. The UK is increasingly seen as a place to innovate in mobile service provision. This project will enhance the reputation of the UK as a place to do innovative business, acting as a beacon and hub to connect those interested in BoP communities. Furthermore, by exploring alternatives to orthodox mobile interfaces, the project will lead to innovations of value to the global mobile market.

Society impacts: The Commons Science and Technology Committee has recognised the importance of science research in the UK's international development agenda. Stakeholders at the Summits and Launches will include diverse NGOs and other policy focused organisations who will benefit from exposure to the findings in terms of BoP users' future needs and key barriers to progress (e.g., economic or geographic access to bandwidth). This work is motivated by a passion to do the highest quality research which can empower developing communities: community members in three regions will be co-designers and participants in the project. Over the three years of the work, then, these groups will benefit in terms of exposure to new technologies, and develop skills in information access and creation. The exemplar services deployed in the field studies will be designed to provide real, immediate benefits through the creation, accessing and sharing of useful or interesting content in the communities. The generalisable outcomes of the work, detailed in the toolkit, will be a key resource to develop devices and services for the emerging mass market of BoP users. As iHub note in their letter: "...we see a strong need for the forward-looking, technology and community centred innovations you envisage".

People impacts: the work will capacity build for innovation and development in the BoP space. The local researchers in three driver regions and the two researcher Co-Is will be directly impacted in this respect, developing and refining community engagement skills and appropriate lab and field working methods. The contacts made through our partners and coordinated in the stakeholder meetings will further provide a platform to extend the network of people and organisations passionate to make a difference to BoP users in terms of novel, human-centred innovation, equipped with the scientific advances we will make. The toolkit will be a useful training resource for developers and students wishing to become actively involved in this area of innovation.


10 25 50
Pearson J (2017) BookMark: Appropriating existing infrastructure to facilitate scalable indoor navigation in International Journal of Human-Computer Studies
Pearson J (2017) Chameleon Devices
Robinson S (2016) Emergeables: Deformable Displays for Continuous Eyes-Free Mobile Interaction in CHI'16: 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems Proceedings
Pearson J (2016) Exploring Low-Cost, Internet-Free Information Access for Resource-Constrained Communities in ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction
Steer C (2015) Growth, Change and Decay: Plants and Interaction Possibilities in Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems
Lucero A (2016) Mobile collocated interactions with wearables: past, present, and future in mUX: The Journal of Mobile User Experience
Robinson S (2015) Mobile UX
Robinson S (2016) Mobile UX
Description Engagement with users in low-income, low-literacy users in India and Africa has led to interesting new form factors/ interaction design issues for mobiles. Early findings to be reported in ACM CHI in San Jose in May 2015.
Exploitation Route This project is still in process
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)