Impact of Reading Proficiency on Digital Product Engagement: Get to Know Your Emerging Indian User

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“Do you know how I study people’s attitudes and behaviours?”

“You observe people more closely than most of us would!”

“But sometimes we carry certain baggage from past experiences and learning that may not work in a new context.”

“Really?”

“It’s true! We have to constantly look out for our own biases. Let me tell you about this case.”

This isn’t another Sherlock-Watson banter. It’s an everyday work discussion where User Researchers at UCC share with each other stories from our most recent research experiences. Here is a story from our never-ending quest to connect and decode users to enable better product design and development.

The discovery phase of a project is always the most crucial and interesting as we connect people from different walks of life and learn something new about them from every research project. When an interesting discovery pops up, we don our detective hats and delve deeper.

During our research with users belonging to low socio-economic segments and engaged in menial jobs (around 380 users across IDIs + FGDs), and collaborations with multiple clients spanning various domains, we found that they exhibited heavy to medium mobile phone usage for their communication, work, and entertainment needs, but had limited reading skills which acted as a barrier to use the mobile apps to its full potential.

Even individuals claiming to have educational backgrounds ranging from 7th to 12th grades encountered challenges in comprehending text while using the apps in their chosen languages such as Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, and English.

Despite these language limitations, it’s interesting to note that English has emerged to be the most chosen language for digital interactions.

Most apps, especially the ones related to work communication and finances such as banking apps and even phone settings & operations are used in English. Regional language comes into play in the case of entertainment and communication needs. We quickly realised that it isn’t just a matter of lack of access to education. Then, why is this the case?

“Madam dekhiye hota kya hai, agar mai apps Hindi mein use karuga toh vo tough vali Hindi ayegi, vo mujhe samajh nahi ayegi. Jaise hum log ye wali bhasha bol rahe hai na, aisi nahi hoti hai, bahut tough bhasha hoti hai. Aur uska meaning to mujhe bhi nahi pata hoga. Aur English mein use karne mein words aate hai do agree, allow, like toh ye sab mujhe samajh mein aata hai.”
– Security Guard, 40, Delhi (Education: 12th std)

The users who caught our attention had difficulty reading and understanding the regional and English languages, despite claiming them to be their native language and medium of instruction in schools, respectively. We got curious, and further investigation garnered two potential reasons for this.

The first one was closely related to the social image – how we like to be perceived, accepted, and respected by others, and in India, one’s level of educational attainment automatically awards these social statuses.

We, especially in India, value a degree more than completing a school-level education. Due to this, some individuals with low levels of education might feel a sense of embarrassment or insecurity to share and discuss their educational qualifications, especially if they perceive it to be below societal expectations. This could potentially lead them to inaccurately represent their educational achievements. Thus skewing our understanding and expectations with respect to their interactions with the product in focus from a chosen research candidate.

The second factor could be considered the most common and influential cause. There is a marked difference in education quality depending on the type of institution and location, notably in smaller towns and rural areas.

Poor-quality education at the school level is a factor that contributes to difficulties in reading and comprehending the language. The differences in education quality among various groups mean that we can’t always make certain assumptions. For instance, we typically assume that people of a particular age, gender, or educational background possess specific knowledge and skills, but upon closer examination, we are occasionally proven incorrect.

The 2022 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), assessed the basic reading and arithmetic skills of children in the age group of 5-16 years and the findings of the report underline the need to improve the standard of education in rural India. Issues such as lack of teaching staff, and distorted teacher-student ratio serve as bottlenecks to quality education for students.

Insufficient funds to access best-in-class education is another setback.
Government schools fail to meet many requirements and private schools are expensive.

“Uske aage padhna chaha lekin ghar ki sthiti sahi nahi thi iske liye nahi padhai kiya. Mujhe padhne ka to mood tha, padhai karne ka mann tha.”
– Plumber, 32, Delhi-NCR (Education: 5th std)

We cannot make blanket assumptions in User Research. Any such attempt makes our observations skewed and inaccurate. Think about another scenario. When someone says they use Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for at least two to four hours daily, you would assume that they are high-tech savvy users and would possess the skills to navigate an app with some level of complexity, share updates, and write comments, and therefore assume their education or tech skills accordingly.

However, to our surprise, we learned that most people leverage the speech-to-text feature to meet their goals on the app.

As researchers, it’s imperative that we dig deeper to reveal the broader context. Thoroughly examining their backgrounds is essential to ensure the accuracy and practicality of our conclusions. Going the extra mile and remaining mindful of these underlying realities that can often influence our understanding of users is of utmost importance.

We maintain a spirit of curiosity and open-mindedness, always willing to have our current understanding of the world challenged. We extract valuable insights from narratives that traverse a spectrum of studies and domains. Our eagerness lies in sharing our discoveries with those who shape product development in emerging Indian markets and our fellow researchers. As we collectively advance in our pursuits, we’re eager to hear about your recent revelations concerning user behavior and any surprises that have piqued your interest.

Based on the insights gained from numerous research studies, we have provided our clients with a set of recommendations that, when implemented during UI design, have proven to enhance the user experience. We are sharing a set of such guidelines here for use by individuals designing for Indian consumers in vernacular languages.

Link to original article under my official website.

Shipra Bhutada
Shipra Bhutada is the accomplished Founder & Director of User Research at User Connect Consultancy. With an incredible 18-year career dedicated to unraveling user insights, she brings her expertise to bear in delivering human-centric solutions across diverse domains. Her foundation includes a postgraduate degree in New Media Design from the prestigious National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Shipra's leadership continues to advance the field of user research, enriching the understanding of user experiences.

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