Designing Application for Illiterate and Semi Illiterate Users ( India specific)

More than 440 million people use smartphones in India, but a huge chunk of the total population is still unaware of smartphones. A complex user interface with text-based interaction makes it very difficult for illiterate subjects to use smartphones. Smartphone literacy can provide multiple opportunities to illiterate and semi-illiterate subjects. This Text-free mobile subject interface is a result of extensive research which is conducted in rural villages of India in collaboration with illiterate and semi-illiterate field workers, homemakers, and domestic laborers.

This Case study is a part of my Design research paper. I have published the full-length research paper on “ International Conference on Nano-Electronics and Communication System(NCCS 2020)”. You can access the paper from below


This case study described the different design methodologies and principles that we should keep in mind when we want to design for illiterate and semi-illiterate users. This project and the design principles are the results of previous research work and my extensive field study.

My Role: UX Research, UI Designing & Field Study 😇

I am responsible for all the required field studies, Subject testing, Conversations, Discover design methodologies, Prototype designing, and user testing.

Target Community:

Our project is based on two slums of West Bengal and Bihar. Both were rural slums and consisted of more than 600 people. Most of them were household workers, sellers, daily workers, small mechanics, barbers, masons, and vegetable sellers. They were native Bengali (West Bengal) and Bhojpuri (Bihar) speakers. We selected a total of 63 people from the two slums for our research and subject testing. 40 of them had hardly attended primary school education (classes 1–4) and 23 of them had basic school education (classes 5–7). Their annual income range was between Rs. 100000–200000 lakh/year. They had hardly used a smartphone before, but they were using numeric keypad phones. We intentionally chose our subjects from different religions and cultures to find out any ethnic biases among them. Our target age group was 20–45 years old male and female subjects.

Design Process:

Design process


Subject Research:

I conducted daily interviews and weekly meetings to gain a deeper understanding of our subjects. At the very primary stage, we asked them about the critical problems they were facing. After that, we jot down the different problems of the subjects and considered addressing two of them. I held weekly meetings to test our subjects with preexisting text-based smartphone applications to observe their behavior and interaction with the text-based application. We spent a considerable amount of time making our subjects comfortable using smartphones. I communicated with them throughout the process and tried to make them comfortable to cross the barrier of their educational illiteracy.

Design Principals:

Some existing research on designing a suitable user interface for illiterate and semi-illiterate users already published a number of guidelines one should follow. This Design was evolved with the time and the complexity of the user interface.

We cannot use Text, but we can use numbers in some cases: Some previous works already tried to cover these problems but in our case, we tried to consider both English as well as native languages (Bengali and Bhojpuri). Our subjects were unable to identify a single English word, Though some of the subjects could recognize native languages like Bengali and Bhojpuri letters. They were not very fluent when it comes to interacting with a text-based application. We discovered that most of the subjects could easily recognize numbers (“1”, “2”, “3”, “4”, “5”, “0”). This is consistent with advice in some previous work

Skeuomorphism design principles: From our subject’s research, we came up with the conclusion that both two applications had to be in a graphical format. 32 subjects could understand cartoons and simple photorealistic graphics but when it came to complex design systems like Material Theming or highly abstracted graphics, hardly 5/6 subjects were able to understand the meaning of the graphics. Previous research works already proved that if we can increase the photorealism and use non-abstracted or semi-abstracted graphics then we can build a deeper interaction between the applications and subjects. So, we use a design technique called “Skeuomorphism” to design icons and vectors.

Voice input and Feedback: The clear value of voice feedback was noted in previous work but they did not emphasize the usage of voice input systems. For some cases where subjects had to use the keyboard, we can replace the keyboard with voice recognition-based input features in their native language.

Conducting user research through the research learning spiral


Design Insights from my field study:

Usages of suitable graphics for storytelling: I found that Subjects can easily understand vectors that have standard visual cues for indicating motions. Previous researches already proved the usages of graphics, but we found that for complex storytelling just a single picture with visual cues will not work. Subjects were not able to understand the actual meaning of the graphics. So, we had used two separate frames of the same picture to build a dynamic visual representation through static pictures

On-screen help and navigations: Sometimes Subjects were not able to find out the button or option which they need to click. To counter this problem, I had to introduce an on-screen arrow-based navigation system that helps to provide procedural instructions to the subjects.

Provide feedback of actions: We found that subjects can’t be able to recognize if a task was completed or not. It is one of the main design heuristics that users should be aware of the system status and errors.

Let’s design the DOCPORTAL application🏥:

From the field study, I found that most of the subjects were very much frustrated about the available medical facilities in their village. Almost zero hygiene, no proper maintenance, and lack of doctors were among the main concerns. So I thought to design an application that helps them to instantly get access to Doctor’s counseling and they can also use the application to navigate the nearest hospitals. I have applied all the design principles and methodologies that I get from my field study.

I had faced several challenges while designing the application. I have designed two different versions of this application. One is in English and another is in Bengali.

Information Architecture:

How is DOCPORTAL is human-centered?

Insights from our user research revealed people’s desire to have an online Doctor counseling system. Insights from my field study and some previous works already established some guidelines to design products for Illiterate and semi-illiterate users. In this project, our target audience group is very concentrated.

DOCPORTAL caters to the need of Illiterate and semi-illiterate users through user-centric design guidelines and principles. This application can potentially open a very flexible door for illiterate and semi-illiterate users.


Concept refinement:

Using the insight-driven user scenarios, I conducted a series of sketching sessions to brainstorm and come up with possible features and methods that could potentially improve the user experience of the illiterate and semi-illiterate users. One of the most critical challenges I had faced to design a map for the users to locate and navigate nearby hospitals. Existing maps are very complex to use. Most of the subjects were unable to understand the basic icons of the maps. Highly illustrated and abstract icons are not suitable for the subjects. I had also tried to come up with a different set of icons for the existing map icons but most of the subjects were unable to interact with it. So, after lots of testing and refinements, I refrain to use any illustrated icons in the design because those were not suitable for the subjects. Instead of the icons, I have used the picture of the places. In place of the Hospital icons, I have used pictures of the hospitals.

Cardboard prototype:

High Fidelity Wireframe:

Final Prototype:

Usability Testing:

Our subjects belonged to a community where almost everyone was either illiterate or semi-illiterate and they were workers, sellers, homemakers. They were from a lower-class background. They all had used televisions and numeric phones. We intentionally choose our subjects from different religions and cultures.

I had tested the developed prototype with more than 50 subjects. I had chosen subjects from all different cultures and states. Though I have used very minimal text in the designed user interface. Most of the users were able to use the application without the help of the texts. Most of them were unable to recall or recognize the meaning of minimal texts. I had chosen 4 different tasks for the subjects.

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Sangramjit maity

Sangramjit maity

Multidisciplinary Designer🖍️ | Engineer🛸