Designing and building for Novice Internet Users (NIU) requires research based on immersion. We can’t afford to make assumptions or draw conclusions from a campus thousands of miles away. We need insights based on an intimate and learned consideration for nuances in culture and tradition, language and literacy, local economies, population density, socioeconomic stratification, infrastructure challenges, and even details like local climate and color aesthetics — all of it serves to ensure that we’re guiding these users into a digital experience that’s helpful, relevant, engaging, and valuable to them. There are no shortcuts to these insights. They need to be lived and experienced firsthand.

It’s crucial to remember that there’s no such thing as a typical user. It would be very easy to rely on everything we’ve learned about the earlier billion users to address the needs of the next billion. Instead, designing for the NBUs offers us new opportunities to expand our minds beyond what’s been done and improve our offering for the whole world.

The switch from designing for to designing with is super powerful.

— Tosh Juma, Managing Director,, Nairobi

Tosh Juma is part of the IDEO team who worked with Google to create our Digital Confidence Toolkit to assist developers in creating products for NBU markets. This is how Mr. Juma highlighted the importance of empathy and lived experience as it applies to the design process:

“There’s a power dynamic that happens. Designers have this subconscious privilege that we bring a lot of times when working with these communities. The switch from designing for, to designing with, is super powerful to consider.”

“When we are speaking with these communities, we are getting a very small peek into their daily lives. It can be too easy for us to go back and start designing [at a distance] from what we are hearing or learning. But by spending a lot more time, and using different methodologies to learn not only about the challenges they are facing, but also about the preferences they have for solving those challenges... where they actually take a bit of a lead in building and prototyping some of the solutions that matter for them is pretty critical.”

“Empathy in this case is not just stepping into an end-user’s world, but really spending time with them and allowing them to start building and designing their own solutions. When that happens we can take a back seat in a way that gives them a voice and allows them to contribute to the conversation about what matters to them. So then when we start prototyping, we are helping them make things that add value to their daily lives.”

The insights we’ve gleaned from our own immersion have led us to design innovative and helpful products for the NBUs. File management app Files by Google, for example, was driven by an insight, uncovered during foundational research, that people in NBU countries using entry-level mobile devices were running out of storage space after taking just a few photos and downloading just a few apps. The storage was affecting performance, and people were paying money at electronics stores to “speed up” their devices, sometimes by just turning them off and cooling them near an AC unit.

The Files app allows users to clear storage space by simply detecting and deleting duplicate photos and unused apps and clearing your cache. The tool can extend the life of an otherwise slow and unusable device, saving the user the expense of a new phone. Multiply that savings by the over 350 million current Files users, and the economic win for the NBUs is significant.

The genesis of Safe Folder, a key feature in Files, was a report on gender equity that we published in 2019. Among its focus areas was the issue of privacy. In many NBU countries, a woman often shares a phone with one or more family members and their use is monitored or mediated. Through our conversations with them, we found that these women have developed various, often intricate, strategies and workarounds to protect their privacy — using app locks or obscuring history with multiple websites, for example. We developed Safe Folder as a pin-protected encrypted folder where you can keep sensitive files. It’s only accessible through the Files app so that files stored in it are no longer visible in other file browsers or gallery apps. (See Privacy).

There are many more examples, but they all have one thing in common: They were all born from immersion-based insights working together with new and novice users where they live and work, and they all ultimately improved our product offering for users of all experiences and abilities, everywhere in the world. They all represent the promise of building with inclusion in mind from the very beginning.


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