Reality vs

From our interactions with NIUs over the last five and more years, we have uncovered many misconceptions about this group of people, ranging from who they are to what they know, from how they live their lives to how they regard the internet and their smartphones. These are often based on assumptions from the “first billion” internet users whose experiences are vastly different from theirs.

For one thing, it would be convenient to identify NIUs based on demographics, time spent online, or prior internet knowledge. In reality, NIUs can’t be defined in any of those terms. Time doesn’t always translate to confidence. Prior knowledge won’t always translate to practical usage of current digital tools. And demographically speaking, NIUs live in cities all over the world, from Boston to Brussels to Bombay, where they struggle to understand how the internet can be beneficial to them.

There’s also a general assumption that NIUs are not aspirational or that they are satisfied with their current level of knowledge — that simply being entertained online or connecting with friends and family on social media is enough for them.

The truth is that while entertainment and social connections are two of the major drivers of NIU internet use, NIUs very often express their desire to experience more of the internet, such as accessing education and income opportunities. There is, therefore, a need to help close the gap between that desire and the wealth of possibilities they hold in their hands.

Misconceptions also abound regarding the simplicity of devices, apps, or features. Voice features, for example, can help NIUs overcome plenty of access challenges, but there is much room for current voice technology to be more intuitive and helpful. For example, Voice has no standardized iconography — it might be indicated by an old-fashioned microphone, or a head with an open mouth, or just a red button — which can create confusion among users. In another example, upon activating a voice tool, users could be required to do a recording, or have a conversational interaction, or simply speak to have their words be converted into text in real time. The many possibilities of voice activation could be complex to NIUs. In short, the simplicity of tools cannot be assumed and there is an immense opportunity to create products that are clear, simple to use, and relevant to NIUs.

While misconceptions aren’t limited to the digital world, the difference is that the perceptions about NIUs can manifest themselves deeply within the design and development of the devices, apps, and content NIUs are expected to adopt. The result is a digital world that’s disconnected from their reality, an experience that excludes them, diminishing their confidence and their motivation to participate.

Our goal is to help NIUs progress to Experienced Internet Users (EIUs), people who are able to recognize and maximize the tangible benefits of being online, which include accessing income-earning opportunities, being part of communities where they can be empowere to contribute, acquiring information and education, and even enjoying entertainment.

With collaboration from the wider tech ecosystem, we can build an even more inclusive and equitable internet for NIUs and the NBUs. But we need to start at the start — by dispelling assumptions and preconceived notions before they become “baked in” to the products we’re making for them.

That means sharing the insights we glean with the rest of the industry, through white papers and research findings, for example. Our Voice Playbook (See Voice) was designed to share our findings about the strengths and shortcomings of current voice technology for the greatest benefit of the NIU. With our findings about designing for offline states and for digital confidence, we created toolkits for product-makers. (See Optimizing for Offline and Designing for Confidence).

Not only will this empower more of them to grow into EIUs and leverage the many benefits of the internet to enhance their lives, but it will also enable us to build a better internet for the future for the rest of the world.


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