Text-Free User Interfaces for Illiterate and Semiliterate Users

Indrani Medhi, Aman Sagar, Kentaro Toyama


We describe work toward the goal of a user interface (UI) designed such that even novice, illiterate users require absolutely no intervention from anyone at all to use. Our text-free UI is based on many hours of ethnographic design conducted in collaboration with a community of illiterate domestic laborers in three Bangalore slums. An ethnographic design process was used to understand what kind of application subjects would be interested in, how they respond to computing technology, and how they react to specific UI elements. We built two applications using these principles, one for job search for domestic laborers and another for a generic map that could be used for navigating a city. The resulting designs are based on key lessons that we gained through the design process. This article describes the design process, the design principles, which evolved out of the process, the final application designs, and results from initial user testing. Our results confirm previous work that emphasizes the need for semiabstracted graphics and voice feedback, but we additionally find that some aspects of design for illiterate users that have been previously overlooked (such as a consistent help feature). Results also show that the text-free designs are strongly preferred over standard text-based interfaces by the communities which we address and that they are potentially able to bring even complex computer functions within the reach of users who are unable to read.


User Interface (UI); Ethnography; Technologies; Job Search; Design Process; Illiterate Users

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