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Can Customisation Of Digital Financial Services Interface Reduce Digital Divide?

The effective use of digital technology depends critically on writing (read typing) and reading

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Digital is everywhere, yet a massive digital divide exists in India, fuelled in part by low levels of literacy. People with low literacy levels face an inherent inability to use digital technology meaningfully. The effective use of digital technology depends critically on writing (read typing) and reading. We simply cannot afford the digital divide that exists alongside so many other socio-economic divides, especially when financial services and the economies of the world are now largely being driven by digital data.

The prevalence of illiteracy poses a problem. Banks want people to check account balances on their phones; telecoms want people to do electronic top-ups for mobile. The government wants people to use digital ID and authentication mechanisms for their services that include direct benefit transfers. Meanwhile, service providers deliver information, such as weather updates for farmers, informative messages on pregnancy, childbirth etc. for health-workers or parents on phones and many more.

At present, there are 267 million illiterate people in India. A recent ASER study indicates learning deficits in elementary level on various parameters. This seems to carry forward as young people reach adolescence and adult age. Clearly, we can assume all adults who have studied until class V are not much better than illiterates. We can therefore safely double the size of illiterates to 530 million.

A low level of literacy is however not the issue. Illiterate individuals are able to travel around. They can engage with the formal economy, go to foreign locations, receive medical facilities, pay utility bills, and pay school fees for their children. They know how to deal with money and do not get robbed or cheated all the time. They do struggle but have their own ways to complete their day-to-day routine tasks successfully.

Illiterate individuals actually use their own ways of communications that include gestures, signs, memory, image, and colours. In fact, before humans developed language, we used these ways of communication. We call these ways of communication oral information management. Digital interfaces, however, are yet to incorporate orality.

For example, reading and typing are completely out of question for an illiterate individual. When a mobile application requires one to enter a digit, it excludes these 530 million people by default. Multiple studies on digital financial service interfaces for the illiterates have revealed many such nuances.

Another difficulty that oral people face is comprehension of zero and its place value. Our research found that while an illiterate person can understand ‘4,500’ with some difficulty, they almost always fail to comprehend ‘4,005’ or any similar number such as ‘4,702’. A zero inside a numeral string does not make any sense to them. This is basic numeracy we are talking about. It is worth noting that the FII survey (demand-side survey on access to finance) in Myanmar and Cote d’Ivoire finds a positive correlation between a person’s numeracy and their access to formal financial service.

Why do people from this segment – comprising perhaps your maid, your favourite auto driver or tea stall owner – not try using mobile wallet applications or phone banking services? Perhaps the value proposition of the applications is not promising enough or maybe their exposure to such applications had not been encouraging. Yet the reality is that neither have they ever enquired about its features nor have they ever used a mobile banking application. This led us to believe that other factors may drive this apprehension.

We realise that the oral segment doubts their ability to manage money through digital means successfully. They apprehend that reading aptitude is not adequate to understand the transaction instructions of a banking application and they may end up transacting incorrectly. Many illiterates pass through several emotions, which become concerns, when they consider using a financial service interface on digital or mobile channels. What would they do if they were not able to access the required option when they need it? Must they alter the way they use their money completely?

If we look closely at a user of digital finance applications, these emotions are really about three things:
•    Control – a user interface that does not do things the way the user intends;
•    Identity – users do not relate with the figurative representation used in the interface;
•    Engagement opportunity – the user believes that they would not be able to master the task.

As a result, illiterate users tend to avoid decisions when they are overloaded with information and are exposed to too many choices or options. In such cases, users are confused, find it risky to use such applications, and are unlikely to invest their time to learn how to use the application. This is an issue of control.

Semi-literate and semi-innumerate users understand abstractions, or communication shorthand, in ways that are distinct from that of literate people. They extensively use an implicit memory of colours, images, icons, and patterns. For instance, they associate red with cancelling calls and green with accepting them. They identify icons more easily than numbers and cannot comprehend the intended meaning of abstract icons unless they have had previous exposure to them. This is an issue of identity.

Illiterate users are comfortable dealing with physical cash. In fact, cash helps them with their calculations. They follow a multi-step process when using cash notes and coins – this involves recognising, categorising, counting, and calculating. They engage with the physical currency cognitively and feel disconnected with methods that require reading and writing. This is an issue of engagement.

If an application design builds a simple user interface on these aspects, there are high chances of success. Recently, we tested a payment application with a segment of users we call “drop-outs”. We found that apart from requiring a simple user interface, users expected prompt support and an effective mechanism to look at grievances, particularly in the case of erroneous or failed transactions. All these are interface-related concerns that, if addressed, will begin to mitigate the existing issues in control and engagement, thus making the users more comfortable while using the application.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
financial services digital divide

Akhand Tiwari

The author is Senior Manager, MicroSave

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Mimansa Khanna

The author is Manager, MicroSave

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