Mobile Phones & Illiteracy in Morocco

Many illiterate Moroccans use a mobile phone personally and professionally. They rely on friends or strangers to help them make calls and navigate the text based Arabic or French interface. Our goal was to help these people use the phones they already own independently. As project manager on a team of Olin design and engineering students, Babson business students, and Moroccan École Nationale de L'Industrie Minérale engineering students, I led the design process through user research, problem definition, prototype iteration, and pilot testing.

We interviewed numerous illiterate working Moroccan adults to understand how mobile phones fit into their lifestyles, including bicycle mechanics, produce vendors, bakers, maids, taxi cab drivers, and construction workers. Most own at least one mobile phone which they use for work and calling family and friends. Third hand Nokia bar phones are most common. Contacts are recorded on paper notebooks or scraps of cardboard.

They struggle to unlock their phone, find the contact's number, dial the number, add contacts, and add minutes. We focused on finding and dialing contacts because these needs are most time sensitive. We prototyped and pilot tested a transitional solution which accommodated current usage patterns and price constraints while augmenting the memory and learning abilities of illiterate users.

Sample phone number for Hakim on our proposed design.

As an early prototype, we proposed a simple notebook similar to the notebooks people already used for storing contact phone numbers, but with additional aids that built on the existing skills of illiterate mobile phone users. We found they often employed memory tricks for finding contacts such as the location on the page or identifying one or two key letters or digits. Building off the idea of memory aids, we proposed color coding the digits with stickers that can be used both to record the phone number and atop the mobile phone's number keys to assit in pattern matching both symbol and number when dialing. For remembering contacts, we proposed stickers with different symbols that could be associated with different kinds of relationships, placed on tabs for quick access. We interviewed illiterate or semi-literate mobile phone users about what symbols they might associate with various phone contacts such as mother or father, brother or sister, son or daughter, friend, or business partner, to select the images.