Human-centered design could make India’s digital transformation more inclusive

Colorful street in india

View the full report, “Inclusive Digital Transformation in India: Improving Digital Financial Services for the Poor Through Human-centered Design.”

Gandhali, a farmer living in rural Bihar, India, doesn’t own a mobile phone; she borrows her son’s to talk with her brother in the next village. She has a bank account, but resents the half-day trip to visit the nearest branch, and the cost that involves. Dhwani, a nineteen-year-old visiting her home village for a festival, owns a smartphone, but doesn’t have any of the four payments apps downloaded by her male peers. “They’re not for me” she says. Shakti, head of her neighborhood’s women’s loan group, laughed at the idea of using one of the most popular payments apps in India: “If we don’t know how to use an ATM, how can we use Paytm?” she asked.

India’s digital revolution

India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has announced a “digital revolution” in many areas of the economy, including financial services. The Indian FinTech sector is booming, with more than 1500 FinTech startups, an estimated $4.15 billion in PE & VC funding in 2015-2017, and substantial investments in digital products, services and partnerships by incumbent banks. Yet the brief vignettes above — taken from my user research in Bihar, India with earlier this year — illustrate that this revolution is not reaching everyone.

Potential for inclusion and exclusion

Digital technologies enable organisations to provide better financial services to more people, more cheaply, and more reliably. That’s significant, given 46% of adults in India don’t have or don’t actively use a bank account. National investment in digital infrastructure, including Aadhaar (an identity platform) and UPI (a payments platform), together with a host of regulatory reforms (such as the creation of payments banks), make the opportunities even more promising. Yet unless providers really understand the needs of all their potential users, there’s no guarantee that women like Gandhali, Dhwani and Shakti will benefit from any of this. As more of the Indian economy is digitized, there’s a risk some populations will be at risk of greater exclusion.

Our research

That’s why understanding user needs was central to the research I undertook with The work was part of a design sprint for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in collaboration with financial inclusion consultancy Microsave. — a non-profit launched from the global design firm IDEO — practises human-centered design. The sprint’s objective was to identify opportunity areas for improving digital financial services for the poor in India. We used secondary research and data analysis, expert interviews, and most critically, in-depth field research, spending time with both women and men in Mumbai and in villages in Bihar.

My report presents this research and explores the potential for human-centered design as a methodology and as an organization to improve digital financial services for the poor, and help make India’s digital revolution more inclusive in the process. You can read more about our user research and those opportunity areas on’s microsite here.

Tactics for designing more inclusive digital products

I suspect some of our learnings are applicable to industries other than financial services, and to other geographies. When designing digital products and services for populations that are often excluded, here are five tactics for providers to consider:

  • Invest in understanding user needs. Spend a lot of time with your users, and your potential users. Don’t assume they’re homogenous. Travel to rural areas; don’t just test near your office, even if it takes longer. Seek people that aren’t using the type of product you offer, and try to understand why.
  • Take a gender lens in your user research and product design. In India, only 33% of women own a smartphone, compared with 72% men. And our user research indicated that social norms deterred women from using banking and payments apps, even when they owned a phone. So if you take a gender-neutral approach as a provider, you’ll likely reinforce this status quo, rather than reducing it. Test different propositions, messaging, and paths through a service with the explicit goal of attracting and retaining female users.
  • Don’t (only) build a smartphone app. There are hundreds of smartphone apps for financial services alone, but more than 50% of phone owners in India have feature phones, not smartphones. And the market for feature phones is now growing faster than the smartphone market. SMS is one option, but given only 38% of Indian adults can text, automated phone banking and newer voice technology (potentially accessed through banking agents) might hold more potential.
  • Help humans to help. Many users access digital services through or with other people. Does your digital service allow for this? How can your digital product or service equip other humans — daughters-in-law, neighbors, sons, corner shop owners, agents — to help your user, while protecting your user’s privacy and security?
  • Look for opportunities afforded by government policy. For instance, the state government of Bihar recently mandated that all schools must open bank accounts for their pupils, and now pays scholarships directly into these accounts. Other state governments are likely to follow suit. Where government is actively trying to catalyse demand for digital products and services, providers should seize the initiative.

Human-centered design is only one part of the puzzle in expanding the reach and adoption of digital products and services for women like Gandhali, Dhwani and Shakti. Investing in digital infrastructure, improving education and digital and financial literacy, developing local digital financial ecosystems, and changing social norms are all important, longer-term levers. But for providers, employing tactics like those above can help make today’s products more inclusive.

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