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Helping the Low-Literate Learn to Navigate Through User Interfaces

April 30, 2013 | By Microsoft blog editor

Posted by Rob Knies

CHI 2013

For several years, researchers from Microsoft Research India’s Technology for Emerging Markets (TEM) group have been studying how to design applications for economically poor communities such as those found in India.

In particular, Indrani Medhi, a researcher at the India lab, has been focusing on user interfaces for low-literate and novice technology users. Medhi, who is completing her Ph.D. at the Industrial Design Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, has co-written a paper accepted for the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2013 SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI). The paper is titled Kentaro Toyama, a former head of TEM and now a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley and a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Edward Cutrell, Toyama’s successor as senior research manager of TEM.

The paper examines one factor in application design for poor communities: the fact that users with little or no education have a diminished capacity to navigate a hierarchical user interface. Medhi’s work has explored ways that UIs can be designed for low-literate people by using text-free iconography that such users can recognize, but the challenge continues.

“It’s been a long journey, trying to understand how to design systems for people with very little schooling or experience with computers,” Cutrell confirms. “The research we report in this paper evolved from many years of research and was inspired by interactions with hundreds of people.”

In a study that led to the CHI 2013 paper, the authors tested 60 participants from low-income communities in India on textual literacy and on Raven’s progressive matrices, which use non-verbal, multiple-choice measures of general intelligence. The tests, involving a UI task of hierarchical navigation, were used as proxies for educational level and cognitive abilities.

“We decided to concentrate on hierarchies,” Cutrell explains, “because they are so ubiquitous in information architectures and have immediate relevance for system designers. But, in a broader sense, we believe that these problems are significantly deeper than just reading words or navigating hierarchies. This research begins to explore our belief that formal education imparts a whole range of cognitive skills that most designers—who all share the common experience of formal education—take for granted.

“Beyond reading and writing—both incredibly important and useful skills—formal education teaches us how to categorize information into abstract categories. Our memory is trained for arbitrary associations, and we are introduced to concepts like indices and representative labels. This research tries to show that these other skills are also important for using computers and phones—and that designers need to take this into account.”

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The study found that textual literacy is correlated with scores on the Raven’s test and that performances on both tests predict performance in navigating UI hierarchies—even when the UI is text-free.

“In one sense,” Cutrell says, “I don’t think we were surprised. We’ve seen anecdotal evidence that people who have little formal education have many different problems using computing systems, ranging from difficulties in memory for the arbitrary associations of keys and functions to problems with transfer of learning or using abstractions of categories.”

The results of the study provided statistically significant confirmation of the researchers’ anecdotal hypotheses—and enabled them to make design recommendations for UI hierarchies for people with limited education.

“Our prior research has pointed out the importance of graphics, voice, and video,” Cutrell concludes. “This work suggests the importance of limiting the complexity of information organization to straight lists whenever possible, or very shallow hierarchies with easy, obvious ways of navigating up and down the trees.”

The work of Medhi, Cutrell, and their colleagues holds promise for paving the way for millions worldwide to begin to enjoy the life-changing advantages of gaining access to 21st-century information technology.