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Mobile User Experience in Emerging Markets Posted in Emerging Markets, Mobile Marketing, Concocted by Sachin Ranchod, 3 comments
Published on 14 March 2011

The reality of the mobile Internet in emerging markets is not one of fancy iPhone apps but rather the basic web on a simple feature phone.  The cellular market in developing countries is dominated by Samsung and Nokia – together they make up over 70% of the handsets in circulation.  The most popular phones accessing the Internet in South Africa? None other than the Samsung SGH E250 and SGH E250i.  Simple phones with GPRS and Edge and a 128 x 160 screen.

This is not to say that smart phones should be ignored.  They are wildly popular within a specific demographic and if that’s who you are targeting then go for it.  There are in fact more smartphone users in South Africa than there are DSTv subscribers.  But before you develop that iPhone and Android application, bear in mind that the majority (80%) of these smart phones are running Symbian.  This is likely to change in the not too distant future – the smart phone prevalence in lower LSM groups increase over time as hardware becomes cheaper and thus more devices can meet the minimum requirements of Android’s Operating System (which is being freely distributed to manufacturers thus reducing the cost of the handset by up to 30%.)  Read more about global mobile metrics here courtesy of AdMob.


For now, let’s focus on the majority of mobile Internet users who do not have smart phones.  For a lot of them, their phone is their only connection to the online world and they have never experienced the Internet in a desktop environment. This means that they see your mobi site as an extension of their phone and not as a miniaturised version of your normal site.

When designing the user experience of a mobi site, you are going to need to bear the following in mind:

1. Mobile first

If your mobile site is important to your strategy then stop thinking about just reformatting your desktop site to work on mobile.  It’s a risky strategy considering the same person who visits your desktop site might have completely different motivations when they view your mobile site.

2. Understand the limitations of a mobile device

Almost all of the phones that you are targeting in the emerging market will have a physical keyboard and a small screen.  This means that you need to make sure your layout is in a single column, information is clearly grouped and the need to scroll down and back up is minimised.  Links should be underneath each other so that the user does not have to move left and right, just up and down.  Finally, features such as ‘back to top’ links will reduce scrolling and make your user’s life easier.

3. Data is expensive and networks are slow

In the emerging market, you have to bear in mind the earning potential of your target market. They are likely to be buying airtime as and when they can afford it.  If you build a fancy site which is data intensive, you are essentially wasting their hard earned money.  Be considerate and keep your site simple.  But this doesn’t mean that your site should be light on content – always give the user the ability to discover more information.  You want to make sure that those users who view your content can read as much of it as possible.

4. Understand the user’s context

SamsungThe user is not necessarily sitting behind their desk at work – they could be in a taxi, at a shopping mall or sitting on their couch.  But context extends beyond physical space – it also incorporates culture and demographics.  You need to think long and hard about who your user is and where they are most likely to be using their phone to access your site.  Take your findings and use them to give the user the information they are most likely to want be given in their context.

5. Wireframe, prototype and test

As with the development of a traditional website, spend a good amount of time developing the user experience. Ensure that you understand your target market, especially their motivations, browsing habits and context.  From this you’ll be able to formulate your information hierarchy and sitemap.  From here, develop wireframes and rapid prototypes which can be tested on real users.  Take the results and build a site which they want to use.

Don’t take the mobile Internet lightly.  There are huge opportunities to tap into the entire spectrum of a population – across all salaries, demographics, cultures and languages.  However, the mobile web is a complicated place especially because we often fail to understand how a user who has never used a desktop will use the Internet on their phone.  So, stop making assumptions and start putting as much research and testing as you can into your mobile site.

Read more posts by Sachin Ranchod

Sachin Ranchod

Sachin is an Account Manager based at the Cape Town office of web marketing firm World Wide Creative. Sachin is a true web-geek with an unhealthy obsession with Google-ing everything (Do you know what the longest word in the English dictionary is?) Sachin works with some big brands, ensuring delivery on digital marketing projects and providing consultation and strategy on how to grow online communities.

You can catch up with Sachin on Twitter  by following @sachinr

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  1. Amanda says

    Great article Sachin. I find that some large companies (that should know better) generally fail to commit sufficient resources to research in all of their online activity, let alone mobile. Seems that those that don’t live on the internet don’t understand that some people do.

  2. Sachin Ranchod says

    Hey Amanda,

    Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately the reality is that for most companies, research is seen as a non-revenue generating activity and as a result it gets bumped down the priority ladder. It’s a pity because a little research now can lead to huge returns in the future.

  3. Trumpess says

    Easy to make mistakes. Recently the UK’s government department for Work and Pensions spent taxpayers’ money on an iPhone app for jobless people to search for jobs. As you can imagine, the long term unemployed are not typical iPhone customers. Understanding your target audience, who they are, where they are, what they want and what type of technology they have ready access to are all critical.