Lidia Oshlyansky is Google’s Head of User Experience Research for Emerging Markets.
MISC: Investigating emerging markets, like you do, seems like one of the best ways to uncover the weak signals of change that can tell us what the future might be like.
LO: Google’s next user base is in emerging markets. There’s only so much you can do in emerged markets once they’ve become saturated with your products. If you want to grow existing products, you have to look outside your established markets. You have to consider emerging markets at some point, because over half of the world’s population lives in them.
MISC: So it’s a base to expand existing projects. Is it also a place to find ways to meet new wants and needs?
LO: I think so. There are good examples of that. The emerging markets – particularly Sub-Saharan Africa – were the first place that SMS banking took off and you could pay people by texting them. Now, this is suddenly a growth area in emerged and established markets. I find this very funny because M-Pesa [a mobile-phone based money transfer service] in Kenya has existed for ages. There are also similar longstanding products in the Philippines. These things started because people didn’t have bank accounts and they didn’t have credit cards. And I know that’s very difficult for North Americans to understand because our wallets are filled with credit cards.
MISC: What makes emerging markets so interesting is that people have this ingenuity for solving problems and they also experience technology unfolding in a different way than in emerged markets.
LO: Necessity being the mother of invention is particularly true in emerging markets, where you can’t just walk into a Wal-Mart and get exactly what you need. You’ll have to find another way. If you have a limited income – and much of the middle class and the emerging middle class in these markets do have limited income – and you have a choice of where to spend your $200 on either a high-spec Android tablet or a four year old laptop computer, it’s not hard to figure out which one you’re going to take.
What’s interesting is that a lot of these folks have been exposed to computers, but not necessarily in the context of ownership. Maybe they’ve used an internet café, so they’ve sat down at a PC. But it’s probably not something they’ve used every day and owned and grown up with.
In terms of innovation and design, it’s an interesting new way of thinking. People in emerging markets didn’t grow up with the same paradigms that we did. What’s a “window” on a computer? What’s “multitasking”? They don’t understand the same metaphors as someone who’s been using computers for the last twenty years. So that makes things more difficult in some ways, since the history of computing builds on overarching metaphors. If you haven’t grown up learning those metaphors, then you have to learn it from scratch on a smartphone or a tablet. Often these devices are not top of the line, or they might be copies or “grey devices” with slow processors. So these slow, clunky computers become your first experience.
MISC: I’m curious about the phenomenon of internet cafés and the way that people access computers. I can remember when I was growing up there was a period where internet cafes were everywhere. Now there are a few holdouts but for the most part they’ve gone away. But I also know that’s not a universal trend. And it’s not only in emerging markets that you can still find them. For instance, in South Korea, internet gaming in cafés is still very popular.
LO: When I first moved to Europe 10 years ago and was living in London, they were everywhere. You’d be hard pressed to find an internet café in London these days. You’re much more likely to just go into a coffee shop and access their wi-fi, because we all have our own devices.
But there are still tons and tons of internet cafes in emerging markets. A great example is the tablet café that Google partially funded in Dakar, Senegal. They have tablets and nice soft couches and wi-fi – it’s a different internet café experience. So if you’re living in Senegal and you don’t have an internet device you can go there and use a tablet. The owner says that his business has doubled; its not just the novelty, tablets are just less intimidating and easier to use than PCs.
MISC: We’re now seeing the uptake of tablets and smartphones in significant numbers in emerging markets. Something we spend a lot of time thinking about in the world of foresight is the next big computing paradigm, which most people feel is wearable computing.
LO: Well, we already wear computers. They’re in our pockets every day of our lives.
MISC: I agree! It’s probably not as much of a leap as we think, but people want to make a hard break between the smartphone and …
LO: Google Glass.
MISC: Right. Now, I would never ask anyone to make predictions, because I don’t think that’s fair. But have you seen any uptake of existing wearables in emerging markets?
LO: Not yet, but at the same time people have been wearing digital watches for ages, so I don’t think its really that much different. And I think that when you’re coping with meeting basic needs – housing, food, security, safety – then you might not be rushing out to get Google Glass. But if your unmet need is for better, faster, seamless communication, then it’s probably a good bet.