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Google Rethinks App Design for Internet Novices

10/21/2020 | 06:15am EDT

By Katie Deighton

Alphabet Inc.'s Google in March unveiled a photography app for smartphones that appeared underwhelmingly basic. But the simplicity was by design.

The selling points of Camera Go, like a portrait mode focusing feature that is standard on many smartphones and a photo storage space display that appeared on the earliest web-connected devices, weren't designed to win over tech junkies. In fact, the app is only available on some basic Nokia and Wiko devices.

It was developed by a team at Google called Next Billion Users, a growing unit charged with building products for people, often in developing markets, whose first encounter with the internet has yet to come.

The team applies design principles intended to help users who aren't familiar with the typical iconography and language of the web, and builds products primarily for the smartphones this group is likely to be using, as opposed to computers.

About 46% of the global population didn't use the internet in 2019, according to a report by the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union.

A lack of experience can impede the uptake and effective use of the internet, the UN report said, noting that in 40 out of 84 countries for which data are available, less than half the population possesses basic computer skills such as copying a file or sending an email with an attachment.

That dynamic is often overlooked by companies that aim to get more people online, said Josh Woodward, director of product management at Google.

Around 300 people work with him on the company's Next Billion Users team, called NBU for short, and the company is hiring more across its offices around the world, Mr. Woodward said. Google also trains all its new employees in the principles of creating products for newcomers to the web.

"There's a very different set of people coming online from the first three billion people that already had a desktop or laptop, so we had to rethink at Google how we build products," Mr. Woodward said. "We talk about building products for people in Mumbai, not Mountain View."

Products designed for developing markets tend to be built with data constraints in mind. Twitter Lite, for example, is a slimmed-down version of the main app created for users who live in areas where internet speeds are slow. Facebook Lite, a similar data-light version of the main social platform, was introduced in 2015.

Camera Go is part of a suite of Google apps for new internet users. Others products include Gallery Go, which lets users search and edit their photos, and Assistant Go, which lets people ask Google questions by voice or text.

While the products are designed to use less data than their classic counterparts, the interface and user experience also have been redesigned for people who aren't already fluent in typical app layouts, their icons and the gestures needed to operate them.

The team operates with "upboarding" in mind, as opposed to the more common concept of onboarding, said Tracey Lindsay Chan, a senior user experience researcher at Google.

"Onboarding means trying to set up a user for success in your product when they open it for the first time," Ms. Chan said. "It tells you about the functions -- what you can and can't do, maybe where to tap -- but then it's all over."

"That's not helpful for someone who is dealing with learning how to use their first smartphone," she said. Many designs also wrongly take for granted that users are familiar with digital symbols well-known in the U.S. and Europe, she added, citing a participant in Google's user research in Mexico who didn't understand that a paper airplane button meant "send" in a messaging app.

Upboarding assumes less about users' prior experience, and explains more.

The "take photo" button in Camera Go, for instance, displays text and an illustration to indicate which mode it is in; the original Google Camera app just displays text. And when the Camera Go app is opened, an animated guide explains how to use it, emphasizing imagery over text for those who are illiterate.

The user sees these tutorials each time they open the app, at least for now.

"We're testing how many times to show it right now and haven't yet arrived at a magic number," Mr. Woodward said. "But that's what we're trying to understand with all of this -- when does someone have that confidence that they no longer need to see an upboarding screen?"

Similar efforts to create digital products with global accessibility have been around for nearly 30 years, said William Gribbons, director of the graduate program in human factors at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.

But technology companies historically have favored localization techniques instead, he said.

"Localization is taking the domestic product and just putting an international face on it, changing a few colors and images and trying to translate the untranslatable English term you slapped on something years ago," Dr. Gribbons said. "Internationalization is about trying to avoid Western biases."

This mode of design has its critics also. Some users -- particularly younger people with access to other media -- may perceive highly explanatory interfaces and tutorials as patronizing, said Jonathan McKay, chief creative officer at nonprofit Girl Effect, which works to eradicate poverty.

Nor is the investment in Go and other "world-ready" products primarily an altruistic endeavor, Dr. Gribbons said. Google is getting ready to capitalize the revenue potential of the next billion users after saturating the first four billion, he said.

"It is all market-driven at the end of the day," Dr. Gribbons said. "But Google does deserve recognition for making a significantly greater investment in deep cultural learning than most."

Write to Katie Deighton at katie.deighton@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

10-21-20 0614ET

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