The Maid and the Smartphone – India

October 11, 2013

in Mobility

IMG_0208She doesn’t read or write. She carries an old very basic Nokia and “speed-dial” has been programmed by a friend to connect her with the key people in her life. Her family and her employers. At first, most of the calls just came to her although these days she is making many calls herself. She’s a maid in Mumbai, and has learned her life is easier if she makes a simple call to say I’ll be late, or not coming today.

She doesn’t really think much about a new phone in her future. Most likely, if she got a fancy one, one of her sons or someone in her extended joint family would take it, even though she is the primary bread winner in her family.

The family is unlikely to see many of her little advances, she has a wallet now and carries a purse. More recently she started traveling on the train in first class and despite taunts about how she doesn’t fit in from other first-class passengers, she is standing firm. Her life is not one of many comforts although she now has a TV and fridge at home. Her days are long, with 2 hours each way on a train just getting to work and back.

Ask her about what she might like in a new phone and she struggles. While it is essential to her today, she isn’t constantly thinking about trading up or what’s next. In that regard she’d probably prefer to buy some more gold jewellery, a new sari, or a cooking gadget.  Thinking about a new phone, she’d like to have music (FM radio) and you might expect a camera to take photos of her new grand child although this is not stated. Underlying the comments is a sense that the camera phones she knows are difficult and the magic they provide is perhaps scary. She doesn’t like being seen to be the fool or not knowing how something works. In this, her old Nokia gives her comfort. In her life she’s traditionally been handed down the spare or old phone. In similar cases she may be given the cheapest phone possible by an employer for the employer’s convenience.

With this context in mind and forgetting whether or not she can afford the Rs.6000 smartphone (vs 1200 for a dumb phone replacement), could a smartphone even change her life? I suspect it could although few have been given the opportunity to try it out and experiment. The key things to suspect they are interested in are…. Camera, Music, and key contacts. Video/TV will be attractive however, data plans aren’t assumed here and are beyond the budget. The whole SMS and Notification area is potentially very confusing. However, with time she might like voice messaging, and even a Snapchat. I won’t assume anything about games, or even learning tools. I suspect a smartphone astutely set up (meaning keep the home screen simple) could take her further although she won’t trust it for making payments anytime soon.

I’ve watched both young and very young babies ask for iPads, and  watched seniors adapt to smartphones even when they struggled with email and a PC in the past. The visuals and touch make it easier to adopt. It is easier to understand the layers and remember how you did it the last time. It may be a few years before the aging housekeeper gets her first hand me down smartphone. The young maid will be quicker to wish for one, likely driven more by intimacy and sharing than some of the other features. Then as WiFi expands in many of the places they venture into, even video calls may happen and take on new meaning and delight.

There is little point wondering whether or not the touchscreen SmartPhone UI needs dumbing down for someone that is illiterate. Keeping the stock iteration simple helps. The reality is the hand-me-down or used smartphone is most likely to be the one that falls into their hands. That day will be very interesting for them. Then they have a device that may help and entertain them in ways they never thought of before and connect them in new ways. Importantly it will expand their personal and private space as this more powerful device may remain the only thing that they personally really own.

It is humbling to believe that while the early mobile phones put new tools for life and economy in one’s pocket, the smartphone may actually do a better job of building stature, poise, worldliness. When a device becomes empowering in new ways, then people grow. It’s worth continuing to ask the question. How will the smartphone empower the maid? Also worth noting how could it change her relationships with the world around her?



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