We take for granted that our friends and family have easy access to cell phones, but what if handsets were too expensive for many of us to afford? And what if cell phone networks were our only means of easy communication? That's the case for many rural communities in developing countries, where the cell phone infrastructure is set up but few people actually own a handset. Enter Movirtu, a startup that hopes to provide easy and safe ways for residents of Sub-Sahara Africa and South Asia to share cell phones. We recently spoke to Frog Design about their work in helping Movirtu create a user interface for shared handsets.
Movirtu's MXShare is a virtual cell phone system that can be installed a mobile network's core. The system allows people who can't afford to buy a handset to make calls, receive calls, and send text messages using other people's phones. No SIM card or extra software is required. It's easiest to think of it like an email client—you can log into your account on anyone else's cell phone without worrying about security risks.
Frog Design recently conducted a field study of 12 residents of Kibera, Kenya to find out how well the MXShare system works in rural slums. The result: Handset-less users were satisfied with the system because it preserves their pride, privacy, identity, and connection to the outside world, among other things. "Participants could easily go up to a mobile phone, enter a few codes, and navigate through like with any mobile tree menu," explained Michael Cetaruk, Associate Creative Director for Frog Design. "We found that pride and connectivity was important to participants, as was the ability to live in dire circumstances and a have strong sense of self."
Frog also made a few tweaks to MXShare's info architecture. "In order to use SMS, users had to go through a three-step procedure of pressing enter, putting a message in, and pressing send. We thought that was cumbersome, so we made the info architecture more efficient, more usable," Cetaruk said.
Next up: more testing for MXShare, and eventually bringing the technology to telecoms in other African countries and in Southeast Asia. "They've got a lot of material to work with," Cetaruk said.