Inside Facebook’s Globe-Trotting Quest To Improve Its Feature Phone Experience

The social network may be based in Silicon Valley, but its fastest-growing user base is in countries like Indonesia, India, and Nigeria. To improve Facebook’s feature-phone app, its researchers paid them a visit.

In an effort to improve the Facebook experience on the simple, cheap “feature phones” prevalent in emerging markets, a pair of Facebook researchers spent most of last July conducting user research in Indonesia, India, and Nigeria. After a month of navigating cell phone markets, visiting homes, and watching locals use Facebook in these countries, the researchers, Mateo Rando and Lufi Paris, brought back several insights that helped inform a revamp of Facebook’s feature-phone experience.


A quickly growing percentage of Facebook’s users access the site through either its low-tech feature-phone app or mobile website. Facebook for Every Phone, the Company’s two-year-old feature-phone app, now has more than 100 million monthly users. Count the feature phones that log into the social network via mobile browsers, and the so-called “dumb phone” accounts for hundreds of millions of users, according to Facebook.

A cell-phone market in Jakarta, Indonesia

Many of these customers live in developing countries. Facebook, meanwhile, built its headquarters in the heart of the Silicon Valley tech bubble, where people have been known to treat their iPhones like children. Though the company had regularly conducted telephone surveys in countries with high feature-phone usage, and, in the interest of a more representative sample, had even hired locals to conduct paper-and-pencil questionnaires, its product designers’ understanding of user needs in these countries still lacked face-to-face connection. Rando and Paris were hired to help bring Facebook’s understanding of feature-phone users closer to that of users at home by visiting them in person. “These visits tend to sharpen our focus on not only the experience, but also how to better carry out the research in these developing countries,” Rando says. “And we’re getting better at that every trip we take.”

On this trip, their first of several, the team hosted focus groups in each city in addition to conducting one-on-one interviews in homes and workplaces. Before revealing they were from Facebook, they talked about general mobile and app habits. Only later did they ask users to show them what they usually did on Facebook and to complete specific Facebook tasks on their phones. Stops at cell-phone markets, visits with mobile entrepreneurs, and impromptu interviews on the street helped fill in the gaps.

At a cell-phone bazaar in Jakarta, Indonesia, for instance, Rando noticed a list of mobile carriers’ data prices posted on the wall the same way some bars list sports scores. Using dry-erase markers, vendors changed the numbers several times a week, and customers, noting the best deal of the moment, swapped their SIM cards accordingly. “In America we have these all-you-can-eat buffet plans, and we don’t think about how much data we consume,” Mateo says. “People in Jakarta are actively managing their data plans, and they are switching them at the drop of a hat because they are responsive to price changes. Clearly that has an influence in how they use and think about using Facebook.”

A computer village in Lagos, Nigeria

Many other observations directly affected the development of the feature-phone experience. Soorya Tanikella, an engineer on the trip who works on Facebook’s mobile web and Android products, filed tasks for product updates from the road based on what he learned.

In Indonesia, for instance, locals told the team that relatively high friend counts in the country weren’t due to spammers, as they had feared; having more friends on Facebook than could realistically be accounted for in real life was a status symbol rather than a hassle, as it is often perceived in the U.S. After seeing that some study participants couldn’t even find the photo-upload option on their feature phones, Tanikella’s team made it more prominent, adding features like photo captions and album uploads. Seeing that some businesses were posting promotions on Facebook, even though at the time, Facebook had no advertising product for feature phones, influenced the decision to give advertisers an option to target feature phones. Watching users browse Facebook stories on their phones but turn to their laptops as soon as they wanted to send a message helped Tanikella realize the chat interface “was not up to the mark” and needed to be improved.


Photo uploads, commenting, and messaging on Facebook’s feature phone products have all increased since the changes went live, Tanikella says.

A forgotten feature phone in Lagos, Nigeria

That’s good news for Facebook, as emerging markets present the best opportunities for the social network’s growth. In the U.S. there are few people who want Facebook and haven’t yet signed up for it. Emarketer estimates that India will more than double its current number of Facebook users by 2015–but only about 10% of mobile phone users in India currently have smartphones. The same analysis credits markets like India, Brazil, Russia, the Middle East, and Africa with driving the biggest gains in Facebook’s userbase. In most of these places (with exceptions such as the UAE), feature phones still dominate.

Facebook’s press conferences may focus on flashy new features for smartphones, but its future as a global company depends more on the design of its simple feature app than it does chat heads. “In developed nations, we focus on better-resolution photos or lots of cool, easy-to-use features,” Rando says. “But for a big chunk of the world, the ‘killer apps’ are really, really simple data-light services.”


About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.