Sending a text message - insights into written and mobile literacy of novice users

Upon purchasing one’s first mobile phone, the most obvious use is to give out the number and press some buttons when it starts to ring to answer the call. After a try or two a user without help or prior experience will figure out that the green button will answer the call. In India this simple functionality, receiving a call, is available to the user free of cost. Perhaps the next thing that comes to mind is pressing that green button when the phone is not ringing. A list of numbers are displayed and if the green button is pressed a second time an outgoing call is made to the last person the user has talked to. Voila, a two-way communication channel is now established. These two functions, both of which involve only a single button, require neither literacy nor education to figure out.


Everyone learns very quickly how to check their balance and how to purchase more credit. Typically checking balance is something like dial “123”, press the green button, and listen to the message. Another natural lesson learned is simple navigation. Press the green button, press up or down to scroll through the list of numbers until one is found that is recognizable, and then press the green button again to make a call. This task is easily performed by illiterate users who, in my experience, have no difficulty recognizing the last 4 digits of a phone number that they have seen displayed many times when their phones are ringing. This method, although far more difficult for advanced phone users with many numbers to remember, becomes a functional phonebook for novice users, illiterate and literate alike.


If the phone has a camera or a music player, these functions too are figured out very quickly. It only takes a couple tries with the help of a son, daughter, or mobile shop keeper to memorize the series of buttons needed to be pressed to turn on the camera, take a photo, look at photos previously taken, open the media player, select a song from a list, and play it. These functions make the phone fun and useful, and are often asked about during the training I give to groups of community health workers on mobile health applications. I am happy to oblige these questions and often set aside an hour at the end of a training to give instruction on how to use these features as it increases the health workers ownership and interest in the phone.


An interesting thing about “simple navigation” for selecting numbers from a call list, photos from the camera roll, or songs from the media player is that it does not translate to “advanced navigation” or the ability to comfortably navigate through phone menus. Pressing down to scroll through a list of numbers does not necessarily imply that pressing down will select the number below the one that is currently selected. What is implied is that pressing down changes the number selected, or changes the photo being viewed, or changes the song being played. What is missing from simple navigation is the concept of space inside software, that there are things inside the mobile phone that one can “go to”. Instead of examining the screen and deciding which way to go, novice users will memorize which buttons to press how many times to arrive at a desired outcome. If that outcome is not reached, pressing the red button a few times will allow the user to restart from scratch. I spend significant time in training explaining the concept of navigation and look forward to the day when touch screen phones are dirt-cheap enough to be accessible at the bottom of the pyramid.


Now text messaging is where things get really interesting. When I SMS a health care work after a training, I never know what kind of response I will get. Sometimes the message is in Hindi, written in Devanagari script (also commonly used for Sanskrit), sometimes in Hindi, written in Roman script (Hindi transliterated using the English alphabet), sometimes it is in broken English, sometimes the message consists of only my name or the name of the health worker, sometimes it is blank, sometimes I get a phone call, and rarely I get no response at all. This tells me right away who the most and least experienced mobile users are. Typing in Devanagari script is difficult, to put it plainly. There are many more characters than in the 26 lettered English alphabet and many additional marks denoting vowels, other diacritical marks, and conjunct consonants that need to be considered. Some buttons carry 9 different characters and buttons may change function depending on the previous character that has been written. Typing Hindi in Roman script is easy, but assumes some basic knowledge of the English alphabet. Typing purely in English tells me that the health worker wants to show off their level of education in a English-medium school. All three of these types of messages must be scrutinized for validity, I check to make sure that it was indeed the health worker typing and not her son or daughter. A message with just a name tells me for sure that this is an honest first effort, for example “SANGITA.KUMARI” and “GEETA KUMARI”. Blank messages are a frequent occurrence with novice users. On low to mid-range Nokia phones, if a user presses the center button two times too many upon receiving a message, a blank message will immediately be sent out in response. Or if the user accidentally types the message into the “To:” box instead of the “Text:” box this can also happen.


Digging a little deeper into composed text messages, one can derrive more about the education level of the user and their familiarity with mobile technology. In Hindi, a single verticle line “।” is used instead of a period to denote the end of a sentance. However, the messages I receive contains all sorts of different delimiters. Low-literate users may not delimit anything at all, resulting in a message with many words stuck together and no punctuation, for example “कयाआपकोदिपवलीपसँदहै”, which if correctly written would ask “क्या आपको दिपवली पसँद है?” or “Do you like Dipawali?”, which is an Indian festival celebrated with tons of fireworks and oil candles which I happen to like very much. Others may separate words, but still leave out punctuation. This is a fascinating artifact of a low-literate user who is simply typing out speech. Text messaging, as we advanced users know, is a limited form of long distance conversation, allowing such artifacts to become visible whereas in a classroom filled with low-literate students this would never be noticed as most exercises involve copying written texts into a notebook. Moving on to users that do include sentence delimiters, I have received periods, zeroes, and ones as shown in the examples below, telling me that the user has a moderate to high level of literacy, knows that punctuation is needed, but does not know how to produce the correct symbol on a numeric keypad.


“हैपि धनतेरश 1मै रोटी रखने के लिए असटेनड लिया 1डरेक सरः”
which translates to
“happy dhanteras 1 i purchased a new container for storing roti 1 derek sir”


“डेरेक सर प्रनाम आपका0मैशेज पढकर 0खुश हुई”
which translates to
“derek sir hello 0 have read your message 0 am happy”


“To. Director sir Happy Dhanteras Day with enjoy from Kamala Devi.”




which translates to


“Yes?sir yah baitak bahut accha laga.phir baitak hona chahie”
which translates to
“Yes? sir this training was very good. we must have another”


All of these insights and surely more can be gleaned from an experiment as simple as sending a text message, the results of which can help those of use using technology to support development in undserved areas to tailor our training and technology to better serve our users.




Derek Treatman lives and works in India as a Dimagi Field Engineer. Dimagi contributes innovative technology to the growing community healthcare system in rural India and other parts of the world. It will be investigating a study of CHW performance after four weeks based on classification of the response.



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