What do sewing, ringing doorbells and jumping off stairwells have in common with CommCare?


These winning metaphors were essential in our latest training of community health workers in Kaushambi, Uttar Pradesh.

A hopeful group of trainers waited as we started with the first metaphor on day one of CommCare training. We had spent a significant portion during the Training of Trainers to brainstorm local metaphors for technical concepts that the ASHAs will have to learn to understand navigation in CommCare and the phone. The evening before, we revised some of the metaphors and came up with even better ones. Holding our breath, we tested the first one.

Open CommCare. CommCare Login Screen. ‘Login’ and ‘demo’ mean nothing to the ASHAs. In our current UI we’ve transliterated the English words because we couldn’t find appropriate Hindi alternatives. We’re considering some options now. But until we update the strings, we decided to talk about sewing to explain the difference between working in demo-mode and login-mode.



Demo-mode should be used when we are learning or training, not when we are doing our real work in the field. For example, when we learn how to stitch and sew for the first time, we do not start sewing on the expensive cloth to begin with, we start with making stitches on paper.

This made sense to the ASHAs right away! There was general agreement and some giggles in the crowd.

It is ok if we make mistakes on paper, because we can undo the mistakes and throw away the paper. We do not get paid for the work we do on paper. It is only a sample.

Now for the login-mode.

When we enter our passwords and work in login-mode, this is like working on the real garment, the expensive cloth. We should it do it right. We have already practiced on paper. If we make small mistakes there are ways we can correct those, but we should avoid making big mistakes. We should not practice on the cloth.

Again, it made sense to the ASHAs. We felt this was a good metaphor and we used it at different points to reinforce the difference between working in demo for training only and logging in when make their home visits.

What about the concept of password? We have it displayed on the login screen as ‘code’, transliterated from the English word again for lack of a better word. We have ideas for improving these now.

For other trainings we compared the ‘code’ to an ATM pin that they would need to enter to withdraw cash. The trainers came up with a better metaphor that was more locally relevant – keys!

This screen is like a door to your office so you can begin your work. There is a lock on the door and you have to have to correct key to open it and start working.

We actually ended up using the metaphor of opening different doors in many places within the CommCare application and for phone menu navigation. So for example, navigating to the relevant menus like messages, applications, or media player were described as opening different doors in an office or hospital. One finds different services and tools in each office.

Select beneficiary in case list and view their details.


We hadn’t planned for this but it became natural to continue the door metaphor for case list. Scrolling through the case list is like making field visits through her village for available beneficiaries. Selecting the case is like knocking on the door or ringing the door bell.  After this, the ASHA can see the case detail screen and review information collected in the previous visit.

In this example, selecting a house, knocking on the door bell, confirming that someone is home and reviewing their previous history captures navigation through the application in a story form. Though ASHAs may not be planning their home visits in this way specifically, explaining the navigation through these menus along with a story helps demonstrate navigation in an engaging way.

No jumping off the top of stairwells, walk down slowly, one step at a time. This one is my favorite. We’ve been encouraging ASHAs not to push the red call button to close the application. If the application is in the middle of an operation or sending data there could be an interruption and error. If practiced as the only way of exiting CommCare, it could corrupt the application.

In other trainings, we compared computers and television sets. The red button on the television set opens and closes the television set, but CommCare operates more like a computer, so it needs to be shutdown in a specific way and one shouldn’t unplug the computer as its running.

Of course when we brainstormed with the local trainers, they came up with an even better and much more creative metaphor that had nothing to do with technology but got the point with much more saliency.

Recommendation: Exit CommCare by navigating back all the way to the login screen, instead of holding down the red call button to close and exit.

Imagine we’re on top of a staircase, at the very top. How would you come down? Would you take a risk and take a huge jump down to reach the first floor? Or would you walk down step by step until you reached the first floor? Of course if you jumped, there is a chance you’ll be safe, but there’s an even bigger chance you’ll hurt yourself. So of course you would walk down one step at a time! Just like that, we request that you exit by going through previous menus in CommCare instead of holding down the red key and shutting down as this could damage the application in the future.

This one made everyone laugh and I think they got the message. No jumping please!

Hats off to the staff at Catholic Relief Services and Vatsalya who came up with these wonderful metaphors. It was a delightful lesson we learned with respect to describing highly technical concepts for low-literate health workers in an engaging and even entertaining way that aligned with local practices, used storytelling and added a touch of humor. Good luck to you as you continue training the next few groups of ASHAs in Kaushambi, Uttar Pradesh.

I’m sure other implementers of CommCare in India and elsewhere are using metaphors to describe mobile phone operation and navigation in the application. We would love to hear from you!




Similar Articles

The World's Most Powerful Mobile Data Collection Platform

Start a FREE 30-day CommCare trial today. No credit card required.

Get Started

Learn More

Get the latest news delivered
straight to your inbox