Joining Undesign on this special surprise episode with Google to discuss inclusive technology is Garen Checkley, Product Manager at their Next Billion Users initiative. Garen shares plenty of insightful stories on Google’s mission to make technology helpful for everyone, everywhere, from their new research on building voice-first products, to a report on gender equity online, and design tools that help designers and developers in industry.
This surprise episode was released to celebrate DrawHistory’s sixth birthday, and the enduring role that design can play in creating societal change.
- Google’s Next Billion Users website: Explore the latest research, insights, tools, and product examples from Google’s NBU initiative, the team making technology helpful for everyone, everywhere.
- Voice Playbook: Get a closer look at the voice technology and principles to help in building successful voice experiences for new internet users.
- Digital Confidence Design Toolkit: A set of tools developed by IDEO, Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to help teams design digital services for the next wave of internet users.
- Toward Gender Equity Online: Google’s report highlights key actions to further the conversation toward a more equitable internet, presenting global research insights of the next billion women online.
Kosta Lucas [0:31]:
Hey Undesign listeners, Kosta here. Thank you for joining me on today’s special episode with Google about inclusive technology. But before we get into the actual conversation, I have a special guest presenter joining me for this intro, DrawHistory’s founder, and my dear friend and colleague, Jeff Effendi. Welcome, Jeff! Tell us what you are doing here and what today’s episode means to you.
Jeffrey Effendi [0:50]:
Hey everyone. Kosta – stoked to join you today to introduce this surprise episode. Finally, I’m on the hot seat! I’m really happy to be part of this podcast!
Kosta Lucas [1:04]:
Yeah, it’s been a long time coming.
Jeffrey Effendi [1:07]:
We’re bringing this conversation now with Google for a couple of reasons. First, it’s DrawHistory’s sixth birthday this week! It’s a milestone moment for us. And in the spirit of our mission, which is to design new futures for people who need tomorrow to be better than today, this topic really represents and shines a light on what that means, especially in the context of how technology can improve people’s lives.
Also, it’s a joy to be able to host a conversation with the Google Next Billion Users team that I was a part of last year. I really believe in what they’re doing, and I love that we get to share a more in depth look into this work with our listeners.
Kosta Lucas [1:44]:
Yeah, I agree, Jeff. This chat with Garen really was so fun not only because of all of the amazing stories he shares, but more importantly, it was quite humbling to hear about the Next Billion Users initiative and to reflect on the sheer size, scale and ambition of this mission. It really just makes you reflect on how small we all are.
I guess because as a digital native myself it can be easy to take for granted that everyday technology – as we know it – is not necessarily available everywhere. In addition to this, and maybe more profoundly, it can be even easier to forget that technology up until now has been designed with a very specific type of user in mind.
But what about the swathes of people who are jumping online for the first time? Generally coming from huge countries like India, Indonesia and Nigeria, we are now understanding that while we share a lot in common, their digital needs are also shaped by the cultures and communities they’re a part of.
This topic of inclusive technology is really a question about what it means to design technology for everyone, everywhere.
Speaking to us on this very special episode is Garen Checkley. Garen is the Product Manager at Google’s Next Billion Users initiative, the purpose of which is to design products for people who are discovering the internet for the first time.
In addition to the countries I mentioned earlier, Garen has also conducted research as part of the NBU Team with Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines.
Garen is passionate about creating useful, usable and inclusive products, and he brings with him a particular focus on how to ensure gender equity in online spaces and how we can increase meaningful digital literacy for these newer users. Most recently, Garen lived in Bangalore, India, before returning to San Francisco in the US.
Jeff, what else can you tell me about Garen?
Jeffrey Effendi [3:31]:
Yeah. Garen was a former colleague of mine, and whenever he speaks about something – and you’ll pick this up – he speaks with a ton of joy and passion for the things he cares about.
Kosta Lucas [3:46]:
So, without further ado, let’s kick on to the episode. Jeff, thanks for joining me.
Jeffrey Effendi [3:50]:
Hey, let’s get into it.
Kosta Lucas [4:00]:
So you’re calling in from San Francisco? Nice balmy evening?
Garen Checkley [4:03]:
Yeah. Not so bad, weather is good.
Kosta Lucas [4:06]:
Not so bad. Great. Well, we’re really grateful for you to join us on this really special edition where we’re talking about inclusive technology, but through the prism of the Next Billion Users project that you’re involved with. For those unfamiliar with the phrase, “Next Billion Users”, who are the next billion users?
Garen Checkley [4:21]:
Right. The next billion users are people that are coming online to the internet for the very first time. This is usually happening in countries like India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Mexico. I think it’s easy for us to forget, because perhaps we started using the internet 10, 15 years ago on a desktop computer, but only recently have the majority of adults on the world actually been able to access the internet for the very first time. And not only are these users in the countries that I’ve listed, but they’re also usually coming online using smartphones as their only computing device. They’re mobile-first or mobile-only. They often face different challenges where the cost of internet, the connectivity of the internet can not be great.
Garen Checkley [5:18]:
Oftentimes there’s compatibility issues with their software, performance issues, and less likely to speak English. And so the way that they’re actually interacting with the content, the UIs are different. And of course, because they live somewhat different lives than us, their use cases and their needs are sometimes quite different, and I’m sure we can get into that as well.
Kosta Lucas [5:40]:
My starting point with this topic is really just, why do the next billion users even matter? That sounds very callous when I say it like that, but more that, is the adoption of technology just a gradual process? What is to be gained or what is the purpose of looking into the future for this next billion users? Why do we feel the need to cater to this audience that we don’t even know yet and why is that important in bringing them into the fold from now?
Garen Checkley [6:13]:
Right. Well, there’s two simple ways to answer “why do the next billion users matter?” The first is that the majority of the internet not only will be, but is actually right now, these users. The majority of the people that are actually using the internet are coming from countries like India and Nigeria.
Garen Checkley [6:33]:
The second, potentially even more compelling, more interesting reason here, is that the internet actually hasn’t been designed for them. The internet was designed for people like myself, who are relatively tech savvy, educated people that live in the Bay Area, which is where a lot of the internet has started, but that’s actually not who’s using the internet. And so as somebody comes online for the first time in a country like India, they deserve an internet experience that’s designed and made for them in the same way that somebody like my sister deserves an internet experience that’s made for her.
Garen Checkley [7:10]:
There’s a lot of work to be done, which is part of what we do in the Next Billion Users initiative at Google, to actually design more appropriate, more relevant, more useful technology, given these different contexts.
Kosta Lucas [7:25]:
Yes. You really just hit the nail on the head there in terms of what I was getting at here, where I think a part that’s overlooked in how we talk about the internet and inclusive technology, is that it hasn’t been built for everyone everywhere. And that seems to be a catch cry of the work, right? Building technology for everyone everywhere. What does that mean from Google’s perspective?
Garen Checkley [7:46]:
Right. Exactly. You’re hitting the nail on the head. And this is actually not just about the next billion users. This is so much of the reckoning and self-identity thinking that the technology industry is going through right now, which is not only what do we make, but who makes it? Why are they making it? Who are they making it for? When it comes to the next billion users, the way in which we make technology for them, it’s not just by imagining what their lives are like sitting upon our stereotypes. It’s actually by spending a lot of time in these contexts. And the way that I like to think about it is not only designing for them, but designing with them. Actually spending time in their communities, getting to know them over a period of time, speaking to them about issues that are not just usability or interface issues, but more cultural issues, also ask what are your hopes and aspirations for this new smartphone that you’ve just bought.
Garen Checkley [8:41]:
This process of spending time with these users and designing with them and getting iterative feedback along the way and really putting them at the center of our development process, is one of the ways that we think that we can end up making technology that’s not only more appropriate, but really helps them achieve what goals and aspirations they have for getting online in the first place.
Kosta Lucas [9:03]:
What are some of those goals and aspirations you’ve learned about so far in the work that you guys have done to this point?
Garen Checkley [9:09]:
Right. As I was mentioning, I think we can speak a lot about how the next billion users are quite different from us. They’re less likely to speak English, which is what we’re speaking now. They’re less likely to use desktop computers, which is what we’re using to record this podcast. They’re more likely to be lower income, more likely to live in less urban areas. We’re both speaking from a city right now. And so given these different contexts, there’s a lot of similarities despite these differences. At the end of the day, one of the things that I’ve learned throughout our research, everyone wants to spend time with their family and talk to their family regardless of whether they live together or live in different countries or on the other side of the same country.
Garen Checkley [10:01]
I think one common thing that we ignore, is that everyone just wants to relax sometimes, veg out on the couch, and watch a silly cat video.
Kosta Lucas [10:13]:
Garen Checkley [10:17]:
And then there are some differences in the context where some folks have not been able to spend as much time in formal education, and so they’re looking for more education resources online, or they’re looking to the phone for the opportunity to get better work, or to make the small business that they run earn more efficiently.
Garen Checkley [10:36]:
These are the types of things that we actually focus on in the Next Billion Users initiative within Google, because we think that they’re disproportionately important for this user group.
Garen Checkley [10:46]:
Because as more and more people come online, the internet population is more and more representative of all of humanity with these different types of use cases.
Kosta Lucas [10:46]:
That’s interesting. Just to circle back a bit for the sake of clarity here, because we talked about who the next billion users are, are all of those next billion users new internet users?
Garen Checkley [10:58]:
Newer internet users is a segment of user that’s coming online for the very first time. And so when we talk about next billion users, there’s this subset of them that are brand new to the internet and that are just getting a smartphone for the very first time and trying to make sense of all of this. And just like the first time that you drove a car is very different than the way that you drive a car right now, the experience of using a smartphone is super different when you’re only a week or a month in. I actually can, let me tell you a story-
Kosta Lucas [11:44]:
Garen Checkley [11:45]:
… about one of these newer internet users. And this was on this research project where we actually, where we went to get a sense of what are the challenges and opportunities from better designing a smartphone and app experience for people that are just coming online for the very first time. We spent some time with an individual in a rural Nigerian town, and he’s a tailor actually by trade and profession. He had seen other people in his community with smartphones, but he had never really held one himself. He never owned a smartphone himself. He was thinking about getting one because if everyone else has one, maybe there’s some value to it, but wasn’t really sure what it was used for, how to use it. And we were with him. I was actually sitting next to him when he got his very first smartphone.
Garen Checkley [12:36]:
First of all, he needed help knowing how to turn it on, which is something that’s second nature for us. And then we guided him to the camera because one of the things that he had seen other people do with a smartphone is take pictures. He opened the camera app, but he wasn’t sure what to do in the camera app. It took about two minutes to understand that that silver button in the middle of the screen was the thing that you had to touch in order to take a picture.
Kosta Lucas [13:07]:
Garen Checkley [13:08]:
And these were two really intense minutes of him trying to figure out what do I actually do now that the image is moving on my phone live? How do I capture this picture? And after doing this, of course the next question is, well, where does that picture go? Right? Because it’s second nature for us that there’s a little icon in the corner, next to that silver button, where you can get back your images that you just took from the camera. But this is just a small sliver of an example of just when you’re getting onto a smartphone for the very first time, there’s all these unknowns that we take for granted. How do you turn it on? How do you take a picture? How do you even see the picture that you just took? That users are having to figure out themselves.
Kosta Lucas [13:58]:
Wow, that really makes you reflect on how much we take for granted, how much we’ve already learnt up until this point, things that feel second nature at this stage, just by virtue of being digitally native or technology coming into our lives, young enough for us for it to feel normal. You can really forget to appreciate how strange it must look to someone that just hasn’t grown up with that or had that readily available for them.
Garen Checkley [14:26]:
We’ve had more than 10 years of evolution of the smartphone ecosystem, for us to get used to this and have us grow into it. Maybe every year we get an update to our operating system and we learn a few new things, but it’s like dropping somebody who’s never driven a car into driving some race car Ferrari thing at this point, where the features are so powerful and the organization is so complicated because of these accumulated features that feel second nature to us, but that’s really not how it is when you’re coming online for the first time. And then what compounds this is, this tailor in this rural area in Nigeria, the amount of money that he had to spend on that phone was a pretty decent chunk of his monthly income. Right?
Kosta Lucas [15:22]:
Garen Checkley [15:22]:
He’s a small microfinance business owner, and it’s not like pushing the wrong button, the phone breaks. It’s not as simple as just going and buying another phone. He might not even have somebody in his family or in his community that even knows how to “unbrick” the phone if it’s broken. One of the things that we’ve heard over and over in these user research sessions is that when people don’t know how to do something, when they get stuck on the phone, they take it to the local phone shop. And what incentive does the phone shop owner have to help if it’s a hard problem? They’ll just do a factory reset. You lose all your images and your contacts and everything like this. And so not only is the experience of learning the phone, like you or I learning how to drive some race car, but there’s not even a support mechanism there a lot of the time, which is a pretty interesting difference in the use of technology.
Kosta Lucas [16:19]:
Garen, you were just getting me to reflect again on the fact that cars, for example, are second nature, but you don’t have to know a lot about a car in terms of how engines work in order to use it comfortably — which is actually a really strange human logic gap really, if you ask me, where it’s like, we are very comfortable in these huge pieces of machinery, we need to know maybe 5% of how to use it in order to use it safely. But our fail safe if something was to go wrong is to go to a mechanic or speak to someone who knows a bit more than us. Of course it makes total sense what you’re saying in that, even with a phone, we don’t have to know a lot about it, but once something goes wrong, we have to know where to go or have options on where to go.
Kosta Lucas [17:07]:
And just on that ballpark, what are some of the common challenges that users encounter as part of this Next Billion Users initiative specifically? Can you speak on some of the challenges on rolling out such an ambitious initiative like this?
Garen Checkley [17:22]:
I think that there’s a lot of challenges that we’ve come to expect, like the compatibility of a low end device being able to run modern performative apps. There’s connectivity challenges of people not being online or the data is quite expensive. These are quite common challenges. I think one of the more interesting challenges from the design point of view as well, is this fear actually, low confidence that people have when interacting with their phones. And so to extend the car analogy, what if you were scared to use the car and to drive around? That’s not good for the community, for the user themselves, because they don’t use the car. It’s not good for the community in which the car is a contributor. I think we underrate for these newer users that are coming online, just how overwhelming this smartphone experience can be.
Garen Checkley [18:29]:
And we’ve published something called the Digital Confidence Toolkit, which is a design resource and guidelines to help product designers and product managers think through ways to help users with lower confidence levels. We’ve also published another research insights document called the pivotal role of informal teachers. Because as I said, it’s not just the individual that’s learning it, there’s the teachers that are helping them with the ecosystem. And sometimes this goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t go well. Actually want to tell a story about this of another user, in South of India, in the state of Tamil Nadu, we met a user that really nicely illustrated both the advantages and the pitfalls of relationships between newer internet users and their informal teachers.
Garen Checkley [19:20]:
There was a woman who was a housewife, who we were with her when she got her very first smartphone, and she was super excited about all the things that she could do on her phone. As a housewife she spent a lot of time at home, so she was bored and she also wanted to travel a little bit more. And so she thought she could call a cab to come and pick her up, using what is an Uber equivalent in India. It was actually her son that she was depending on to teach her how to use most of the smartphone. Now on the plus side, he taught her how to watch videos, how to watch live cricket matches, because she actually was a cricket fan. But on the minus side, he actually, first of all, was almost never home because he was out studying and hanging out with friends all the time, so she actually just didn’t have the opportunity to learn.
Garen Checkley [20:13]:
And when he was teaching her, he was a bit short tempered in the sense that, how maybe when you and your sibling are helping each other out, or if you help your parents out learning how to do something, there’s some tension in the family. Every family has this dynamic, this is not unique to new internet users.
Kosta Lucas [20:34]:
Garen Checkley [20:36]:
But when this housewife was depending on her son to learn, she had this really funny quote, she’s like, “I’ll learn how to shop on online shopping website if I practise it five times.” And her son said, “I’ll only teach you four times, because I don’t want to spend all this time. You’re too scared, you don’t know what to tap around.” And so she ended up being stuck in this phase where she had learned some things, but really the phone was quite a scary place for her to explore. She had all these aspirations to shop online, to call a cab, but she didn’t really know how to go about doing this because she was too scared to explore. She needed help, but she didn’t have any informal teachers surrounding her to help her out.
Kosta Lucas [21:27]:
I’m laughing because it reminds me so much of my relationship with my mum and getting her onto technology as well. My mum is a septuagenarian Greek woman and we have a good relationship. I’m the baby, but I teach her a lot about using her iPad or actually me and my siblings divide that labor pretty evenly. But I probably see her the most. That falls on my shoulders a bit and I know I resonate really highly with that sort of, her saying to me, I’ll get it once you show me five times and me being I’m going to show you four times because this takes forever. I can understand that. Any tips for people like me teaching their parents how to come online? Just to understand patience. Because you forget-
Garen Checkley [22:19]:
No, no, no. You’re exactly right. You forget the perspective of the other individual. You think this is so easy. I add a contact to my phone five times a day or whatever. Why do you need this help? Why is it so troubling? If you actually look at the steps required to add a contact, this is a really pretty unusually complicated process. But at the same time, I think that it’s not only for the teachers that are out there to improve. There’s really neat things that as technology makers we can do. I’ll share a story of how we’ve taken this insight of newer internet users needing teachers and how we’ve translated this back actually into our products.
Kosta Lucas [23:05]:
Garen Checkley [23:08]:
On the Android Go operating system, which is an entry-level, phone operating system, we have an app called Google Go, which is the search app on that operating system. There’s this really cool feature within the search app where there’s many educational videos teaching you how to utilize the features like voice search or incognito mode. These are educational videos that appear along the top of the app. And so what that means is that if you constantly go to your son, for instance, in your mother’s case, or this housewife in South India’s case, maybe some of the time you actually don’t need to go to your son because there’s actually tutorial content built into the product itself. I think that these educational videos are, they’re not only neat because of the design pattern here, but what they reveal is actually almost this implicit bias in how we design technology.
Garen Checkley [24:21]:
Which is that we design technology, specifically our apps, with the assumption that people will have the confidence to move around and discover what the value is. That they’ll feel confident going under this tab or opening up this menu or clicking to this screen or going behind this tool tip and really figuring out what it is. A lot of this actually comes back to a bias in how we assume that users learn technology. There’s some very nice academic literature on this, around how users actually learn technology. There’s this spectrum of people who are more exploratory and they tinker around versus people who require more procedural learning, which is hand holding, instruction manuals. And I’m sure you have a friend who reads the instruction manual, or you have a parent that does.
Garen Checkley [25:04]:
Maybe for you that seems super weird, but this is actually just a different learning style. The reason why it comes back to who builds technology, is the folks that have historically created technology in the tech industry, been building apps and operating systems, they themselves they love technology, they love exploring it. Their learning style is exploratory in nature. But there’s this assumption that the rest of the world, the rest of the billions of internet users also have that same level of exploratory learning style. And that’s simply not true. This is especially true with newer internet users who are just coming online for the first time. It’s daunting, it’s overwhelming. They require a bit more hand holding to feel comfortable.
Garen Checkley [25:50]:
It’s quite interesting how it does trace back to the people that are actually making it, the assumptions that they make. This comes back to the Next Billion Users project, this is why we have to spend the time with these users, to get a sense of how are we doing this. What are the assumptions that may not be right about how we’ve been making technology and how do we build more appropriate and relevant, useful apps for the people that are just coming online.
Kosta Lucas [26:18]:
Yeah, sure. It’s amazing how much of the research and just some of your observations come back to social and emotional aspects of using technology rather than just purely technical, in that, digital confidence to me signals an emotional need maybe based on social expectations or pressures. You’re right, in that, when you’re not confident with a piece of technology, you’re probably less likely to explore it for the sake of exploring it. You just want it to work and you don’t want to do anything to deviate. Maybe this is an assumption, but my feeling is that you’re not deviating in order so you limit your ability to break something. When you’re using something new, you just want to do what it tells you to do in order for it not to break. I think that would be my starting point. Are you saying that you’re seeing that reflected in some of the new user behavior regarding new technology?
Garen Checkley [27:20]:
Absolutely. People they’re not tinkering around, they’re not trying to push it to its limits, they’re actually barely utilizing it at all. One solution that I mentioned is these learning videos to help supplement the son of that housewife that wouldn’t teach her the fifth time or that wasn’t around to help teach. There’s these learning videos, these types of projects where we can help users better learn. But I think just as exciting is, how do we make the products even easier and more relevant for these users, so that the cost of exploring and the cost of using is even less. I’ll give a specific example here and that’s that, a lot of the people that are coming online, a lot of new internet users are coming from backgrounds where they’ve not spent time in formal education.
Garen Checkley [28:15]:
They’ve actually got lower literacy levels, reading and writing and spelling can be quite challenging. And on top of that, typing in some of the languages, for instance, typing in Hindi is three times slower than typing in English, simply because of the script layout. Right? Imagine you’ve got a user who’s coming online who only really speaks Hindi with a relatively modest or low education level and they’re really struggling to even type out a search query into YouTube. We’ve been doing a ton of work to try to understand how do we solve for this type of problem? A huge opportunity here is voice.
Garen Checkley [29:04]:
I mentioned some of the other tools that we’ve put on our website earlier, we actually just a couple of weeks ago launched the Voice Playbook we call it, which is a set of insights and design guidance around how people — technology designers — can really design their apps to integrate with voice, to make it really intuitive and natural for the next billion users to use it. What this means is, a user that wouldn’t really know how to type in romantic songs in Hindi into their keyboard, they can actually just say romantic songs directly into their YouTube app and get videos to listen to romantic songs in Hindi for instance.
Kosta Lucas [29:46]:
I think I read something as I was reading just in anticipation of our chat. I think it was, more than a million new internet users come online every day that wouldn’t be able to do so without voice. That’s one of those things that, again, you take for granted because we’re so used to, again, when I first started using technology, the voice capability part was literally just recording more than anything else, not to actually tell something or give instructions or let alone search for anything. Again, that’s just a really interesting example that seems so simple and so straightforward, but obviously there’s a lot of technology underneath that.
Garen Checkley [30:26]:
Right. I think that’s a phenomenal example because Kosta, I imagine you also use voice sometimes, you must speak to the assistant or Siri. Right? Maybe every so often?
Kosta Lucas [30:37]:
You know what — maybe every so often, usually to ask to tell me a joke more than anything else. [laughs]
Garen Checkley [30:45]:
Yeah. I think a lot of us, every so often we use, set a timer, wake me up tomorrow, set an alarm for this, or what’s the time? You’re cooking something and your hands are full. There’s two really interesting points here. The first is that for us voice is super convenient, but for these newer internet users that really because of their literacy or lower education levels, voice is super crucial for being able to interact with the internet with agency. Right? And I use the word agency here because you can always open up your phone and just scroll down whatever the internet gives you. But if you want to ask for something in return, you need a way to input that ask.
Garen Checkley [31:29]:
And so the voice technology is crucial for new internet users, because it allows them to ask for the thing that they actually want rather than just being served whatever the recommendation is. And so for you and I setting a timer in the kitchen when we’re cooking something it’s convenient, for a new internet user it’s crucial. To tie it back to this, we’ve been talking about this metaphor of a car, learning how to drive a car, being able to get around, having the independence that a car can give you. It’s almost like voice is like the automatic shifter in the car compared to a stick. And a lot of folks don’t, if you think about it, an automatic, this is how less savvy I am. I don’t even know what the formal name is for an automatic transmission, I think. Right?
Kosta Lucas [32:17]:
I think that’s it.
Garen Checkley [32:18]:
An automatic for us to stick. I don’t even know how to drive a stick. There is probably millions or billions of people that don’t know how to drive sticks. And so the freedom and independence that a car can give you is made possible by the fact that you can drive an automatic. And just like that for newer internet users, voice provides itself of agency that’s there. One of the other really interesting tidbits in the Voice Playbook that we released, is that, not everything about voice is hunky dory actually.
Kosta Lucas [32:49]:
Garen Checkley [32:50]:
You mentioned the cultural context of these users. I remember a user that I met that was searching for Gulab Jamun, which is a popular dessert.
Kosta Lucas [33:02]:
I know Gulab Jamun very well! [laughs]
Garen Checkley [33:07]:
Great. We shouldn’t be eating too much of it because it’s very sugary.
Kosta Lucas [33:10]:
It’s very sugary.
Garen Checkley [33:12]:
But for any listeners that are not familiar, Gulab Jamun is a dessert. And so there is a user that we were spending time with that was using her voice to search for Gulab Jamun recipes on YouTube. And she was speaking in a dialect of Hindi that actually YouTube didn’t understand. What she thought was, she did it wrong, right? This is a pretty normal response if you’re new to the technology. “My search query was wrong. I did it wrong. I don’t speak Hindi correctly, which is why the phone can’t understand me”, which is of course as technology designers, we know this is not at all the way that we would want to think about this. We would just think that the phone is listening incorrectly. Our speech recognition algorithms are not great.
Garen Checkley [33:55]:
But there’s this social context, right? Am I going to embarrass myself by needing to use voice in the first place because it’s a signal of lower literacy? And if I do use voice, is it even understood because of my accent? And so there’s a lot of these really interesting cultural nuances that come around with voice despite how actual useful it is.
Kosta Lucas [34:23]:
For me, that’s a big metaphor I think on maybe some of the more philosophical questions I have around the Next Billion Users initiative generally, regarding access and participation and just equity generally, where you’ve got one hand where there’s the user agency and using these and interfacing with technology, and then you’ve got the systems themselves which are designed to receive them in a certain way. On that note, for me, it brings to mind, who are the people actually participating in this next billion users kind of, who are part of this wave of people coming into the Next Billion Users? I guess what I’m getting at here are things like gender disparity and participation and things like that. Are we seeing any shifts in the ability of people everywhere to participate and be part of these next billion users, or are we still seeing some of the same systemic inequalities play out in this next tranche of users?
Garen Checkley [35:27]:
Yeah, absolutely. The inequalities are very much reflected in the digital use, just by virtue of the fact that not even everyone has access to the internet, which is the most fundamental inequality of all. We’ve actually done a lot of really interesting work on this. I participated in a project around gender inequity on internet usage for the Next Billion Users. We actually launched a set of insights around this, in a report called Toward Gender Equity Online. Listeners can find this on our website. Maybe we can put it in the show notes. But this set of research was really based on this insight that actually more men have been coming online than women, and that more of the people that are offline are women. And then we have this question of, well, okay, if the internet is male dominated, what is it like as a space for women that are coming online?
Garen Checkley [36:29]:
And of course, how do we design an internet that is more equitable, that encourages more women to come online, that when they do come online, encourages participation in a way where they feel the internet is made for them, just as much as it’s made for men. I’m happy to dive into a couple of the insights and stories here, if it’s useful.
Kosta Lucas [36:50]:
Please. The floor is yours.
Garen Checkley [36:53]:
Great. In this Toward Gender Equity Online report, we’ve put out a ton of insights around why the internet is actually gender inequitable, problem statements there are to solve for. I’ll just give one example here that came within, that’s culturally grounded, because we’ve been talking about the influence that culture has on technology use. And that is that, we saw for many women an expectation that they share their devices with other family members, other people in their communities, because of cultural norms around sharing and openness. I actually can read you a quote, because hearing firsthand is really nice. This is a quote from a young female beautician in Lahore in Pakistan from one of our research partners. She told our team in the interviewing process.
Garen Checkley [37:53]:
She said, “As I work in a beauty salon, I have to submit my phone to the receptionist when I go to work. Other staff members also do this. And I found out that some of my messages were read by someone when I submitted my phone to the receptionist. I told my friend about this, and she said that the receptionist did this to her too, when they were not looking.” There is this power hierarchy in this instance of somebody giving their phone to the receptionist at the beauty salon, and then there were receptionist feeling they have the power to go through this female’s device. We see this not only in a work context, but in a home context, where when the kids come home from school, it’s often the mother’s phone that they’re going to play the games on and not dad’s phone.
Garen Checkley [38:41]:
Maybe he’s out working, or maybe he’s doing something on his phone and it’s the female’s job, with gender norms to do childcare, and that extends into phone sharing. It can also manifest when a parent is looking at their kid’s phone or a brother is looking at his sister’s phone to say, I just want to make sure you’re not messaging anybody that you might not want to message. It might not be good for our family to message in school. We see these instances of device sharing and it’s culturally grounded, because the device sharing is expected as a part of openness and virtue, especially in South Asia.
Garen Checkley [39:24]:
The team published a paper on this, around how there was an expectation that people share their phones in these key South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India.
Garen Checkley [39:34]:
But one fascinating insight was despite the expectation of sharing, every single person that we spoke to wanted privacy. And so they found ways of trying to get around this sharing and maintaining some level of privacy. Actually we noticed this was a really big user need, and so true to what we do within the NBU group at Google is we say, okay, here’s a big user need. What are the solutions that we can build and scale around the world for this? The product that I actually am the Product Manager for, called Files by Google. It’s a file manager and cleaner. We actually have a feature within Files by Google that’s called Safe Folder. And what Safe Folder allows you to do is, take a picture or a document, maybe a picture of a health record or a screenshot of a chat with your classmate or something like that. Or a document that you got sent from some official source.
Garen Checkley [40:30]:
You can move it into a Safe Folder that’s protected by a pin, and that pin can be different from your device lock pin. Your kids might know the pin to open up your phone, but you don’t have to share the pin to open up your Safe Folder where you can keep your medical information. That’s a way that we’re still trying to enable these users to maintain their privacy on their devices but still fulfill the cultural norms that they want to fulfill in many cases of device sharing, because this is a cultural virtue. We’ve been able to go from this insight to this Safe Folder feature, which is now used by millions of users around the world.
Kosta Lucas [41:13]:
That’s a great example. And also I was just reflecting on how delicate the balance between empowering people genuinely to have agency to decide for themselves, but also to do it in a context that is still respective of cultural norms. Because we’ve seen many instances in just so many different areas of global development of, quote unquote, Western paternalist attitudes towards bringing in new technology or new anything really, as a way to say, no, this is the best way to do something. This is, I guess, where the research that you all do in the team is really important, because you do that with the end user. Because sharing is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just when-
Garen Checkley [42:00]:
Kosta Lucas [42:01]:
… it becomes expected of you where you don’t have a choice.
Garen Checkley [42:05]:
Exactly. I don’t want to give the impression that no one wants to share their phones.
Kosta Lucas [42:10]:
No, of course. No, no, no.
Garen Checkley [42:11]:
People might want to let their kids play on their phone and might want to allow their kids to play a game on their phone or allow their brother to help fix their settings or something like that. And so sharing can actually be great. It’s not a negative.
Kosta Lucas [42:24]:
Yeah, of course.
Garen Checkley [42:25]:
In a sense it’s one of the things that can bring families together is fixing all the things that are screwed up.
Kosta Lucas [42:29]:
I was going to say that.
Garen Checkley [42:30]:
That are screwed up in your phone. But I do think that this idea of, what are our assumptions about phone use and culture is really called into question once you spend time with users and you get these insights like this. It’s not just at the beginning of the product idea, we don’t just go back and say, hey, people want to maintain privacy while sharing their devices, let’s go build this feature. We’re actually continuously going back and doing iterative testing and research. We do these things called diary studies where we give, this is a relatively common technique I think in the industry, where you give a user a feature and you see how it fits into their life over a period of time. It might be a week, a month, two months.
Garen Checkley [43:18]:
And so we give somebody the Safe Folder feature and say, okay, how is it useful over a few months and check in with them every few days or every week, and really designing the feature with the user population rather than just doing it for the population, which I think is super important given how different some of these cultural contexts can be from the ones where we live. The context in which we live of course are quite different than the ones from where are all of our users across the world are living.
Kosta Lucas [43:50]:
This is what I’ve loved about this conversation so far, in that it’s really emphasized despite the difference in circumstances which characterize as being human in the world right now, there’s a real sameness in some of just the basic human needs that we are fulfilling when we access technology for the first time, in that, everything you’ve told me about, seems personal, social first, then followed by the more like, and I can also do this to make life easier or better. Primarily people seem to be motivated by connecting with others or entertaining themselves and that’s something we should all enjoy. I love that sameness that is coming through, because it’s something we can take for granted in a very productivity focused global paradigm of working and living. The potential for this to just fulfill some of the more basic human needs that we all have, I think is a really beautiful thing.
Garen Checkley [44:51]:
Right. Yeah. I think for me, this has been one of the biggest personal learnings, as somebody who’s been working on the Next Billion Users initiative for over seven years, since I first got to start interacting with users in Ghana, in West Africa, to actually living in India as well. There’s this tendency as we come back and talk about these users, to focus on the differences. One of the personal learnings throughout this entire process for me is actually, we’re all not that different. We all want to spend time with our family. We all want to have a roof over our head and not worry about where we’re going to buy our food and relax after a hard day of work. We want to take a bit of a vacation regardless of where it is. The differences mainly come from the context, right?
Garen Checkley [45:45]:
Somebody has less money, has less network connectivity, has a phone, has been in a context where there’s not great access to education or they were born in a rural place versus an urban place. There’s a ton of contextual differences, but people are pretty similar across the world when you look beyond these contextual differences. I think it’s super important to pull apart the individual, the human needs, which are quite universal and the contextual needs which are often quite specific and need solving for, be it education or literacy or connectivity.
Kosta Lucas [46:31]:
That’s exactly right. Just as we’re approaching the tail end of the conversation Garen, there’s so much probably left to explore, but I just want to think about the future as well and what that looks and what it could look like and just what the North Star is so to speak. How does building for the Next Billion Users fit into Google’s overall mission? Where’s the direction this wants to go and why, I guess from Google’s perspective?
Garen Checkley [46:59]:
Well, from Google’s perspective, if Google wants to be relevant on the internet, then this is not only the future of the internet, this is the now. This is the majority of internet users right now. I think that’s actually why it matters to all of us too, right? When you look around the world, and even when you look around the technology, the digital world that we inhabit, the majority of the people online, and definitely the majority of new people coming online, are these Next Billion Users. And so in order from Google, from a company perspective, if we want to keep doing the work that we do, of making the world’s information universally accessible and useful, you have to do it for everyone and the needs of people will change.
Garen Checkley [47:52]:
Just to give an example of Google’s mission, focusing on making the world’s information universally accessible and useful. Accessible, if you struggle to type, because you didn’t spend time in formal education, so you’re at lower literacy. If you’re a lower literacy user, information isn’t accessible if you have to type, because that’s a barrier you cannot overcome. The voice input becomes super useful there. Information is not useful if you struggle to read, but we only give you search results or webpages that are designed to be read. Actually I mentioned this Google Go app, which is a version of Google search designed for new internet users. Not only does it have voice input, but it also has a voice output where it can read aloud a webpage back to a user for a user that struggles to read.
Garen Checkley [48:43]:
There’s also translation functions built in if the webpage is in a different language. These are the types of innovations that are necessary if you want to make the world’s information, universally accessible and useful. It should be just as accessible and useful for folks that struggle to type, struggle to read, don’t have great connectivity, so they need to download the web pages or the videos and whatnot.
Kosta Lucas [49:08]:
And then that takes me to this next point as well, regarding just how building more inclusive technology benefits the rest of the world. Right? Is it fair to say that building for the next billion users is not actually just about the next billion users, it’s also for the current billions of users too?
Garen Checkley [49:27]:
Spot on. I think that when you have the majority of technology users, there’s bound to be a ton of innovation there and this is exactly what we see. Innovation in voice is very much being driven by the needs of these users.
Garen Checkley [49:42]
The opportunities to innovate for these users is so vast. What does it mean to you as an operating system, when you struggle to read and write? That forces you to reinvent how computing should work. Those are the types of innovations that are going to come back and hit the rest of the world and it’s starting with these next billion users.
Kosta Lucas [50:03]:
Man, that’s awesome. I guess, just to round out now, I want to bring the conversation back to the everyday user who’s already on the internet. Right? Do you have any ideas, advice, thoughts on what everyday users who aren’t building technology, what can we do to advocate or make the online world more equitable? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Garen Checkley [50:32]:
Right. Let me divide the answer to this question in two parts, because I think that the answer is different for technology creators, who I suspect some of your listeners are. And it’s different for the average non-technology creator, internet citizen.
Kosta Lucas [50:46]:
Garen Checkley [50:48]:
For technology creators actually, there’s two broad pieces of advice that I would give, if you’re out there creating technology that you would like to be accessible and relevant for the next billion users. The first is research, this is, you start by listening to who your users are, who you want your users to be, understand their cultural context. If you can, spend time with them. Nothing replaces listening to users and designing with them. We actually have a ton of tools available on the Google website. It’s called nextbillionusers.google.
Garen Checkley [51:24]:
We have a variety of tools that are out there. I’ve mentioned the Voice Playbook, the Digital Confidence Toolkit. We’ve got insights like the report Toward Gender Equity Online. A ton of content around new internet users. There’s a really cool report called The Pivotal Role of Informal Teachers that talks about the relationships that these newer internet users have with the informal teachers like that housewife’s son that I was mentioning earlier.
Garen Checkley [51:52]:
And so there’s all these design resources and research insights that are actually available because what Google wants to do is, see a thriving internet ecosystem made by the entire internet, by everyone in the tech industry for these users. We’re trying to give away a lot of what we’ve learned throughout this journey. Actually more recently we’ve published some information around the impact of COVID-19 on these newer internet users, which is pretty interesting as well to see how the COVID crisis has been hitting people who are just now coming online for the first time. How does that change their technology usage?
Garen Checkley [52:35]:
The type of advice that I would give for non-technology creators is much more general. Remember that people are coming online from all around the world.
Garen Checkley [52:43]:
You might be under a YouTube video and you never know where the commenter is from, what language they speak, what their educational background is. The commenter, this might be the first week of them ever having access to the internet. And so I think practicing empathy and an appreciation of different life experiences as we’re interacting with other people’s content online goes a long way. We can both be in awe of the diversity of the internet and be quite kind to everyone else, given their life experiences.
Kosta Lucas [53:25]:
Empathy, I guess cuts across both of those groups, but for the tech makers, you’re saying, there actually are a suite of resources on how to support people who-
Garen Checkley [53:34]:
Yeah, nextbillionusers.google has a ton of research insights, almost every single one of the things that I’ve mentioned is listed, projects is listed on nextbillionusers.google. The insights and we’ve got a ton of tools for product designers, product managers that are out there as well.
Kosta Lucas [53:53]:
That’s great. I guess the common thread between both segments of digital users or creators is a starting point of genuine empathy.
Garen Checkley [54:04]:
Yeah. I would say that’s also a good practice for all humans.
Kosta Lucas [54:07]:
For all humans, that’s right.
Garen Checkley [54:09]:
You don’t have to be a digital user. You can practice empathy when you see your neighbor outside too, not just –
Kosta Lucas [54:14]:
That’s a good point. [laughs] Garen, this has been such a pleasure. And again, building for the next billion users, I guess is an incredibly challenging piece of work considering just how much I’m sure there are uncharted waters here. It’s one of those topics, again, that brings some sense of wonder back to the internet and to technology, not to gloss over some of the darker parts of online life, but I’ve really appreciated just the sense of wonder it’s brought back to my own engagement with technology.
Garen Checkley [54:52]:
I think that, those of us that work in the technology industry, there’s so many ups and downs and so many issues with technology that rightly are absolutely issues that need to be dealt with. Many of them have been covered in previous episodes of this podcast in fact, of the challenges of the internet. But I think that we forget the hope and awe that getting online can bring to somebody. I remember meeting a user in another area of rural Nigeria, middle-aged woman who was this single mother. She had a small provision store where she sold oil and noodles in this village. She didn’t really have that much chance to travel around Nigeria. She didn’t have the finances to travel internationally, and she really wanted to get online, in part to experience what the rest of the world had to offer.
Garen Checkley [55:49]:
I think that we’ve taken this for granted and the ubiquity of the internet and our lives is just how incredible it is to have access to billions of YouTube videos. Hundreds of billions of web pages, be able to chat with family members across the world. This is something that we take for granted, but there’s so much excitement and hope when somebody gets their phone for the very first time. That for me, I’ve been so lucky to spend time with people that have that level of energy, that that’s always what I think of whenever it’s challenging at work for me, or whenever we need inspiration to do projects. It’s really coming back to those stories around, of course it makes sense for somebody who rarely ever leaves her village in a rural area of Nigeria, because she’s got this small business to attend to. The internet is a great quality of life improvement for her despite all of its ups and downs. It’s got a lot to offer that a lot of people have hope for, which is pretty cool to have that perspective as well.
Kosta Lucas [56:55]:
It’s power to be harnessed, and intent really forms how that is harnessed, I guess. That’s really awesome. Garen, just before we officially wrap up, what’s the best way for people to stay across what you’re doing? Is it through the Next Billion Users site? Just feel free to give a plug to the best way for people to stay up to date with what you’re working on.
Garen Checkley [57:21]:
Yeah, to be honest, we’ve got our website that’s pretty actively maintained, nextbillionusers.google.
Kosta Lucas [57:27]:
Garen Checkley [57:28]:
It’s got to be a bit about the products that we work on if folks are interested in the actual technology itself, there’s research insights tools for designers, product managers. I would say that’s the right starting point.
Kosta Lucas [57:39]:
Great. Awesome. Garen, thank you so much for your time this morning and, or your afternoon. It’s been a real pleasure and hopefully we’ll have to pick up with a Part Two some way down the line.
Garen Checkley [57:49]:
Great. Thanks very much.
You’ve been listening to Undesign, a series of conversations about the big issues that matter to all of us. Undesign is made possible by the wonderful team at DrawHistory. If you want to learn more about each guest or each topic, we have curated a suite of resources and reflections for you on our Undesign page at www.drawhistory.com.
Thank you to the talented Jimmy Linville for editing and mixing our audio. Special thank you to our guests for joining us and showing us how important we all are in redesigning our world’s futures. And last but not least, a huge thank you to you, our dear listeners, for joining us on this journey of discovery and hope. The future needs you.
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