This past weekend, the Digital Skills Observatory held its inaugural Intervention, during which Nairobi community members—researchers, designers, developers, teachers, students, and other professionals and volunteers—hosted study participants in a digital skills workshop focused on smartphones, cell networks, and the Internet. Each DSO Intervention is intended to impact the study’s treatment group by imparting digital skills on them. With some careful, iterative analysis, these interventions should cascade and help study participants gain the skills they need to be confident and aware of their smartphones and the Internet. (You can read more about the study design here.)

Our First Intervention: Curriculum and Workshop

Prior to the Intervention, Mozilla’s Chad Sansing drew from previous research work]( to draft the Intervention’s curriculum. With support from the community and partners, it went through intense revisions, and became our first curriculum module, The Smartphone Ecosystem. The original concept covered enough elements of the smartphone ecosystem to provide a general broad understanding of the different corporate actors, pricing models and technical aspects to take into account while making decisions about using a smartphone. For instance, the workshop’s top-level activities were:

  • How do smartphones work? (usage, cellular networks, the Internet, airtime vs. data)
  • What is the Internet?
  • Perform the network (a game about how information travels through the cell network and internet)
  • Reflection and open questions
  • App installation party and group help desk

Even with meticulous planning, the workshop underwent last minute changes, and needs further refinement to make certain session shorter or more practical to spark interaction between participants. The same curriculum will be used in Kisumu, Vihiga, Mombasa, and Kilifi in the coming weeks, and there is potential to make small corrections that will allow the curriculum to be more effective.

It’s also important to note that the workshop was carried out in Swahili, and Sheng—a mixture of English, Swahili, and Swahili slang—which made participants comfortable and able to contribute to conversation. The workshop was led by DDD researchers Duncan Washington, Naomi Kiiru, Hilda Chao and Joash Mango, and Mozillian Open Researchers Dennis Ndegwa, Alex Wafula, Marie Amuti, and Stephen Wanjau, and was full of interactive lessons and sharing opportunities, encouraging participants to engage, ask questions, and teach one another.

Fear of the Unknown
There may be a general “fear of the unknown” for study participants, where perceived literacy levels or other factors impact confidence.

Some participants didn’t attend the workshop because of other commitments. However, one participant offered to have their brother attend the workshop in their place because they lacked confidence in their abilities. They were afraid to appear unknowledgeable or uneducated, yet they still wanted the benefits of their workshop. The DSO team needs to find methods to resolve this dissonance between desire and expectation.

Early Findings

During the workshop, DSO community members observed participants’ behaviour and took notes using a reporting guide (which will also undergo significant refinement). Afterward, the team debriefed and collectively produced some early, very fresh findings which will be further verified at other Intervention locations this month.

Phones are mysterious devices

Participants are interested in learning about the different features their devices offer. Some were uncomfortable with basic gestures and functions and procedures, such as enabling and using WiFi or bluetooth, searching for apps, switching between apps/activities, etc.

Rather than learning about apps or the Internet, participants’ questions indicated a strong interest in learning about their smartphone’s core features.

Hypothesis: When people are more comfortable with basic usage of their device, they are more likely to increase their confidence level and be curious about the Internet and other capabilities enabled through it.

One of DSO’s Open Research contributors, Winnie Makokha observed:

It was interesting to note the knowledge level of the participants with regards to smartphone usage. Even though they are first time smartphone users, their curiosity has helped us understand what to build upon for the next curriculum. One of the things that was clear and could be considered for the next training was that the participants have an idea that their smartphones could do much more, but they don’t know how exactly. Thus, questions arose, like, “can I send email from my phone?”.

Also, the training indicated that participants learn from asking one another but they are a bit shy. We should also help participants be comfortable in using their phones and maybe it will help them learn to explore internet further.

Is English a digital skill?

It’s possible that English is a major confidence barrier for new smartphone users in Kenya. With a new device and unfamiliar design, they are getting used to icons, gestures, etc. and are able to eventually navigate their phones without reading text. However, this discomfort or inability to read English (or just to read, generally) leads to confusion when facing new text.

For example, error messages are often cryptic, confusing, or scary, especially when they cause an app to crash.

Some participants create their own vocabulary for the functionality and features of their smartphones. One person calls refers to the Internet as “data.” Interestingly, researchers are then able to ask questions like, “what did you do with “data” this week?” to help cross vocabulary barriers.

This early discovery might indicate that English deserves as much attention as any other digital skill. People may benefit from a glossary containing the most common words one must know in order to leverage the capabilities of a smartphone.

Hypothesis: English smartphone vocabulary should be considered a “skill” to master in order to grow confidence in using smartphones. If we teach people words from a basic English smartphone-related glossary, they might become more comfortable with their device.

Emails are obsolete yet vital

Many participants had trouble with understanding the concept of an “account”. Some had consequent trouble using email, either for communications, or for logging into apps (e.g. Facebook). During the workshop’s “helpdesk” activity, Open Researchers helped participants recover emails and passwords and discover the GMail app on their phone. Some participants were unaware that the GMail app was on their phone and that they had access to their email account through it without attempting to retrieve their password.

Also, the idea of having one Google account for Android applications seems abstract and confusing. Understanding these concepts is challenging, yet vital for first time smartphone users that need access to connected apps and the rest of the Internet.

Hypothesis: Understanding the concept of an email and—more generally—an account will familiarize people searching and downloading more mobile applications.

Pre-installed apps are confusing

We observed a high number of questions concerning people’s pre-installed apps.

“I came here to learn about my phone’s features. I don’t know how to use voice search for example. And this one, and this one.” — Paul, a participant pointing out pre-installed apps on his phone

As people discover their smartphone for the first time, it appears that what is pre-installed on their device matters. Participants seems confused about what to do with it. Should I use it ? Why is it here? What is it? Sometimes, it makes them feel as if they don’t know how to use their device.

Hypothesis: If we teach people about the different things they see on their smartphones, including all the pre-installed apps, this might achieve 2 things: make them more comfortable and knowledgeable about their device, and introduce them to new concepts that they did not know about before (for example, a calendar).

Operating Systems aren’t really that friendly

Modern smartphone operating systems like Android are able to maintain the operation of apps that run on them, giving them access to the phone’s features, and capturing instances when they break down, but letting the user continue to use the phone without restarting it.

However, the way Android recovers from faulty app software is often a confusing experience for smartphone users. After an app closes, a message may appear, such as “Unfortunately, [insert app name] has stopped,” which tells the user very little about why it happened, if it will happen again, whether or not they should do anything special to remedy the situation, or what to do next.

At the same time, Android responds very poorly (or not at all) to broken hardware, like faulty memory (e.g. SD cards). When people’s pictures disappear, or get written as black rectangles, often faulty memory is to blame. There is no indication that the hardware is at fault, and that the user isn’t doing something wrong themselves.

There are plenty of blogs and forums that suggest ways to fix these kinds of problems, but new smartphone users may not know how to search for a solution, or even that they should.

Hypothesis: Awareness of various hardware and software failures, and a general understanding of how operating systems manage apps will allow new smartphone users to seek out solutions to problems (and perhaps solve them), even when it’s not obvious if the user needs further instruction, or if part of the system is broken.

What is Wi-Fi?

For some participants the concept of WiFi was foreign, new or unsettling. They did not know how to use it, access it on their phone, or log into it. This is a very surprising reality because the demographic this study is concerned with is very cost sensitive. This lack of awareness might be linked to a strong familiarity and agility with scratch cards and bundles offered by large operators like Safaricom. It may also be linked with a lack of facilities that offer WiFi (e.g. coffee shops), who are more likely to be patronized by higher income populations.

Hypothesis: If people are taught about WiFi (how it works, how to connect), they are more likely to take advantage of WiFi hotspots as a free or low-cost resource that they are aware of but were previously unable to use. It may affect their smartphone and data management and the apps they download and use.

Software we can Build

The Digital Skills Observatory Interventions also provide interesting opportunities to build Web or Android software prototypes that can be installed on participants’ phones. The team can then measure impact from these prototypes on digital skills, and contrast this approach with the workshop approach.

From the Nairobi Intervention workshop, there are already some strong indicators around which the DSO team can build these software prototypes. DSO Nairobi community member, Marie Amuti suggested we make “How might we” statements to guide prototype ideation.

Some participants were uncomfortable with the language (English) and set of icons on their phones, making it difficult or daunting to find and discover features.

How might we: introduce important language and imagery to new smartphone users in an interactive experience that will make them more comfortable exploring and using features of their smartphones?

With respect to the WiFi problem above, some participants could benefit from understanding more about the standard features of their phone and how to use them.

How might we: convey the various common features of smartphones coupled with shortcuts and explanations for using them with the practicalities of cost and connectivity in mind?

Thinking forward

The findings that resulted from this workshop and its interactive atmosphere provided some strong indications of how to build another, more effective curriculum module and workshop for the next Intervention:

  • Lecture-style teaching should be turned into more interactive, group-oriented activities. Without an informal touch, these activities, however short they might be, reinforce people’s fear about being in a workshop.
  • There should be appropriate practical representation (e.g. relating to Facebook/WhatsApp/Android usage) depending on the content.
  • Participants could benefit from step-by-step guidelines for navigating the features of their smartphones.
  • Participants can receive further benefit after a workshop with material they can take home with them. Printed material will not suffice because of varied literacy levels, but that short videos would be well received.

With our first workshop completed in Nairobi, participants are more familiar with the the project and the subject matter, and we have a much better idea of how they can be helped to have confidence and agency in their digital lives. Researchers from DDD will continue to follow-up with participants through interviews throughout the year, and capture their progress related to this intervention and record questions respondents have asked, skills they want to be taught, and subjects they wish to learn.

Next up: Intervention workshop in Kisumu and Vihiga :-)

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