Introducing: Sterro Mjanja - DSO WhatsApp Experiment Week 1

This blog post, and the chat experiment it discusses are the result of dedication and hard work from the DSO community, especially Stephen Wanjau, Dennis Ndegwa, Josiah Mutsogu, Bobby Richter, Laura de Reynal, and Chad Sansing.

After deploying and collecting some feedback about Jisort, we knew we needed to come up with a different approach for our next on-device experiment. To build an effective learning experience, we knew we needed to offer dynamic, personalized content, and step a lot closer to the way that people already use their smartphones.

An important lesson we learned (and are still learning) is that perceived value of apps and services is impacted by Access, Skill, Desire, and Need, each of which is affected by environmental factors, like cost of mobile data vs. cost of dinner. Guided by these pressures, and inspired by data from interviews and other prior research, we decided to take advantage of WhatsApp, a service with which the majority of first-time smartphone users are already familiar, and have a strong desire to use.

“I used to ask friends when I used to have a problem with my phone but now I ask [you] instead because I get more knowledge.” — DSO Mombasa Participant

Research, like’s foray into chatbots for Kenyan farmers, showed us that, with the right design methodology, a good on-device chat experience can be built to give farmers advice and connections they need to maintain their business and reap successful crops. For DSO, we wanted to test whether or not this approach could be effective as a digital skills learning platform for first-time smartphone users, and learn from user expectations as they emerge. We saw a WhatsApp learning platform as an opportunity to be not only reactive (e.g. fielding questions from participants), but also proactive, by encouraging learning through exploration and creation on the web.

May we introduce, Sterro Mjanja

Over the course of two days, Sterro follows up with a DSO participant about their inquiry about downloading a YouTube video.

Sterro Mjanja is a high school teacher that has devoted himself to teaching people how to use their smartphones and the internet wisely. Throughout his life, he has been interested in technology and has become an Android and internet expert.

Born and raised in Nairobi, his parents were fans of movies featuring stereotypical heroes and villains, in which “The Sterro” always prevails. At an early age, his parents introduced him to these movies, where he adopted the Sterro persona to fit his name. Later, his aptitude for technology and his heroic persona gave him the passion to teach others to learn about their own technology and to use it well.

At the beginning of October, we introduced DSO’s treatment participants to a WhatsApp persona named Sterro Mjanja, which DSO’s community members designed. His personality, occupation, and passion were engineered to reflect his desire to work on this project, and to offer his expertise to others.

“I have never asked for help via Whatsapp because so far I haven’t had to escalate it to that.” — DSO Kilifi Participant

Our hope was to create Sterro to be fun, interactive, and resourceful, to provide a respectful and private channel to ask questions, and to encourage independent growth. After the first week of introductions, our dedicated Sterro team has already gained some important insights, and have learned how to progress the content and methods of Sterro.

Insights from Week 1

  • People are receptive to Sterro. They are excited for him to reach out and start talking.
  • People are very curious about where Sterro is from, where he lives, and from which tribe he hails.
“I did a backup and factory reset then I restored everything plus I downloaded the apps I wanted and more and I still got space for my phone to operate well. Couldn't believe it.” — DSO Participant

  • Response is not consistent. Sometimes people respond after a couple of days, and differently across regions (lots to say here about the correlation between regionality and personality).
  • In the morning, Sterro usually needs to re-initiate conversation.
  • Patterns are starting to emerge about when people are available. Mornings are generally slow. People go to work, and many come online in the evening. Interestingly, people tend to show up all at once!
  • Some people (a small minority) can’t respond at all. They have lost or broken their phones.
  • WhatsApp allows you to see when a message has been read by its recipient. Some messages are being delivered but don’t respond. When Sterro persists, sometimes he gets a response. There are a huge number of reasons this may be the case, including shyness, pride, lack of data, or lack of perceived value. More research required.
“User’s phone goes off without warning when he is chatting on WhatsApp and facebook.” — Sterro's Journal
  • There is some evidence that people are applying the skills they have learned as a part of DSO. For example, reading reviews on the Play Store before installing apps.
  • There is an obvious, wide spectrum of familiarity with smartphones and the internet. Some people demonstrate a very good understanding of basic concepts while others are still having problems.
“A question was also raised as to whether one can be able to read your personal WhatsApp data without having your phone. She was curious to get clarification that her chats were secure.” — Sterro's Journal
  • People really want to download videos from YouTube. Old phones severely limit users. They hang, overheat phones, run out of space, or otherwise break down.
  • People learn a lot about their phones and problem solving when they malfunction. For example, some people have managed to reset their phones to try and solve problems.
  • After learning from Sterro, people show off their new skills and knowledge to their friends. However, they don’t disclosing the source of their new knowledge. They keep Sterro a secret! People are trying to solve their friends’ problems using Sterro’s advice
“My friend's phone has stopped functioning, she can not make calls and even receiving calls and also can you help that Sterro.” — DSO Participant
  • People say that some Digital Financial Services are overpriced.
  • Some people don’t know that Facebook isn’t just an app, but a website as well that can be found through Opera Mini.
  • There is a mostly-positive reaction to Android easter eggs. However, one person didn’t trust that finding an easter egg wouldn’t break her phone.
  • When introducing Sterro to participants in Vihiga, a debate occurred about whether or not to invite Sterro into a WhatsApp group. In the end, vocal participants agreed that they wanted Sterro to join a Vihiga group so that they could offer each other support while talking to Sterro. However, we are not convinced that this is in the best interest of all participants, so it is not the approach we are implementing at the moment. So far, people are comfortable in private channels. We will try to test groups soon.
“A participant asked how many mbs are required or used when sending a message via facebook or WhatsApp” — Sterro's Journal
  • There are interesting ethical, legal, and moral concerns Sterro has already faced. One participant has been receiving insulting text messages, which can mean jail-time or a hefty fine in Kenya. Sterro walked the participant through the procedure to block the sender, but when is it appropriate for Sterro to suggest the consultation of a local chief?
  • The availability of Swahili auto-correct is desirable, and some people have inserted Swahili into their English auto-correct dictionaries.
  • People ask a lot of questions about material that has already been covered in workshops, like resetting passwords and managing space when installing apps.

Working theory: workshops expose people to possibilities, but Sterro offers a way to practice.

  • Preliminary results show that participants are unaware of the data-costs of in app advertising. After Sterro asked each participant, “Did you know that advertisements that appear in apps use your data?” most said they were not aware that advertisements require extra data to function.
“Hallow Sterro...what makes a phone to loose memory then it indicates that "unfortunately face book has stopped” thuz just an example BT it do indicate any app” — DSO Mombasa Participant
  • Some people write down URLs and phone numbers to move information between apps, demonstrating a lack of awareness about the copy & paste functions within Android. Users are curious about privacy and data when using Facebook and Whatsapp.
  • People love taking screenshots! (One of Sterro’s daily tips included instructions to do so.)

Next Steps

The first week’s curriculum was designed to make participants feel comfortable with Sterro’s presence. Now that everyone in the DSO treatment group has been introduced to Sterro, we have a better sense of their expectations, how to respond to them well, and how to record interesting situations.

So far, we’ve been using a predictable daily format, with a Tip of the Day and a Poll of the Day to spur conversation. This week, the topic is Trust on your Phone, and we’ll be introducing more typical activities like those in Mozilla’s web literacy curriculum, and theme-aligned daily prompts.

There is some evidence that people are relying on Sterro for things they should be able to already, or understand through simple web searches. So, Sterro’s engagement strategy will start to encourage more exploration to provide the necessary tools for effective problem-solving, instead of solve participants’ problems directly.

With these changes, we hope to observe changes in engagement, independence, and problem-solving.

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