Democratising Technology

A recent news report claimed that if the entire unbanked population were a country, it would be the world’s 8th largest nation. Financial inclusion is about bringing these vulnerable, marginalised communities into the formalised system of banking. Doing away with the unfair, illegal, even exploitative practices of informal banking. Because money is a private matter, designing for financial services are always tricky. When working on a recent service design assignment, we used specially formulated design thinking tools at Future Factory, to uncover these secrets. Interestingly, the technology levers that drive financial inclusion can be summed up in 3 major observations:

The Masses Needs Cutting Edge Technology the Most

Financial inclusion is more about being counted than about contribution. But historically, banking has been the prerogative of the privileged, and has been designed around those who have, not the have-nots. But when financial services have to be designed around the marginalised, even deprived communities, the first hurdle is the least accounted for: the ability to read and write. In India, where nearly a fourth of the population is illiterate and most of these are from the deprived communities, banks have to work around documentation and yet ensure financial compliance. Technology is a natural choice, with biometrics finding their way into every such project. But account holders still have to validate addresses and next of kin. In a country which speaks 23 official languages, cutting edge voice activated technology is probably next. And for an illiterate community, the more the interaction is simplified, the more successful is the adoption. So, user interaction too, needs to be highly advanced. In an age that democratises technology, it is fitting that one of the least developed markets should use of the most advanced technologies for successful design and innovation.

Security and Fraud is as much about the User as about the Technology

Financial services rest on the security that technology can provide. But technology is only as secure as its use. And for a community that is new to such services, naivety can be a major challenge. Rural communities thrive on trust. In their experience, it is the people from whom they have historically benefitted, who can help secure their future. Rural banking has been about relationships (which is why the local moneylender has enjoyed a privileged role). But as we move to ensure fairer practices, the “relationship” is replaced by the “institution”. And technology must work harder to provide security, to a community that trusts more than it probably should. In our research, we watched account-holders handover their security pins to their agents, saw them share their details with a trusting openness that was both endearing and troubling. In all the technology we reviewed, it seemed difficult to guarantee security to a man who implicitly trusted his agent. It left us wondering whether the effort here should be towards uncovering that impenetrable technology, or about educating new users on the use and vulnerability of existing technologies.

Convenience is Money, literally

For Rural communities to bank, they must travel hours to the nearest town, stand in line, and spend a whole day to access their own cash. And often, a day’s loss in wages is too high an interest to pay. Mobile banking can improve access, but not to offer a convenience. Instead, it must focus on reducing the interest of a day’s loss in wages. When considered in this way, design is not so much about ease of use, as it is about saving time. It is not so much about making things intuitive and friendly, as it is about improving efficiency.

Technology is a great leveller for innovation, and a great social leveller too. Design for vulnerable communities can benefit greatly from its use. But while we design, we must understand the strength of the technology in context to its adoption. Only then can we successfully design for its use.

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