Mobile devices and unintended segmentation bias

Most of my articles, in fact most of my ideas in general, come from something I read that keeps pinging my consciousness for several days after first reading it, and today’s article is no exception. The article in this case is entitled “What Does Effective Human Touch Look Like in Kenya’s Digital Age?”; it’s written by Alexis Beggs Olsen and gives the account of the work she did in Kenya for her fellowship at the Center for Financial Inclusion.

The research Alexis and her colleagues are doing focuses on the critical role that human interaction still plays in financial services, even when the products have purely digital distribution channels. Her insights are relevant, directly applicable for mature economies as well as developing ones, and resonate well from the two years I spent working in Kenya myself, and I heartily recommend giving it a read here.

But what really kept nagging me was the opening sentence of the second paragraph:

But what about financial inclusion, where digital interfaces aren’t a luxury, but rather a model that drives financial inclusion, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa?

Alexis is focusing on how to make financial services more available, more effecting, and easier to use to people who have traditionally had very little access to them, but there is something in this question that penetrates well beyond the domain of financial inclusion: it highlights a pattern of bias, an underlying assumption that in many cases just isn’t true. Namely, that despite the origins of smartphones as a tool marketed to the affluent, the educated, and the wired, mobile devices have also become a lifeline to people living in poverty, providing access not only to capital, but education, news, government services, even accurate and timely weather forecasts.

This bias extends well beyond the marketing world of personas, customer journeys, and segmentation maps.  A couple years ago, when Syrian refugees started arriving in droves at what became known as the Calais Jungle, I recall the howls of outrage when photos were shown of refugees sitting in the dirt, chatting on smartphones with their families back home. “They aren’t really poor, they still have mobile phones!”, many people asked, completely oblivious to the fact that in the modern edition of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, most people would rate digital access at nearly the same level as food, clothing, and shelter. And as the experience of the Calais Jungle shows, if anything this skew is probably stronger in the poor than it is in the rich.

It is easy to understand why we acquired this bias. The smartphone, and the iPhone in particular, got its start as a high-end, high-margin device marketed very clearly and explicitly to affluent, well-educated, digitally savvy consumers living primarily in mature economies. And ten years since the advent of the iPhone, the latest and most capable mobile device is still the sine qua non of conspicuous consumption to many people, myself included.

Most of us realize, on an intellectual level at least, that things have moved on quite a bit since then; marketers and NGO’s alike know that digital channels are the best way of reaching the widest number of people. But subconsciously this bias still operates, and shows up in all sorts of unanticipated ways in how we design and deliver solutions to problems, both commercial and societal. Unless we can root out and challenge this unwritten assumption, it doesn’t matter whether our goal is to help people or make money: we will be missing out on an opportunity to make a difference.

#financialinclusion #mobiledevices #segmentation #customerjourney

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