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How Microsoft Is Designing An Interface For People Who’ve Never Used Computers

Microsoft is writing new rules for 18 women in Guatemala that could spread worldwide.

How Microsoft Is Designing An Interface For People Who’ve Never Used Computers

The language of Q’eqchi sounds like every language you know, and no language you know. It has the silky “j” of French, the rapid-fire consonants of Spanish, and the punctuated monosyllabic utterances of Standard Chinese. It is also one of the last remaining Mayan languages, spoken today only because conquistadors allowed some Guatemalan communities more autonomy in exchange for tolerating the teaching of Christianity.

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A few centuries later, Q’eqchi is a testament to the power of cultural traditions in an ever-changing world. But to the remote areas where Q’eqchi is still taught to children–a day of driving from the nearest big city–it’s also a burden. Many who speak Q’eqchi never learned to read or write it. And even if they did, it’s Spanish that’s the lingua franca at colleges, employers, and any other opportunity for economic growth.

In turn, the nonprofit Choice Humanitarian–backed by Microsoft’s Edge team and the agency Pixel Lab–has launched a pilot program called Accent to teach 18 women from Chulac, Guatemala, how to read and speak Spanish.

It’s a challenge made greater by the fact that modern technology hasn’t been introduced to these women. While the operating systems we use today are based upon metaphors we’ve had so long we’ve forgotten about them–take the desktop interface in an era when your only “desk” is a laptop perched on the counter at Starbucks–Microsoft and Pixel Lab had to not only develop a way to teach the women how to read and write; they also had to develop a program that could work for women who’d never touched a computer before, studying with minimal oversight.

Accent is the resulting browser-based school. It consists of short, flash-card inspired lessons, spartan iconography, and countless unseen cultural-social hacks to make it all possible.

When Robby Ingebretsen, principal creative director at Pixel Lab, arrived in Chulac, he got his first lesson on designing for such a remote people. He didn’t know that Chulac’s learning area lacked internet access, so the the Access software had to be redesigned, pretty cleverly, to operate the internet without internet access. Instead, a single laptop would sync with them all, uploading and downloading progress only when it could be brought to a connected network.

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But the school didn’t just lack internet; it lacked power. “Fortunately, they had a little battery to power the router,” he says. “But I was nervous we’d run out of battery on the laptops.” The batteries prevailed.

The bigger challenge was creating the interface itself. How does someone without an email address create an account and log in? How does a person who can only speak, read? How do you tell a grown woman who is scared of a computer–either because it’s unknown or because it’s inherently rare and precious to her–that she can feel free to push her finger against the screen to trace a letter by hand?

“As designers, we’re used to making some assumptions about the person we’re designing for,” says Ingebretsen. “In this case, we had to invent some new affordances that didn’t exist.”

The key affordance was what Ingebretsen describes as a “speech bubble with a Wi-Fi symbol.” Indeed, it’s the most important button in all of Accent. Tapping it reads instructions, and letters, on the screen aloud. But more often than not, these instructions are being given in Q’eqchi–Q’eqchi that, due to the dearth of speakers in the U.S., had to be recorded on the ground in Guatemala.

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Pure solutions of UX gave way to what, for lack of a better term, can only be described as a reliance on hustles and fixers. Other problems were solved, not by the design itself, but by the existing culture of people on the ground. A younger local woman with a touchscreen cell phone became the person to demonstrate to sheepish women, it’s okay, touch the screen. Meanwhile, logins were handled, not by conventional email verification, but by allowing a local teacher to manage the accounts, then ascribe each login as a simple headshot.

The final questions in designing Accent became, what elements of a traditional interface should be kept, and which should be ditched? “One of the goals of this program on top of [Spanish] literacy was technical literacy,” says Ingebretsen. “That’s one reason we wanted to do this through a browser, because that’s the [conduit to the] world’s information.”

The team faced decisions like, should they use the ever-affirming green checkmark for yes, even if that checkmark was meaningless to their students? They did. “When it comes to something like a checkmark, sometimes we decided, that’s worth teaching, even if they don’t have that context, because it would show up other places,” says Ingebretsen. Along these lines, the team also opted to score in stars rather than numbers, and to celebrate a good test performance with spontaneous, celebratory fireworks. But the commonly seen thumbs-up or thumbs-down affordance was nixed, because it only makes sense to Americans.

Now, Accent is entering its full testing phase with 18 women in Chulac. No doubt, it all makes for a great ad for Microsoft. But that doesn’t change the fact that, perhaps more than any other company, Microsoft is looking at the outliers of accessibility–whether it’s people with physical disabilities, or communities that live without omnipresent 4G data–to develop the products of tomorrow. Given that half the world’s population is still offline–and much of this population will face similar challenges to 18 women in Guatemala–what Microsoft is doing today is far from charity work. It’s good business that the company could scale to other products, to get the internet’s newest users using Microsoft software.

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“I have no doubt that, as we think about product planning, this will impact what types of investments we make in the [Edge] product,” says Divya Kumar, senior product marketing manager for Microsoft Edge. “We’re quite aware of the potential and opportunities to continue to make those investments as a standard part of what we offer in the future.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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