Thursday, June 04, 2009

Lessons on 'context'. Kiva - Cats that donate

I've been reading about Kiva. Its an amazing project that can turn anyone online with a credit card into a micro lender. If you always wanted to be a part of an MFI but couldn't get yourself to move beyond the edge of your office cubicle, Kiva puts you thousands of miles away, just a credit card and CVV number away from the wallet of a micro-entrepreneur.

I admire the way Kiva has touched the lives of thousands of people. But heres a candid confession made on his blog that takes my respect for its founder Matt Flannery a notch higher. It is a lesson on the importance of 'context' and communication. Every product, solution or communication is usually made on the basis of its 'context'. Take things out of their intended context and plop 'em in another - suddenly a perfectly sane piece begins to sound bizzare.

Catfood and Commoditization. In this blog Matt observes how the simple (and innocent) act of a lender in America setting his pet cat as his online avatar on Kiva leads to (an equally innocent) confusion for its recipient in Africa.
I heard a story recently from a Kiva Fellow stationed in Africa who, when showing the entrepreneur his lenders, was asked the cat question. How does that work? Why has a cat lent to me? How can a cat lend to me? Does that cat really want his money back? (he looks pretty fat).

Funny but true. Even at Eko, our User Interface was made keeping in mind a context. The context is an unbanked majority in India who however have access to mobile phones. Dig a few layers deeper - a majority of these handsets are Ultra Low Cost Handsets. - almost all the users are just number literate - most of them are pre-paid mobile users.

Eko's interface that uses just number dialing fits this context really well. But the trouble starts when analyzed by and within the frameworks of smart-phone toting, iPod sporting executives like you and me, the interface appears hopelessly outdated, outmoded, complex and what not. I've just been back from a field visit to rural Bihar and I couldn't help but imagine how useless it might be to give an illiterate villager a special 'hard-bound' edition of 'The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid' - being hard-bound he can't even feed it to his goats!

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