Audio/Video, Entertainment, Software Programs

Culture-Specific Icons Help the Illiterate


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The computer world is extensively icon driven. Symbols, rather than words, give us clues to the underlying function. Icons make up the toolbars on our computers, and indicate the apps on our iPad. For the world?s 774 million adults who are illiterate, these pictures are a god send. However, not all symbols mean the same in all cultures.

Indrani Medhi, in Bangalore, India has done field research in her home country, in the Philippines, and in South Africa related to symbolism as it could be applied to helping people use technology. Her goal is to design text free user interfaces [UI] to help those who can?t read to find jobs, get health related information, or use cell-phone based banking services.

As those attempting to open the computer world to sight impaired individuals, this woman working in the Microsoft Research India labs is trying to give access to those who cannot read. To encourage them to use technology, she is striving to help them have useful interaction the first time they pick up a laptop or phone with no, or minimal, assistance.

Medhi Field Research Medhi found that symbols, audio cues, and cartoons specific to the poor communities in each country bridged the icon gap. Her research attempted to understand characteristics of the cognitive styles of people who had minimal formal education and how that affected the user interface she was attempting to create. The initial design process involved more than 300 hours and 250 people in the underprivileged areas of Bangalore. She discovered that they had difficulty in navigating hierarchical menus in current information architectures. On the other hand, she found that in some cultures people can read numbers even though they can’t read words. Her design incorporated hand-drawn, semi-abstracted cartoons with voice annotation, aggressive mouse-over functionality, and a consistent help feature.

Still, when people could understand the function of the icon, they did not grasp how it was relevant to their lives, or how the information could come to them through a computer. She settled upon a video dramatization of how the information they access can lead to finding a job, for example. Looping full-context video dramatizing the purpose and mechanism of the application addressed the problem.

For her work, Medhi was honored by Technology Review’s TR35 list which recognizes the outstanding innovators under the age of 35 each year. The awards span several fields including biotechnology, materials, computer hardware, energy, transportation, and the Internet. Judges on the panel came from Carnegie Mellon University, Hewlett Packard, MIT, Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Yahoo Labs. Winners were chosen from over 300 submission.