Entertainment Needs Drive Innovative Mobile Phone Uses in India


This fruit merchant in Bangalore, India used his multimedia capable phone to watch videos and listen to songs. He doesn't have a computer of his own, so he obtained his content from other phones via Bluetooth file transfer. (Photo: Thomas Smyth)

April 11, 2010

A new study on how people in India use mobile computing devices suggests that users can devise new and innovative uses for them, if they have sufficient motivation. Researchers also found that entertainment may be viewed as a necessity by the media-consuming public and not merely a desire. The findings, which have implications for computer program design the world over, will be presented at CHI 2010, the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, being held at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, April 10-15.

Last summer, Thomas Smyth, Ph.D. student in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, was working at Microsoft in Banglaore, India, when he had a thought.

“As you might expect, Microsoft employs a lot of people to maintain the building, so one day we called a couple of them into a room and asked them, ‘What do you do with your phones,’” said Smyth. 

After a few interviews, Smyth and fellow researchers from Microsoft India and one from the University of California, Berkeley, set out to the lower-income neighborhoods and interviewed about 30 people on how they used their mobile phones. They found that most people, in addition to calling and texting, used their phones for transferring media files via Bluetooth. Obtaining media this way, via peer-to-peer transfer, is free, whereas downloading content from the Internet can be costly. On the other hand, Bluetooth sharing involves a cumbersome process that many Americans don’t bother with. 

“To send a text message on your phone, for instance, it takes three or four steps. If you’ve ever transferred something on your phone with Bluetooth, you know it takes 15 to 20 steps. So for people whom you might not expect to have a lot of expertise in this area, the motivation to transfer music and video files to be entertained seems to be enough to turn these complicated user-interface obstacles into mere speed bumps,” said Smyth.

Some people watched films on their phone, listened to music and recorded lecture notes in school. 

“Of course, there’s the one where the guys would use Bluetooth to transfer data with the phone in their pockets while they were doing side-by-side work on a construction site,” said Smyth. “That’s my favorite, because if you really want to transfer a big file, it can take a half an hour over Bluetooth.”

Others removed their microSD chips and use them to transfer files.

“Some people would swap those around, or they would have several microSD chips in their wallet, because that’s a faster way to transfer stuff. There was no end to the kinds of things people would do,” said Smyth.

Some studies have claimed that usability barriers prevent people from being able to use technology to improve their lives, but Smyth and colleagues discovered that their interview subjects had constructed elaborate systems to obtain, view and share their entertainment content. Other types of content related to areas that are typically identified as “needs” by researchers and aid practitioners, such as healthcare or education, did not show up in Smyth’s study.

And the multimedia-capable phones aren’t cheap in India. They often cost more than a month’s salary, yet people said they save for long periods to buy one. 

“Maybe we’re putting too much weight on these usability barriers and it’s just more a question of motivation,” said Smyth. “Even if you asked these folks, they might say ‘Oh no, a good job is more important for me,’ because that’s what they think society wants to hear, but the proof is in the pudding here, that they’ve constructed this really remarkable system around entertainment.”