We've just completed a preliminary survey of rural locations for a mobile platform project in order to understand the needs of the rural Indian consumer for new product development and design. Here's an early thought based on our observations while we were travelling.
The mobile phone's sales figures worldwide don't need to be stated for it to have become common knowledge that cellphones are the worlds fastest growing consumer durable item selling across socioeconomic strata and geopolitical lines. The worlds largest brand names in this space are spending millions each year doing extensive user research and prototyping in order to hit the high peaks of RAZR like sales but focusing on utilitarian aspects of mobile phone usage. There seems to be an intangible factor at work as well, when it comes to the mobile phone acting as a tool for socioeconomic development at the bottom of the pyramid.
We followed the purchase of a mobile phone [PDF] by a small business for their office driver in New Delhi last month and here's what we noticed. Mandal, the driver, changed his posture, his stance, his gait and the way he held himself and the phone dramatically before the phone was purchased and most particularly, paid for, and after. You can see in the PDF slideshow of the process that he never once touches the phone until after the transaction has been completed. You'll also note that while he follows his employer to the market, he's leading the procession back to the office.
As a driver, Mandal has had no recourse but to wait for his employers without any idea of how long his wait will be. Furthermore, if he's at the airport or railway station and there's a delay, again there has been no way to contact him. The mobile phone does more than allow him to make and receive telephone calls. It actually liberates him from the tyranny of an endless wait, tethered to the car, and gives him back the mastery over his own time and movements.
This sense of empowerment was palpable in his demeanor and one could hazard a guess that the intangible value of cellphone ownership and its attendant impact on socioeconomic development [wouldn't you earn more if you gained self esteem?] has a potential to be worldchanging perhaps far greater than the obvious one of income generation currently being observed in developing nations around the world today.