Beyond Product Design
The use of technology (and mobile phone/smartphone based solutions in particular) is widely seen as a solution to overcome the information asymmetries that persist in agriculture in India, especially among small and marginal farmers.
Given the constraints faced by government and practitioners in traditional extension services, technology based solutions are likely to be the way in which the sector moves forward.
Technology based solutions offer two outstanding merits. First, by providing access to information, and recommendations on relevant topics such as weather and market prices, smartphone applications can facilitate timely and cost-efficient decision-making, thereby improving the productivity and incomes of smallholder farmers.
Second, mobile phones/smartphones are seen as vital levers in providing “last mile” access to digital financial services (DFS) such as cheap and time-reducing payment options, savings accounts, credit, and insurance.
In corollary, the opportunity afforded by smartphone based solutions to providing digital financial solutions in combination with improved access to crucial agricultural information, is seen as a powerful means to vastly improve the productivity and growth of the agricultural sector in the country.
It is no coincidence that the number of smartphone based solutions that aim to address the issues of the farmer segment have grown in number over the last 2 years in India. For instance, the government has developed the AgriMarket Mobile App and Crop Insurance Mobile App for farmers, which are accessible on the mKisan portal. In addition to such apps, a number of other solutions have been launched, that aim to deliver a host of innovative and integrated solutions to farmers, ranging from payment flexibility, to savings, and supply chain management options.
However, along with issues around ease of use, lack of trust, and confidence etc., lack of digital, and financial literacy continue to remain massive obstacles to the uptake of digital financial services in India.
In this regard, ensuring that such services are easily accessible to, and intuitively usable by one and all is of primary importance. Yet, these are lesser considered aspects of product design in India currently. Indeed, prior research has found that while different products incorporate elements of ‘good’/ human centered design, there has been a lack of “widely adopted best practices”, that might make it easier for users to utilize any given application or platform without having to invest time and effort in familiarizing themselves with different interfaces and other details.
Good product design alone does not provide a complete solution to the problem at hand. Given the rapid increase in the number of DFS that have similar functionality available, the challenge is not only to ensure that users are comfortable interacting with any one service — but also to ascertain that users are able to navigate the landscape of services with ease.
A recent pilot by IFMR LEAD aimed to look at this question by trying to observe and study the usage of particular applications amongst smartphone owners with varying levels of mobile money usage. The study found that older participants in particular, across gender, urbanicity, and income volatility levels, found it difficult to use services that varied vastly in form and content, despite having similar broad features, and functionality.
These findings have significant implications, particularly when considered in the context of the agricultural sector in India. As per recent Financial Insights Inclusion (FII) data, segments of the population working in agriculture are older, on average, than all adults and those with jobs outside of farming. Given that it is unlikely that the challenges of poor financial and digital literacy will be overcome in the short run, the need of the hour is to ensure that existing digital financial solutions are designed keeping in mind the usability, and cross-platform ease of use. Very little work has been done to understand the specific needs that farmers have in this regard, and with respect to the assessment of existing set of digital services available to farmers in terms of their ease of access and usage, convenience, cross-platform ease of use, and other such factors.
We propose to inform the topic at hand by conducting a detailed study assessing the main barriers to take-up/ usage of app based solutions for agri-value chains. We will rely on focus group discussions and qualitative interviews with stakeholders in order to obtain various insights and perspectives on the usability and cross-platform ease of use of mobile applications that deliver agri-services/ financial services of different kinds. We will supplement these insights and perspectives with detailed surveys that gather information on awareness, take-up and usage of various digital agri-solutions. Lastly, we will conduct pilots in order to assess the ability of farmers to interact with and navigate the set of digital solutions available in geographical locations selected for the study.
The main contribution of our study will be towards the nascent body of work on understanding the various design principles and factors that influence and enhance the usability of smartphone based agri/financial services. By specifically focusing on farmers, we hope to gain an understanding of what kinds of ‘friction points’ exist for this traditionally underserved and complex segment with regards to using smartphone-based services, and how those might be overcome by manipulating design principles. Ultimately, the aim would be to provide insight into potential best practices and guidelines for product design, that allow service providers to leverage design principles as a means of engaging customers, and enhancing product usability.
The second implication of our study will be for the delivery of digital financial literacy for the rural lower-income segment in India. Supply-side efforts to build digital financial literacy are mainly in the form of posters and modules on various applications (the RBI has posters on USSD and UPI, National Digital Literacy Mission — NDLM, National centre for financial education has a number of modules on BHIM, IMPS etc) with a lot of content in circulation. Our study aims to further inform the development of such modules, keeping the capabilities of the end user in mind.