One of the first directives from Matias Duarte after he joined Google in 2010 was to commission research into how people around the world use the company's phones.
At the time, Google was making smartphones for geeks, and Duarte, who was recruited from Palm to lead the user-experience team at Android, was tasked with bringing a more accessible design to the Internet giant's mobile software. Designing a device for everyone meant looking outside Silicon Valley.
"The challenge for anybody who wants to develop in emerging markets is just understanding the cultural differences,” Duarte said in an interview today. “The first thing we did was a baseline study about how people use Android. It's completely different from how we use it in the U.S."
Google's mobile group was making a smartphone based on how Americans use them without accounting for the limitations of emerging markets, Duarte said. One of the study’s findings demonstrated that many of the countries where smartphones were starting to take off lacked reliable data infrastructure. That realization prompted Android's design team to make the system work well even without consistent Internet connectivity, he said.
"There are lots of places where data connectivity is erratic,” Duarte said after appearing on stage at the Accel Design Conference in San Francisco. “We assumed ubiquitous connectivity. While this is the 21st century, that's still not true in many parts of the world.”
As emerging markets in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America become the biggest consumers of smartphones, Valley companies are trying to figure out how usage there differs. This involves an army of consultants, as well as designers and engineers who must take on the enviable task of trekking through exotic regions to see trends firsthand.
"The biggest challenge for designers is just to have awareness," Duarte said. "You have to know who your audience is.”
Brynn Evans, a user-experience designer at Google, said the company has begun welcoming researchers into every step of software development. At each stage, designers tweak their products based on what they learn about user habits instead of waiting until an app is released to see how people interact with it, as Google used to do, she said.
Facebook, which recently began an initiative to advance global connectivity called Internet.org, has ramped up its own design research in emerging markets, according to Julie Zhuo, the company's director of product design.
“We’ve been doing a lot more research in having folks on our team visit a lot of different markets,” she said at the design event. "Recently, we went to Africa, India and Indonesia. We were trying to understand what people value and care about, and a lot of that was reflected in speed. They say, ‘I sit here and open Facebook, and it takes about two minutes. But we’ll just be patient.’”
Designers at the world’s largest social network are working on ways to make its apps transfer data more efficiently and run better on cheap, low-end Androids, Zhuo said. They’ll need to pull off these feats before people’s patience runs out.