The New Buzz at the Mobile World Congress

March 24, 2014

You know mobile money for the unbanked is getting hot when there’s a standing-room-only crowd at the Mobile World Congress.

For the past five years, most of the conversation about using mobile phones to provide financial services to the poor has revolved around the success of M-PESA in Kenya. As more players enter this space, that discussion is now shifting to two inter-related issues that were recurring themes at this year’s conference: usability and user-centered design.

The concept of human-centered design in international development began taking root about five years ago and has only recently gained wider adoption in the financial services space. This was underscored in the Global Financial Development Report 2014, which pointed to the limited use of human-centered design processes as one of the reasons for the dearth of products and services that are “more conducive to financial inclusion.”

This year’s Mobile World Congress provided a great opportunity to see how this concept is actually playing out in different countries.  For example, participants in GSMA’s mAgri Roundtable reinforced the need to apply user-centered design to mobile applications for farmers in order to create more exciting and useful services that are more widely and frequently used.  Mobile operators also lamented the challenges around building a business model for such value-added services—a challenge that can only be solved through greater uptake and usage of the services by farmers. 

The challenges that providers are encountering around usability are leading to an increased interest in human-centered design. As our research found, ownership of or easy access to a phone doesn’t mean that a poor person can use it effectively beyond making phone calls.  Rather than assuming that more end-user education is needed, many usability challenges could be quickly solved by looking at the service through the lens of the end user, and designing around their needs and behaviors.   

One overarching thread that ran throughout the sessions on Mobile for Development was the need for deeper insights on women’s use of mobile technology. A new report by Qualcomm, Transforming Women's Livelihoods Through Mobile Broadband, is one step in that direction. Based on interviews with working women in developing countries, it points to future opportunities for poor women to access a wider range of services as the cost of smartphones declines.

There is recognition among mobile operators that their future growth relies on successfully reaching the bottom of the pyramid as well as women.  To wit, two-thirds of the growth in subscribers is expected to come from women, so understanding the wants and needs of women will be essential for mobile operators’ future business growth.


Application of the human centered design to product development in the financial services space is likely to result into giant strides towards financial inclusion. We are likely to see more products that address real needs of the poor and a higher uptake as a result. Sector players however have to contend with the fact that that the process involves more research and iteration than they may be used to and should therefore be willing to invest a little more in both money and time.