Having built a creative agency in Cambodia, a third world country, we feel that we have gained a solid understanding of how to design for the audiences you find in these countries.

The main challenge facing anyone building a digital product for the type of people that are predominantly found in less developed countries is the assumptions that you must throw out of the window when you are designing.

The often complete lack of formal educated of your intended user base poses challenges that designers in first world countries don’t even have to think about.

In a nutshell, making a product as learn-free as possible is key, as we shall see below.

So, here goes.

Tutorials and Tips, spread them around — copiously.

While making a product learn-free is important for this type of audience, you still want to over tips and tutorials for certain parts where it might be required.

What we have found that works really well, is to have overlay tutorials for first time users, and then fill any whitespace in your product with arrows and annotations regarding how to use the product. Often done in a hand-drawn style, these looks friendly, and give assurance to the user that you’re looking after them, every step of the way.

What is interesting, is that you can then change this approach as time passes by, so your UI actually has another component that you need to think about — time.

Because some of your audience is going to need a lot of hand-holding, this doesn’t mean that your entire audience will need to be hand-held forever. That’s similar to the corporations that put in place tough rules because someone, somewhere, once stole a set of paperclips.

A much better approach is to segment your users by the time they’ve spent in your application, and let that be your guiding principle to how you treat them.

So, you don’t need to force feed experienced users that have several months of usage with tooltips, because they know how to get around.

The girl that just registered? Yes, she might need your help, and so give it.

So, add time to your arsenal of design considerations.

Multi-Language Support is key.

English is not as international as we would like to think!

An estimate we found is that there are 1.5 Billion English speakers in the world. However, you need to ask yourself… what about the other 5.5 Billion people?

Managing translations can be a pain, but the rewards are well worth it. We strongly recommend treating your own content as an API that is called, and so this will make managing translations much easier, and also if you want to change the labels based on the usage of the individual user.

Allowing users to experience your product in their native language gives a huge usability boost and a large competitive advantage against competitors that are not doing this.

For international companies going into local markets, it helps you be seen in a much better light.

Bonus tip: If applicable to your product, try and throw in a few jokes or puns in the localized version, something that you would have to be a local to understand. We can’t tell you how much delight this can bring to users!

  1. Don’t give (too many) options. Nobody wants to mess around with settings. Cut down on choice.
  2. Don’t (just) use email as a sign-up method for a mass market commercial product. For products aimed at white collar workers, email is fine.

One Time Passwords (OTPs)

…are your friend.

Users will constantly forget their passwords, at a much higher rate than you might expect.

One time passwords, that are generated each time the user tries to log in, are best, as it eliminates the need to remember anything. These OTPs should stay active for ten to fifteen minutes.

Let’s first tackle OTPs by SMS.

If you have a mobile app, we strongly recommend the use of an SMS for a one time password, as often users don’t have emails, or if they have, they haven’t set them up on their emails.

Also, because the telecommunication companies can have non-standard setups, you might have an issue delivering your SMSs, so I recommend this type of setup:

Your initial OTP is sent by SMS Vendor A**, and you give the option for the user to request the OTP again (“resend”). For this resend action, you use SMS Vendor B, **as they might have more luck in ensuring that the message is delivered.

Furthermore, if you are specifically operating in just one country, try and make SMS Vendor A a local vendor, who might be better at ensuring deliver in your country (and probably cheaper), and then for SMS Vendor B, you can use one of the international solutions.

Now, let’s go to OTPs via Email.

One best practice is to include the OTP both in the body of the email, as well as the subject line. This is so that users can see the OTP just from the desktop or mobile notification, without actually having to open the email. You should be sending these emails via a service like Amazon SES that have a much better chance to ensure your emails are delivered properly and don’t end up marked as SPAM.

If you’re specifically targeting users for a web app, then a nice alternative choice is not to deliver an OTP via email, but simply email a time-sensitive login link, that the user clicks on to open a new tab with their account open.

This is the path taken by Medium.com

Stay away from Abstract concepts.

Another thing we discovered is that abstract concepts like loyalty points, tiered account structures, and even, believe it or not, the add to cart functionality, are not universality understood.

We’ve found that adding a simple “Buy Now” button on individual product pages in eCommerce significantly increases buying conversions, as users understand and prefer to buy one item at a time, instead of adding multiple items to the cart, and then checking out all at the same time. To be clear, we still keep the option available to add to cart, but it becomes a secondary function.

Another solution we came up with, this time for one of the major pizza companies, is that instead of having a complex loyalty system with points and having various points attached to each item, we did something far simpler.

Each purchase around a certain amount of dollars filled up one slice of pizza on the loyalty screen. Once you have six slices full (an entire pizza), you become eligible for a free pizza, delivered to your door.

This is a far easier concept to get across, and it cuts through the language (and math) barrier.

Keep It Short.

Microsoft made a study that showed that since the year 2000, the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, probably due to our increasingly digitized lifestyles.

To put that into perspective, the famously short-focus of a goldfish is 9 seconds.

The younger generation in less developed countries, the ones who are often the target for new products and services due to their increasing wealth as the economies accelerate, have grown up with phones in their hands.

This means that they have felt the full brunt of the attention-shortening affects of using mobile devices each and every day.

So, what does that mean for us, who are trying to get this generation to use our products?

First, ensure that the signing up process is as short as possible, and ask for the non-critical information later on.

Secondly, try and cut out as many steps to accomplish tasks as possible.

As an example of this, we helped to launch a payment/e-money application, that had the ability to top up your phone credit. All the local banks also had applications with the same feature, but we managed to do it quite a bit better.

The usual flow was this:

Choose Top Up Phone → Choose Telco Company → Type in amount → Type in Phone Number → Type in PIN → Success

We implemented a way to auto-detect which telco company your number (or anyone’s number) belonged to, and we also understood that most people don’t top up $2.5, put choose rounded amounts such as $1, $2, $5, $10, etc.

So, we improved the flow significantly.

Choose Top up Phone → Select your own phone number or a friends → Tap to choose amount → Type in PIN → Success

So, we managed to remove one step, and also ensured that for the main use case (topping up your own phone number), these was absolutely no typing required, you could complete the entire flow just by tapping on the screen (including the PIN screen, as we implemented a custom onscreen keypad).


The point of this post is not to assume that users in less developed countries are stupid, and cannot understand how things work, but to accept that we are entering a very different reality.

For each country that you decide to enter, you need a clear understanding of the culture, the historical situation, the level of education, and the current adoption to international technology trends.

Request a Proposal.

If you would like to #workwithmad then send us an email at hi@mad.co and let's Make It Happen.™