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Rethinking Design of Digital Platforms for Emergent Users: Findings from a Study with Rural Indian Farmers



Paper published at the IndiaHCI 2020 conference

Link to the paper:

My Role and Responsibilities

  • Designing research methodology

  • Designing interview questionnaires

  • Conducting interviews

  • Analysing data

About the Project

Anchor 1

Project Overview

Problem :

It has been demonstrated that access to correct and timely information is essential for individuals to function to their maximal capabilities. With increased smart phone penetration and internet access in Developing countries like India, information sources have started to move online. These online search engines require a certain amount of text literacy for a user to navigate through them. Although, in India there is a huge segment of users coming up who are new to digital technology and are not text literate.

How do we design digital platforms that cater to Emerging users?

Research Outcome :

We are able to uncover numerous salient features of information seeking and behaviour of users towards digital platforms, which go beyond the barriers of accessibility and affordability. We find that the constructs of trust, invisibility, peer and family play very important roles in the uptake of new platforms. We present a broad set of guidelines for designing digital platforms for emergent users which are likely to result in positive outcomes.

Background & motivation

Background & Motivation

Developing countries like India have large populations with very low text reading and comprehension abilities. As many as 14% (123 million people)  of literate Indians in rural areas have not studied past class five, while 18%  (157 million) have completed primary education, or class five.The information systems continue to be designed with a more savvy audience in mind.


Smartphone and mobile Internet penetration in India is growing rapidly, with the second highest number of monthly active Internet users in the world, although India’s growing Internet users are primarily rural and a people who have low reading and comprehension skills.


In order to motivate this, in this research we took the example of farmers from India. Indian farmers are largely rural and illiterate. 


If we observe the screenshots on the left, on putting up a simple farming query on google, several results are populated on the screen. 

Finding exactly what you need would definitely need you to read through multiple search results

In this paper we conduct a set of detailed phone interviews with one set of Emergent Users: farmers from rural India, to seek answers to the following research questions:

1. Have digital devices and platform changed how people seek information among emergent users?

2. What are the primary drawbacks of the traditional information systems the emergent users currently use?

3. How do emergent users primarily use digital devices?

4. If an information system were to mimic human conversations, what features and characteristics would the emergent users want to see in such a system?

Research methodology

Research Methodology

Structuring the Study

We conducted in-depth phone Interviews with 20 farmers from rural Maharashtra & Chhattisgarh.

The interviews were structured and detailed and a mix of both qualitative and quantitative questions.

The group comprised farmers across different economic strata, levels of digital capabilities and states


Questionnaire Design

The interviews were designed to understand the information sources of the farmers and the problems they face in accessing vital information related to their livelihoods, to get an idea of their familiarity with the Internet and smartphones, and to uncover factors which affect the uptake of digital platforms among this population.


The questions were categorised into the following 5 compartments:

1. Digital literacy

We wanted to understand the respondents’ familiarity with digital devices like smartphones and why and how do they use the devices.

2. Education and reading capabilities

Through these questions we wanted to capture the reading and education of the respondents and analyse it against their digital capabilities.

3. Questions related to livelihood

We wanted to capture the current problems the farmers face in their profession and their current media through which they seek advice.

4. Speculative questions on conversational information systems

As a speculative set of questions, we asked the respondents how would they want an information system mimicing humans to behave.

5. Demographic questions

We wanted to capture the demographics of the respondents to provide more contextualisation to readers. 

Screenshot 2021-11-21 at 1.06.13 AM.png

Table of Interview Questions

Table with respondent Info



1. Trust

Access alone is not enough, trust in the source is important as well.

This was amply brought out from the interviews we conducted with the respondents. The respondents mostly turned to their peers for advice and information.

2. Digital Capabilities

We found a moderate correlation (r = 0.6) between the education level of a respondent and the digital capabilities of the respondent.

Users with less than 10 years of education reported much less diversity in smartphone usage, mostly restricting their usage to WhatsApp. Among the users, we observed that more digitally capable family members play an important role in hand-holding the respondents and training them on how to use digital platforms

3. Using smartphones for information seeking

Among the few respondents who reported usage of search engines, primary motivation was to look for agricultural information

The means to execute a search on search engines to look for information appeared to be restricted to the more savvy among the respondents, through our interview.

Other popular applications among the respondents was YouTube for news and entertainment.

4. Sources of Information

We focused a part of our interviews on the current sources of information that the respondents accessed. The primary source of information seem to be peer farmers

Some respondents reported approaching the Agricultural Extension Officers for advise.

Several respondents reported taking advice from shopkeepers and agricultural dealers, however many among them also reported being tricked into buying substandard products by the dealers

A respondent said : 

“Farmers do fine with the existing help they have, but with drastic improvements in other fields, there is a lot more farmers can know about new farming techniques and this information needs to be made accessible to the farmers."

5. Speculative exercise on conversational Information systems.

Respondents indicated that: Communication over voice would be important for them to be able to interact effectively. They would want the system to be like their peer and soft-spoken.

Respondent Suggestions for a Conversation System :

1. The platform should be usable by users who had never used a smartphone before.

2. audio needs to be clear and information should be repeated if a user is not able to understand.

3. The gender of the bot would not matter for most users.

4. The platform should allow uploading pictures of crop diseases and respond with diagnosis.

5. The platform should provide weather updates and a calendar of sowing seasons mapped to market demand and festivals , information on rainfall, information on support programs run by the government including the last dates to apply , and some way to know about the composition of the soil in their farmlands.

Discussion points

Discussion Points


Some of the Respondents are a part of a closely-knit WhatsApp group where they could freely post questions and discuss farming related topics but weren't comfortable undertaking similar activities on other online fora like Facebook.

1. WhatsApp groups afford the members privacy and invisibility from outsiders.

2. Redesigning for Emergent Users should take these factors into account.


Trust towards information sources emerged as another major factor in our study

1. The respondents reported being tricked by dealers with vested interests.

2. They trust their peers and agricultural officers for information.

3. New designs geared towards Emergent Users need to be structured around trust.


The level of education seems to directly impact a respondents diversity of Internet usage.

1. More educated respondents reported using search engines to seek new information.

2. New designs should therefore be able to overcome artificial barriers in seeking information raised by education.


Family members play an important role in onboarding and hand-holding new users of digital platforms.

1. Traditional design of smartphone apps imagine personal usage and personal learning for the users

2. The role of the family therefore also needs to be factored into the design.

Anchor 2


The traditional online information sources are not designed keeping in mind the capabilities and cultures of the new users in mind. We conduct an ecologically valid study among farmers in rural India to understand the culture of information seeking among this population and the emerging trends of usage of digital platforms.

We find that the constructs of trust, invisibility, peer and family play very important roles in the uptake of new platforms. We present a broad set of guidelines for designing digital platforms for emergent users which are likely to result in positive outcomes.

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