Change is a buzz word these days. Every other app and tech product want to change the world for better. This desire to change the world is great, but the million dollar question is whether the most sophisticated and advanced technology can actually succeed in making the change we want to see in the world. There are countless examples of great technology failing to do that. Interestingly, on the other hand, there are numerous examples of simple technology driving crazy amounts of change. So how can we know what will actually work?

When I was returning from my first field visit, I said to my colleague, “It is never about the technology. It is always about the people.” What I meant is that, while it is great to think of countless features, great code, and beautiful design while developing a product, the product can only be a success if people adopt it. No technology by itself can change the world unless people use it.

While building Collect, our data collection product, we are driven by the following technical goals:

  1. Make Collect the the world’s most resilient product for data collection, which will protect data losses under the worst conditions and in the remotest areas.
  2. Ensure that Collect is capable of catering to even the most sophisticated use cases. For example, our monitoring feature helps easily record and update data points about an entity or event. Monitoring can be used to track progress or changes in a system over time.
  3. Make Collect intuitive and easy to use, even for users who haven’t used smart phones before. This is important since people in remote villages often use Collect to track the data in their villages.

However, our real victory, the real change, will only happen when the people at the grassroots level abandon pen and paper and adopt Collect to track any data with confidence and a smile.

field visit

For this reason, at SocialCops we are encouraged to go on a field visit, where we go to the people who are collecting data and observe them using our app. It’s the best way for us to assess the true success of Collect.

Here are five key learnings from my first field visit at SocialCops.

1. You can’t assume how comfortable the end user is with technology, so make your product easy to learn and use.

Often, we see 5 year olds using a smart phone with ease. It’s easy to think that technology has become very easy to use and a ubiquitous part of our daily lives.

While this is often true in urban areas, it’s not necessarily true in rural areas. It’s a completely different experience when you see a 35 year old getting nervous and even overwhelmed by the idea of handling a smartphone for the first time. All my assumptions about the ease and simplicity of various features vanished into thin air.

I noticed that the excitement and motivation to use a smartphone helps a lot. Many of our users are driven to learn how to use a smartphone, even if they find it difficult at first. However, it’s still important that features are intuitive to learn and easy to use.

For example, answering a question on Collect is very simple — you just have to tap on the question and enter the answer, then the answer is autosaved. However, I saw that users kept waiting for confirmation. They were unsure whether they were done answering a question or they needed to do something more. This showed us that it’s helpful to add an “Okay” button to tap after the answer is completed. It gives the user an indication of completion, and it makes them confident that they are using the app the right way.

2. What you think is obvious may not be obvious. You can only believe it when you see it.

We were conflicted about whether we should add an indicator on the app to show whether the device is online or offline. We tested this when we went to the field.

After a user completed a survey, I asked him if the device is online so his data would sync with our servers. Someone who is familiar with technology might go into their device settings and check for connectivity, or even open a web browser window and see if it loads. However, the user went blank. I explained to him what online means and how can he check if a device is really connected to internet, but this took a while. At once it became clear to me that showing an offline/online indicator is better than having the user try to figure it out.

field visit3. A user will only learn how to use a complex feature if they understand the problem well and how to solve it.

Collect includes the ability to track the phone’s current GPS location, even if the phone is offline. To make the location acceptably accurate, the user might have to record the location multiple times or even move out of a building or closed area into a more open area. This is just because that’s how GPS works.

Recording GPS can be difficult, but I always doubted that it would become a deal breaker. Sometimes users had trouble with GPS, but when we explained to them about the GPS problem and how to solve it, they came onboard! Users were willing to go through extra effort to get the benefits of a complex feature — offline location tracking.

4. How users feel when they use your product is a clear indication of the future adoption of your product.

In the beginning of one survey, I asked the user — whose job involves collecting data on a regular basis — if Collect would really be a better alternative to pen and paper. Although his response was full of explanations around the benefits of using a digital platform, I wasn’t sure if he was convinced himself.

At first, the user was nervous that something might go wrong and some data might be lost. He was practically shivering out of fear each time he had to touch the screen. However, on the submission of each survey, he saw a big “tick” indicator and his confidence grew a bit. Later, he was delighted to learn that he can save his answers as drafts and review them later, and that data can be saved in his device while it is offline and it will be synced later.

As he experienced each of these features, I clearly saw his confidence and trust that data wouldn’t be lost grow. At the end of the day, he was even explaining how to use the app to other people. When this happened, I knew that we had just won a loyal user.

5. It’s critical to get users to buy into your vision.

Every product, no matter how well built, will have its issues. When these emerge, some piece of the product will become difficult or inconvenient for users. This is the perfect time for a user to abandon your product.

How can you get users to be patient and stick with you through these inconveniences? One solution is to get users to connect with your vision. If a user understands why you are building what you are building — and thinks your product will make their lives or the world better — they’ll trust your product, even as inconveniences arise.

field visitThis idea was tested when I was on my first field visit. For this deployment, the goal was to track the progress of each LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cylinder application. We had already loaded all the existing LPG applications into Collect. Then, as a distributor installed an LPG cylinder at someone’s house, the distributor would use Collect to update that individual’s application with photographic proof that the cylinder had been installed.

However, there was an issue. Before a distributor could update an LPG application on Collect, they needed to download the pre-existing data from our servers. This is normally not a problem, but these distributors were in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of Delhi. The network was dead slow and the data that needed to be downloaded was huge.

The result — the deployment stalled. Everyone had to wait for hours while data slowly downloaded, byte by byte. This could have been a chance for distributors to get frustrated, to declare digital data collection impossible and switch to paper data collection (or no data collection at all!). However, these distributors patiently waited, without frustration or annoyance, as the data slowly downloaded.

We had to ask. Why were they so patient? Why did they still want to use Collect, despite this inconvenience? They answered that using Collect to collect data would ultimately make LPG distribution more effective and more transparent, so they were willing to deal with the hassle.

P.S. We’re always working to improve the offline experience and optimize Collect for collecting data in the most remote locations around the world.

Ultimately, it is one thing to talk about empathy towards users in our swanky offices. But it’s a completely different experience to go to the field and witness your users and products in real-life scenarios. There’s no better way to really learn about your users.