Sunday, 29 October 2017

Cave Art to Emojis and Financial Inclusion

A few years back I was speaking with an elderly lady in Kisumu with the aid of a translator. Kisumu is a port town on Lake Victoria in Kenya. I was there as a part of a delegation to study mpesa in action on the ground. When I asked her how did she manage to operate the mobile application which is in English she said nonchalantly that the 5/6 menu options of mpesa are same since it was launched and that she did not need to know English to press the first option to view her balance, second option to send money and so on.

On the face of it her observation looks so obvious and apparent.  But then don’t we always hear the lament - especially in India - that most of the mobile banking solutions are in English while barely a small fraction of the population understands English. This is often cited as one of the most important challenges in percolating benefits of digital banking to the financially excluded masses. Well meaning  - and sometimes na├»ve – regulators also tend to compel banks and other financial institutions to offer their digital products in multiple languages.

Now I find this argument silly and superfluous.  Take ATMs for example. Banks are mandated to offer a dozen odd languages for ATM menu. As per my estimate,  not more than a fraction (less than 5%) of over 8 billion transactions of ATMs are carried out in languages other than English. Another example is an anecdote. I once found my then kindergarten going son merrily playing cartoon games on several websites on the net. He could barely recognize English alphabet then. Intrigued I asked him how did he manage to access these sites. He just pointed to a paper on which his elder sister had written names of some such websites. This fellow simply found the corresponding alphabet on the keyboard, typed in the URL and voila, he reached the sites that played his favourite cartoon games.

The Ethnologue catalogue of world languages says there are some 6909 living languages in the world. A few hundred of these are spoken in India. Now one obviously can’t have so many language options on an ATM. But probably even before mankind started communicating in spoken languages, Home Sapience had discovered communicating through Cave Art during the Paleolithic Age.  We have come a long way since and now Shigetaka Kurita’s emojis have become a common language of the world with their own standardized Unicode.

So I want to make two points here about this whole hullaballoo about lack of local languages in digital banking being the barrier against financial inclusion. One if you have a strong hook like my toddler son wanting to play cartoon games then the users figure out how to use your solution. And two if your user interfaces are simple, standardized and consistent your customers will get accustomed to using your product / services like the lady in Kisumu or the debit card holders in India.

How difficult is it for banks and regulators to come together and develop emojis for banking which are universally accepted not only in India but also around the world.

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