Rachel Simpson on the challenges of designing for emerging markets

One of the big challenges facing anyone working in web design or frontend development over the next few years is going to be catering for users from emerging markets. 

Rachel Ilan Simpson, a user experience designer on the Google Chrome team, is going to be speaking on this subject at Generate London in September; if you have even half an eye on the future of the web, you won't want to miss her talk: Designing for our next billion users.

Ahead of her Generate session, we got together with Rachel for a chat.

Can you tell us about your work at Google?

Sure. I work on the Chrome UX team. We're a small group of Designers and Researchers who take care of the Chrome User Experience across all platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, ChromeOS, etc.). We work very closely with the Engineers and Product Managers to build new features and improve the overall product, generally looking for better ways to be invisible and let the web shine.

Your Generate talk is entitled 'Designing for our next billion users'. Can you tell us a bit about it?

The talk is focused on the needs of users in emerging markets. This is one of the most important topics in design and tech today, and it's also what I send the bulk of my time thinking about for Chrome. Mary Meeker highlighted the space in her 2016 Internet Trends report. She pointed out that with 277M users, India recently surpassed the US to become the second largest market in the world (after China). 

Year over year growth is also larger and accelerating rapidly – in 2014 it was 33 per cent, and 40 per cent in 2015. McKinsey estimated the impact of a mature internet ecosystem at $500 per person GDP (roughly the impact of the Industrial Revolution, but in a fraction of the time frame). This space is a huge opportunity for designers and developers to improve their businesses, and to help improve the lives of others.

The needs of users in emerging markets is one of the most important topics in design and tech today

Rachel Simpson

The flip side of the issue is that many of these users come online without having had a Desktop computer before, so they tend to have different mental models for interacting with technology. Without understanding the needs of these users, there is a very real risk that companies will miss the window to offer them services. In 'Designing for our next billion users', I'll talk about who these people are and how they approach technology and the web. 

I'll also give some concrete examples of what we're doing in Chrome to make things better for them. Bruce Lawson (Opera) and Paul Lewis (Google) are also speaking on this theme at Generate London. Bruce is approaching things from a more technical perspective, while Paul is talking about Progressive Web Apps – I'm coming from the Design side of things.

What one thing can designers and developers do right now to make their sites more accessible for users in emerging markets?

One thing that Designers and Developers can do right this minute is test their site to learn how much data it requires and how long it takes to access. There's already a way to do this in Chrome Dev tools, by opening the 'network' panel and taking a look at the bottom. Here are a couple screenshots from Tal Oppenheimer's talk at I/O on Progressive Web Apps and our next billion users

Your site might look like it's performing well and loading quickly...

Your site might look like it's performing well and loading quickly...

...but if you change the Chrome Dev Tools to make it simulate a 2G experience...

...but if you change the Chrome Dev Tools to make it simulate a 2G experience...

...you'll find that things will be quite different for users in emerging markets

...you'll find that things will be quite different for users in emerging markets

I would of course be remiss if I didn't also recommend Progressive Web Apps as a smart solution for developers who want to get a start on serving users on mobile, especially those in emerging markets. This approach fits well with the way that these users engage with the web through their mobile phones, and service workers present some big opportunities to improve your products in the offline state. Paul and Bruce's talks at Generate London will be great resources on this topic.

What do you think are the big challenges facing UX design over the next few years?

I think that serving our next billion users is the most important challenge designers will begin to think about in coming years. More specifically, users who come online on mobile devices for the first time don't have the mental models from desktop built in as we've come to expect. We'll face new challenges when it comes to making our apps and websites intuitive and accessible for these users – many of whom are using the web and apps in their second language (English). There is a whole cornucopia of interesting problems to bite into here.

Don't miss Rachel's talk on designing for our next billion users

Don't miss Rachel's talk on designing for our next billion users

You're a big proponent of design jams; what's the appeal for you?

I should note the difference between Design Jams and Design Sprints. Design Jams are an event which I founded in 2012, originally inspired by the event Global Game Jam. They're one-day events held (so far) in Munich and London, where we bring together Designers, Developers, and Entrepreneurs to build a product from scratch. 

The appeal of these events is that they're pure fun - we often identify really difficult (but specific) problems that we wouldn't get to play with in our day to day work and use our process to make them tractable for the teams. I love optimizing the approach to help everyone tackle really impactful challenges. Of course, we always wrap up the day with beers and talk about all the projects. 

Design Sprints are the process created by Jake Knapp, Braden Kowitz, Michael Margolis, John Zeratsky and Daniel Burka for Google Ventures to solve critical business questions on a set time frame. The process was commodified for wider use within the company by Nadya Direkova, and it's taught and used widely within Google today. I use these in my work to bring together diverse groups within the company to solve specific problems and kickstart important conversations. 

The appeal is that this process is a really fast way to test a solution to a difficult, impactful, and urgent problem. You're able to bring together stakeholders and experts over the course 5 days and make incredible progress. Folks who are interested can learn more here – I recently read their new book 'Sprint' and learned a lot that I didn't already know.

What's the best thing about your job?

I get to work with smart, passionate people who are always willing to lay aside their ego in the name of the best solution for our users. We're able to have deeply challenging but respectful debates that let us (hopefully) do the best we can for the billions of people we serve today (and the next billion we will serve tomorrow). 

I can also legitimately say that I "work for the internet", which is pretty much my lifelong goal.

Don't miss Rachel's Generate London session, Designing for our next billion users. Book your ticket here, or find out about all the other talks and workshops at the Generate London site.

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Jim McCauley

Jim McCauley is a writer, performer and cat-wrangler who started writing professionally way back in 1995 on PC Format magazine, and has been covering technology-related subjects ever since, whether it's hardware, software or videogames. A chance call in 2005 led to Jim taking charge of Computer Arts' website and developing an interest in the world of graphic design, and eventually led to a move over to the freshly-launched Creative Bloq in 2012. Jim now works as a freelance writer for sites including Creative Bloq, T3 and PetsRadar, specialising in design, technology, wellness and cats, while doing the occasional pantomime and street performance in Bath and designing posters for a local drama group on the side.