Movirtu and frog design team up to create "telecom cloud"

Movirtu and frog design team up to create "telecom cloud"


Global innovation firm frog design will assist Movirtu to ensure quick navigation and ease of use of their MX series of products for a population in need

Movirtu, a supplier of innovative network infrastructure solutions for mobile operators servicing rural poor communities in Africa and South Asia, will collaborate with global innovation firm frog design on user interface design for Movirtu’s MX series of products.


frog will help bring a critical resource–communication–to a population in need, in an easy to use and easy to understand format. frog will focus on navigation, ease of use, and lifestyle appropriateness of Movirtu’s products. As part of the effort, frog will jointly work with Movirtu on field studies including one in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

“One of our primary goals is to ensure that people living at the ‘Base of the Pyramid’ find our products simple to use and easy to connect with,” said Nigel Waller, Founder and CEO of Movirtu. “We are proud to work with such a talented firm as frog, and it gives me great pleasure to see how committed they are to helping those living below $2 a day.”

Movirtu’s Product Series

Movirtu’s MX series of patent pending products enables shared access to basic mobile phone services for people earning less than $2 a day. The series includes MXShare, which when installed in the core of a mobile network establishes a virtual mobile phone system enabling people who cannot afford to buy a handset to make and receive calls, SMS's and messages using other people's phones or street-side payphones; MXPay which allows people who do not own a mobile phone or SIM to send or receive remittances using existing mobile payment systems; and MXInfo which enables personalized information access and exchange for healthcare, agriculture and education. All the products require no special handsets, SIM cards, or additional client software; they work instantly on all mobile handsets available today using protocols already existing in today’s GSM Association standards.

The MXShare process is illustrated below.  Customers pay for an initial account with ID number and PIN. They can then buy additional “Top-Up” cards to add minutes as needed.

Movirtu Meets frog

I had the opportunity to talk with frog designers Ashley Menger and Michael Cetaruk and marketing coordinator Kristina Loring to ask them about their experience designing the customer interface, their research with residents of Nairobi’s neighboring slum, Kibera, insights from the process, and frog design’s commitment to social innovation.

frog design (spelled lower-case) is a global innovation firm based in San Francisco with multiple studios across the U.S., Europe and Asia. They work “with the world’s leading companies, helping them create and bring to market meaningful products, services and experiences…across a broad spectrum of industries, including consumer electronics, telecommunications, healthcare, media, education, finance, retail and fashion.” frog's team includes designers, technologists, strategists and analysts, and like many design firms with roots in product and industrial design, has expanded its scope and services since its founding in 1969 to provide their clients with design and innovation in a broad spectrum of formats.

It was frog’s depth of expertise in mobile design that brought the collaboration about after VP of Creative, Robert Fabricant, met Moviru’s founder and CEO, Nigel Waller, at the annual PopTech event this past October, 2009.  PopTech is a network and event series dedicated to changing the world through innovation and technology that has grown in prominence and impact over the last few years especially.

As Michael put it, “Nigel had this idea of making mobile communications available to the B.O.P.—the ‘bottom of the pyramid’—which can be anywhere from 2-4 billion people around the world, sometimes called ‘the last billion.’”

Borrowing phones and swapping SIM cards (the removable chip in the phone that holds your personal contacts and mobile phone information) can be problematic, so Movirtu involves logging in using codes. Customers' contacts and all usage data are stored in the “telecom cloud,” not on the mobile device, which maintains privacy, reduces personal data security risks and frees customers from using SIM cards or any specific device. The business model also includes incentives for phone lenders, addressing the other half of the transaction equation.

frog’s design team set out to create deliverables for Movirtu in two parts: 1) a synthesis of data collected and what they had learned from their research, and 2) the technical architecture, after the research and refinement, that Movirtu’s MXShare would use. This project required what Michael called “some left brain, some right brain, and some business brain.” As a for-profit business, Movirtu’s intent is to create a beneficial and accessible product for some of the poorest people in Africa, effectively solving a problem while serving a market that has so far been underserved.

frog Goes to Africa

Ashley and Michael, both based in frog’s studio in Austin, TX, traveled to Kenya earlier this year to spend about 10 days in Kibera with its residents, testing their initial proposed designs, getting reactions and collecting feedback to refine the user interface. As Ashley said, “It’s hard to imagine the situation (for Movirtu’s targeted customers in Africa) from an office in Texas. Part of the goal in going to Kibera was to identify their basic needs—practical and emotional—and to ensure that this product was going to do that."

frog's team toured Kibera for the first few days, talking with people, gathering observations and getting to know how its residents lived. After that overview, they focused on 12 different individuals for their opinions and input, running through their script and demonstrating their application, testing their initial concept. They wanted to find out if customers could easily grasp it, and if so, what did they think of it?  All 12 interviewees were residents of Kibera. None owned a mobile phone but all relied entirely on mobile phones for communication.

“People said ‘This is great!’” says Ashley. Though feedback was mostly positive, there were some issues to refine. One of which was the nomenclature to be used. Ashley says that surprisingly, most of the snags they ran into with wording had more to do with language differences between MXShare's tech developers and its end-users than with any differences between native or non-native English speakers. Commands like “back” or “answer” didn’t quite jive with the functions they performed in operation. One word choice that didn’t quite work was “Call log”—maybe because a literal translation of “log” could understandably lead to some head-scratching—but “call list” or “call register” were more familiar terms and could be used instead. The team also looked at Swahili to get a sense of how they could use it, but in the end, Michael said they “ended up going largely with established nomenclature,” reflecting a larger trend of increasingly universal design, including language.

What They Learned

“In the case of Kibera residents, a product that satisfies these needs, isn’t only a successful product—it ultimately provides empowerment to the disempowered.”

The designers identified six basic needs of the people they’d be designing for: pride, privacy & security, identity, education and enablement. With every aspect they would design, they would hold it against this list, asking “does this meet a need?”

Pride – Of the individual and of the lender. The individual has the pride of ownership of an account while not having to ask as much from a lender because the phone no longer needs to be taken apart to swap SIM cards. In fact, because of the incentives provided to lenders, the borrower is helping the lender by borrowing their phone.

Privacy & Security – There is no lingering data left on the lender’s phone. The mobile account is protected by a secure PIN (personal identification number) and all calls and text messages are sent to the subscriber’s individual mobile account.

Identity – Each user has their own phone number with the ability to send and receive messages. Friends recognize who is calling and can save them as a contact.

Education – A consistent navigation model among MXshare products supports educational materials from MXShare and incentivized lenders can teach borrowers how to use the service.

Enablement – No longer dependent on a particular device or SIM card, MXShare is as simple as logging in. Contacts are stored in the account and the incentivized system for phone lenders is creating a broader network that will ensure all borrowers can access mobile phones.

Connection – Users’ contacts are stored and accessible in their account only, along with waiting messages, incoming calls, missed calls and received calls, and a community of lenders welcomes their business.

Those six elements were distilled from information, observations and stories gathered. “The most basic elements people really need in Kibera are the ability to store contacts, and ability to text,” Ashley said. “People ran home to get contact lists (phone numbers) often. They spend so much of the day commuting and working, there’s no real time to spend time with people. Here, contacts are even more important than the ability to text.”

In further discussion about connection, Ashley says, “The internet is hardly available—when it’s used, it’s for Facebook.”  (Facebook, really?!)  “I was talking with one of my guides when I was doing my basic design research. He said he used the internet about every 2 or 3 weeks, on a dial-up modem and has to pay per minute. The time lag is horrible and cost-prohibitive. As we were parting, he asked me ‘are you on Facebook?’ I said yeah, and by the time I got back to the hotel 3 or 4 hours later, I had 4 or 5 new friend requests, from him and a few of his friends. It was touching for amount of effort it took.”

“Facebook is different there," Ashley continued.  "People put up one or two photos but don’t use status updates. Their usage is sort of a stripped-down version because of bandwidth restrictions.” Another Facebook story: asking a girl if she was familiar with the meanings of “account” and “login,” she said no. “But wait!” she said, “My friend does. She has Facebook.”

“To spin off of that,” said Michael, “I think that part of the attraction for Facebook is that it allows people to build communities. Communities are fragile over there, and shifting. Connections with community are not as firm as we have here and without steady communications, they become more vague. Facebook helps provide some of that permanence.”

Ashley stressed the importance of identity in conditions like in Kibera, “You have no address, no phone number, no way for people to find you. Facebook and phone numbers are like an address. And if you have communication, now you have access beyond where you walk each day—to news, mPesa (a mobile-phone based money transfer service), education. There is a sense of connection with world around you, and ultimately empowerment.”

On connectivity and income, Michael pointed to the benefits of having access to a mobile phone. “In Kenya, there’s a pretty advanced way of sending money – mPesa. That’s one of the huge uses of communications, as well as just trying to find a job. One man who’s a day laborer, earning $3-4 per day has to walk to a placement center 5 to10 miles away just to get a day’s work. What if there’s no job when he gets there? He can’t afford a phone, but he could afford $0.20 to call and see if there’s work available.”

Until now, the use of SIM cards have allowed multiple users to share mobile devices, but as the frog designers (and many others) have discovered, SIM cards are problematic. SIM cards are often shared by families, friends and so on. When a person carries their SIM card with them, there’s a fear that it will get lost or stolen. If you lose your SIM card, it can be nearly impossible to find—the terrain is hilly and streets are hard to navigate, nothing is paved, there is a lot of scattered trash and people often walk very long distances in a day, meaning there are a lot of steps to retrace if you have to search for your tiny lost SIM card. If a person doesn’t have their SIM card with them—whether they left it at home or someone else they share it with has it at the moment—they could spend hours just going to get it before being able to make a call or send a text. Another problem is that to use a SIM card in someone else’s phone, you have to physically take pieces of the phone apart, which can understandably make a phone lender nervous or unwilling to lend their phone.

The Future of Movirtu’s MXShare

The research portion is done and the development is underway. Movirtu will then look to take it live, most likely partnering with an existing telecom company. “Will launching it be difficult?" I asked.  I wondered if there would be difficulties involved with infrastructure or the politics of business in the region or if telecom companies have that mostly wired by now so that MXShare could be launched smoothly and easily. Michael said I’d be better off asking Nigel about that, so maybe there’s a follow-up blog post on the horizon.  In either case, Nigel’s past successes and experience give pretty good hope that he and Movirtu will be able to make it work.

What’s Next for frog’s Designers?

I asked Michael, Ashley and Kristen if they saw or learned about anything in their research and work on this project that they can’t wait to work on next.

Michael was impressed with a number of the people he met, including Eric Hersman (well-known blogger and technologist also known as White African - blog / twitter) who they met at the newly established iHub in Nairobi. He said he’d love to help people like Hersman and the communities they're helping with communication, mobile payments and micro-credit like Kiva to make their lives easier. “Information flows like water, and if money can too, we could do great things,” Michael said. He said that he and Ashley are working on some of that stuff in their private lives.

Ashley was most interested in stitching together existing communication solutions, helping people put them together and use them. She was struck by the basic technologies people relied on in Africa in comparison to those most prevalent in the U.S. “I think what was unique about this (working with Movirtu) is that we’re usually involved in the biggest and baddest technologies but what was exciting about this was using basic, rudimentary technology to solve a problem. Not from a tech view but from an enablement perspective.” Ashley suggests people design more for basic mobile technologies like the Nokia 1100—"the cheapest, most baseline, most accessible phone—the base currency phone in Africa," as she discribes it.

Kristen and other frog designers are currently working with a group called Vittana to help students and micro-credit institutions with peer-to-peer loans to finish their educations, contributing UI and web design services in-kind. Kristen is also a frequent writer and involved in frog’s monthly publication, design mind.

frog design and Social Innovation

frog has been increasingly involved in social innovation and impact, most notably working on Project Masiluleke (or "Project M") with the South African government on a program of advocacy, awareness, prevention and treatment of HIV and Tuberculosis based in mobile technology. The program has achieved much acclaim and is continuing to expand. As mentioned, frog design is also lending their services to Vittana to help students receive loans through micro-credit. frog has worked on educational issues within the United States with MTV and the Gates Foundation, and frog designer Jon Kolko has recently established the Austin Center for Design, a school dedicated to design and social entrepreneurship.

When I asked about the future of frog's commitment to social impact, Michael said there's a commitment to more.  "We’re in that mix and the community continues to grow.  We find that new frogs (as the firm's employees are known) that we hire, when they hear about this, they say things like 'this is why I came to frog, to do this kind of work, changing the world.'"

Here's to much more from frog and the growing list of designers working to create better solutions for real social impact around the world.

This article is from a press release dated March 31, 2010