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    Indrani Medhi

    Information is at the fingertips of anyone with access to a laptop or smart phone. But what if the user is one of the 774 million adults worldwide who cannot read? This is the problem that obsesses Indrani Medhi. Based at Microsoft Research India’s Bangalore lab, she has conducted field research in India, South Africa, and the Philippines to design text-free interfaces that could help illiterate and semiliterate people find jobs, get medical information, and use cell-phone-based banking services.

    Meaningful computer icons are rarely the same from one culture to another, Medhi says, so she used symbols, audio cues, and cartoons that are specific to particular poor communities. But then she encountered another hurdle. Even when users became familiar with the hardware and the interfaces, Medhi realized, they still did not fully understand how information relevant to their lives could possibly be contained in or delivered by a computer.

    The key to overcoming this problem, she discovered, is to offer a five-minute video dramatization when an application is launched, illustrating exactly how it is supposed to work. For example, the one that accompanies her job-search interface features an upper-middle-class couple that needs a domestic helper. The husband posts the requirements to a job website that is subsequently accessed by unemployed and illiterate women at a community center. The video ends with a woman being hired. –Guy Gugliotta

    Wordless: Medhi’s interfaces guide illiterate and semiliterate users through tasks such as electronic banking. Credit: Indrani Medhi/Microsoft Research India