Last week, we announced a suite of SMS services in Uganda, a country where someone's first experience of the Internet is far more likely to be on a mobile device rather than a PC. We are really excited about this project in part because it is the result of more than a year of true user-centered research and design. We knew we wanted to build useful mobile services tailored to the needs of people in sub-Saharan Africa, but how could we find out what people want from the Internet when they don't have access to it already? What would people who had never used search before want to search for if we gave them a mobile phone and said "Ask any question you like"?

In early 2008 we set out with colleagues from, Grameen Applab and MTN (a network carrier in Uganda) with this challenge in mind. Our research needed to be able to assess the feasibility of delivering information via mobile in Uganda as well as evaluate the content "appetites" of local people. Since no search engine existed for testing, we did the next best thing: We decided to mimic the experience of using a search engine using human experts.

First, we trained a multilingual team to act as user researchers in 17 carefully selected locations across the country. In each place, they introduced themselves to a cross section of people they met and invited them to participate in a free study that would help create useful services for Ugandans. If the person agreed, the researcher handed them a mobile phone and encouraged them to write a text message containing a question they wanted to know the answer to. (If people had their own phone, we reimbursed them with phone credit.) The text message was then routed to a control room we'd set up in Kampala where a human expert read the text message, typed a response, and sent it back via SMS to the person who asked the question. In the meantime, the interviewer observed and recorded the participant's user experience. This allowed us to record rich qualitative data from hundreds of interviews in just a few days, and to collect quantitative data from hundreds of search queries.

Trying mobile search for the first time

Last week's launch of SMS services in Uganda is the direct result of this research — it's based on listening to what people want and finding a way to get it to them. Our research enabled us to observe first-hand how people instinctively wanted to interact with a mobile phone. We let people select the language they wanted to use. We gained deep insights into the way people formulate their questions and what questions really matter to them. On top of that, we saw the excitement on people's faces when they got their first-ever search results, and we realized that some of the information we could deliver to these users, such as health information, has the power to truly change lives. These new services in Uganda are just one step on the path to providing information to people who have little or no access to the web. This research will help us as we continue to develop more services to increase access to information all around the world.