the unresearched user: the untapped potential of smart feature phones in social sciences research

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A Nokia SFP, photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

As I was driving to my residence in urban Yogyakarta late at night, few shops are open and lit, yet somehow one caught my eye.

A small, independent mobile phone shop was open, brightly lit with many banners informing patrons of the newest devices, promotions, SIM cards, et cetera. Many of them were seemingly aimed at smartphone users (which makes sense since I can’t recall the last time I saw someone my age use a “dumb phone” willingly) by proposing cheap large data plans, some specially tailored for specific apps such as Tiktok and Instagram, both of which are unavailable on dumb phones.

In their storefront composed of a long, glass, brightly-lit display, sit boxes of Nokia, Advan, and other dumb phones still available for purchase. Interestingly, this made me think of a case presented by UCDavis’ Computational Social Sciences Methods course on Coursera (note: please spare me if I got any details wrong as I am writing this from memory).

The presenter presented a case in which they utilized dumbphones to gather agricultural data from farmers in rural Kenya. Instead of visiting them daily to gather data in paper questionnaires, they gave them a number to SMS their prices and harvests, gathering data faster and cheaper than ever before.

Now, where am I going with this?

Recently, some articles on CNET, Coldfusion, and The Verge has suggested that the dumb phone might be making its way back into users’ hands (especially in the US and Europe), as replacements for the hyperconnected smartphone, returning their users to the real world.

On the other side of the world, such as in India, where many people remain unconnected from cellular technology, these dumbphones are their first devices, and for many of them, their first foray into the world of the Internet. Providers such as Jio, empowered by new operating systems and chipsets created for sub-100 USD price points such as KaiOS and the Qualcomm 205 platform, raced to the bottom of the price points to provide previously untapped users with 4G-capable feature phones.

While this is already revolutionary for everyday users, I think there’s something even more revolutionary in this new species of devices for social science researchers.

Previous projects have showcased the power of the mobile phone in mass data collection efforts, from crop yields and prices, population patterns, etc., these have been mostly text-based quantitative data. While quant methods are extremely useful for those in, say, Sociology or Economics, some fields such as Anthropology need more than that.

But, asking people to type in long, thick descriptions of their lives on previous dumbphones can be:

  • Labor-intensive, as it takes longer to type a diary on a T9 keyboard than on a QWERTY keyboard on modern smartphones
  • Expensive, as SMS services stay priced per letter in developing countries
  • Boring, as typing is bothersome and forces them out of their daily habits to spend time typing on a small and tiny device for our interests and not theirs

Smart feature phones (SFPs, if I may) can be a solution in some use cases. With SFPs, we can now:

  • Gather data in the form of audiovisual data, both videos and photos, as they often come equipped with WhatsApp/LINE for transmission purposes, and cameras (albeit very low quality) for social media uses
  • Transmit data very affordably, as data is usually cheaper than SMS texting in places such as India and Indonesia
  • Help interlocutors submit data intuitively, as they can now just take a picture of their daily surroundings, a voice record of themselves telling us how their day went, or a video of their work instead of manually writing word-for-word what happened

There are still hurdles to jump over if we want to utilize SFPs to their full potential, both technical and non-technical:

  • Software as of right now, a very limited number of apps are available to the most-used OS of SFPs (KaiOS), limiting the types and patterns of use researchers might utilize for data gathering. For example, Instagram is not available on KaiOS, when it could be useful to gather data on how people perceive and present themselves through visual mediums. Audio-based platforms such as Soundcloud are also missing, making transmitting audio less-than-optimal experiences. Google Cloud Services such as Drive is another service not available, making sharing of digital data such as documents difficult.
  • Data on the adoption of SFPs is still rare if any exists. From the view of the cellular network, SFPs look the same as smartphones, and this makes it difficult to gain data to justify the utilization of SFPs in research settings, as we simply don’t know how many people have them in a given area without a census
  • Development of SFP UX research is very rare, making it a very difficult and resource-intensive work to create and design the experiences of interlocutors in their interaction with any software we use to gather data. Some Googling will quickly show you there’s barely any (public) effort from private companies, even those who stand to profit from SFPs such as Meta and Google, to research and understand how users use their SFPs.
    If we do research with SFPs, with no knowledge of how users use their SFPs, we risk designing an interface unusable by our interlocutors, risking the whole project. A lot of work and research is needed in UX specific to SFPs.

Basically, the social sciences stand to benefit tons from this new category of devices. As there aren’t many who are enlightened of this potential yet, we may have to wait until sufficient acknowledgment of this potential is found by tech companies, academia, and other interested parties.