Designing for the Next Billion Users

next billion

Around 40 percent of the world’s population now have access to the internet. Increasingly, however, new users come online using a mobile phone only, especially in emerging markets such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Nigeria.

This means we need to optimize our websites and apps for mobile. It also means that we must consider what it would be like to have internet access via an older or low end phone, in varied environments, with a slow, unreliable network. What would it be like to use digital interfaces in those conditions?

We talked to Rachel Simpson, senior designer on Google’s Chrome UX team, to find out more. Rachel spent the last three years thinking about how to make Chrome work well for the next billion users, and has mostly focused on India.

Rachel said that when we refer to emerging markets and the next billion users, most companies think about a couple factors:

  • Number and growth rate of internet-connected population
  • Characteristics that those users have in common

You might also like:Inclusive Design: 12 Ways to Design for Everyone.

Why it’s important

next billion: important

The opportunity is massive. While the growth rate of users coming online globally has flattened out (it’s at 9 percent year on year), the growth rates are accelerating if you look at emerging markets.

According to Mary Meeker's Internet Trends reports in 2016 and 2017, India surpassed the US to become the second largest market in the world, after China, in 2016, but it also leaped from 277 million users in 2016 to 355 million in 2017. That means that India currently has more users online than the entire population of the US. The trade body GSMA, which represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide, predicts that India will hit one billion online users in 2020.

“Users from emerging markets are increasingly likely to be among the users of any designer's product,” Rachel pointed out. “Not only is the business opportunity substantial, it's also an area in which designers can have a real impact.”

By way of an example, Rachel said that when management consulting firm McKinsey measured the economic impact of a mature internet market, they found that over a period of 15 years, an increase in internet maturity created an increase in real GDP per capita of 500 dollars on average. The industrial revolution took 50 years to achieve the same results.

However, the requirements for users in these markets are less unique than you might think.

“Many of the solutions for users in emerging markets are actually solutions for mobile-first and mobile-only users, who are a rapidly growing group in all markets,” Rachel emphasized.

Cost, connectivity, and complexity

next billion: cost connectivity

Users are more likely to come online with a mobile device first, usually a smartphone or a feature phone, rather than a desktop device. According to Rachel, the key barriers to accessing the internet are cost, connectivity, and complexity.


Lower spec devices, which are more common in emerging markets, have less built-in storage and higher data costs (though India is seeing a shift due to a war between mobile network carriers). This means many people can only afford a few megabytes of data here and there.

Designers need to collaborate with engineers to build lightweight, performant websites and apps, Rachel recommended, taking into consideration image sizes and scripts especially.

“A simple thing you can do to understand how your website performs for users in emerging markets is to open Chrome Devtools and go to the Network tab,” she suggested. “You'll see the loading time at the very bottom of the screen. It'll say something like ‘Finish: 11.02s’. In the top right, a small dropdown arrow allows you to choose the network quality. Pick ‘Slow 2G’ and reload the page. Now you can see the loading time for your page on this type of network.”


Users in emerging markets see significantly more connection errors, and often need to deal with intermittent and slow connections—50 percent of users in India and two thirds in Nigeria are on 2G—as well as unreliable power.

"Users in emerging markets see significantly more connection errors, and often need to deal with intermittent and slow connections."

Finding a working power source to charge your mobile phone can sometimes be very hard. A diesel generator takes around two hours to charge a smartphone, while solar power takes four to five hours, which is why people often turn off their phones (as well as to save data).

As an example of the type of resilience our products need to have in these conditions, Rachel referenced a flashlight, built by Japanese retail giant Muji. It works whether the user has all four of the required batteries or only one. It gets dimmer with fewer batteries, but still offers the user what it can.

It’s therefore vital to make your product offline-friendly.

“Building progressive web apps instead of standard apps can help address challenges with regards to costs, as they take up far less storage space on a device,” Rachel advised. “They also help address connectivity, as they load fast even over 2G connections, and allow developers to build offline behaviors. They also offer traditional app features like fullscreen, icon on the home screen, and notifications”.

“Your app should be reliable and work as much as possible independently from an internet connection,” agreed Ally Long, senior designer at Field Intelligence, who has been working on a project in Nigeria and witnessed how novice tech users access the internet first hand. “Build in graceful degradations for users without a stable network connection.”

Check out for examples of progressive web apps.


Users who have only used the web on mobile devices have different experiences and expectations than desktop-first users. Testing with these users can help us understand where our own assumptions diverge, Rachel recommended.

Typing is hard on mobile, and many languages in emerging markets have many more characters than the Latin alphabet, which makes the keyboard UI dramatically more complex.”

Rachel Simpson

“Typing is hard on mobile, and many languages in emerging markets have many more characters than the Latin alphabet, which makes the keyboard UI dramatically more complex,” she cautioned.

Also, operating systems are often set to English in India. This means that users are navigating in their second or third language, so they're less likely to be comfortable skimming larger blocks of text. More than 20 percent of users in these countries also search in two or more languages.

Rachel suggested that it's useful to consider the strings we choose and ask ourselves if they could be simpler. She also recommended to pair culturally relevant iconography with text to aid comprehension.

The demographic we’re trying to target grows not only in quantity, but also in diversity.

“We are now dealing with a huge spectrum of users that have so many varying needs, from people who use assistive technology to browse web pages to people who browse those same pages on $50 mobile phones,” pointed out Ire Aderinokun, a user interface designer and front-end developer based in Lagos, Nigeria.

“This means we need to think about how every aspect of writing and serving CSS impacts the user, from the selectors we choose, the properties we use, the order we write CSS, and how the styles are eventually delivered. Progressive enhancement and performant CSS are really the key things to consider.”

You might also like:What is Progressive Enhancement and Why Should You Care?

Build with empathy

next billion: empathy

It’s important to build with empathy. There’s no typical user, and we need to be mindful not to exclude people in these fast-growing emerging economies, but to guide new users. Conduct user research, consider building offline-first, optimize for speed, analyze navigation and UI patterns of apps that are popular in these markets, create reliable, consistent, and engaging interfaces, and test as much as you can, ideally with real users (see how to run a contextual inquiry for this kind of great insight).

That way we can remove barriers to entry and open up our sites and apps to whole new, massive audience.

5 conference talks about the next billion that you need to watch

The universal designer — what you can learn from emerging markets

Rachel Ilan Simpson - The Universal Designer — What you can learn from emerging markets from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

In this talk from interaction18, one of the largest UX conferences in the world, Rachel Simpson shares research conducted for Google Chrome. She discusses the unique constraints users in emerging markets face, and the smart, compelling solutions they have catalyzed. She highlights that emerging markets are the next accessibility challenge and that we should test with users, using tools such as

Why fast matters

Why Fast Matters - Harry Roberts - btconfMUC2018 from beyond tellerrand on Vimeo.

In this talk, recently delivered at various events across the world including Beyond Tellerrand Munich and Pixel Pioneers Belfast, consultant front-end architect Harry Roberts warns that connections are getting slower and websites are getting heavier, which poses a problem in particular for users who are coming online for the first time. He explains just what the emerging markets mean to us, and how we can begin to move in the right direction.

Field-tested interfaces for the next billion

In this talk from Generate London 2017, designer Ally Long, senior designer at Field Intelligence, shares her experience working with novice tech users in resource-constrained environments, and explains how they navigate apps, comprehend interfaces, input data, and understand screen flows. She also covers how certain UI patterns, animations, and navigation conventions hinder or help, and how to include these new users in our product thinking.

Accessibility UX insights: designing for the next billion users

At last year’s Google I/O, Astrid Weber and Nithya Sambasivan, UX researchers from Google’s accessibility and emerging markets teams, gave an introduction to the lives and needs of users with disabilities in emerging markets (where 80 percent of people with disabilities live). They explained how developers can make apps accessible in international contexts, using applied examples and guidelines. Also check out the accompanying I/O talk, Building for your next billion.

If you’re going out of San Francisco, be sure to wear web standards in your hair

Don’t get distracted by the title. In this talk from ffconf 2017, web standards pioneer Bruce Lawson explores getting the free and open web to the other four billion people. Our users don’t care what library we use to build a site, but that it does what they need. If we do use frameworks and libraries, however, we should stick to those built on standards. He also points out that one of the biggest barriers to internet access is the lack of locally-relevant content.

Further resources

  • UX for the next billion users: Google Design has put together a useful collection of articles, best practices, and design methods for creating global products.
  • Building for billions: Of course Google has a similar resource for developers, which features a ton of advice to help deliver best performance across a range of connections, data plans, and devices.
  • World Wide Web, Not Wealthy Western Web: Bruce Lawson explores where in the world the new users are, and some of the new technologies that address the challenges they face. Also make sure to read Part 2, which looks at more challenges and reasons why some people remain offline, and what can be done to address this.
  • How to design for millions of new users: Ally Long gives an insight into the kind of user research and testing she conducts on field trips in Africa, the challenges she’s witnessed, and how to improve the user experience for this new audience.
  • Designer vs. Developer #11: In this episode of Google’s YouTube and podcast series, design advocate Mustafa Kurtuldu speaks to developer advocate Sam Dutton about why we need to design for the next billion users and whether it is worth creating a website for everyone.

Are you designing with emerging markets in mind? Share what you’ve been working on in the comments below.


Grow your business with the Shopify Partner Program

Learn more