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Now Available: Innovators Under 35 2013 See The 2013 List »

Indrani Medhi, 32

Building interfaces for the illiterate

Microsoft Research India

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

2010 TR35 Winners

Aaron Dollar (video)

Creating flexible robotic hands

Rikin Gandhi

Educating farmers through locally produced video

Kim Hazelwood

Reëngineering software on the fly

Indrani Medhi

Building interfaces for the illiterate

Andrey Rybalchenko

Stopping software from getting stuck in loops

T. Scott Saponas

Detecting complex gestures with an armband interface

Jian Sun

Better image searches

Richard Tibbetts

Reacting to large amounts of data in real time

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