Digital Skills Observatory: user research in Kenya

Project: Multidisciplinary research
Date: 2015-2016
Location: Kenya
Position: Lead

The Digital Skills Observatory (DSO) was a 12 month, experimental and participatory design research project which took place from January 2016 to December 2016 in Kenya. It was developed and led by the Mozilla Foundation with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Millions of people are coming online today and discovering the Internet through smartphones, whether they are digital natives in the USA or in Kenya. Some of these new users, however, do not have the same opportunities and affordances to learn about the Internet and how to use it.

In the case of first-time smartphone users in Kenya, low-cost smartphones are the only way to connect. Having completely skipped the personal computer era, this group is coming online today in a constrained mobile environment where creativity and agency can be more limited. As they grow more financially accessible, these smartphones become a gateway to a new world full of digital promises. It is therefore important for these users to develop the necessary skills to take advantage of these devices.

  • How can such environments stimulate independence and creativity?
  • Can digital skills trainings help people gain confidence and agency on their smartphones? Which skills are going to have the most impact?
  • Which methods are best for this audience? Can we teach people directly on their smartphone?

This research project pursued a deeper understanding of low-income first-time smartphone users. With a strong focus on learning and adoption behaviors, the project aimed to study the impact of digital skills training on confidence and agency with respect to the adoption of smartphone technology, mobile applications, the web, and Digital Financial Services (DFS).


1. Acquire an understanding of the practices, mental models, and environments of low-income, first-time users by following their digital experiences for a year, shortly after they receive their first smartphone.

2. With an iterative, human-centered design approach, create cascading workshops and on-device prototypes that improve digital skills.

3. Drive this research with participatory and open source practices, building capacity within a network of Kenyan communities.

Seated in an economic empowerment framework, one of the hypotheses underlying DSO postulates that smartphones represent the potential for the adoption of Digital Financial Services, and that this potential can only be unlocked by the right set of digital skills and the right methods for teaching them. 


DSO took place in 7 regions in Kenya and included 188 first-time smartphone users. We designed this research project to be formative, heavily grounded in communities, and with immediately applied results. The project was driven by a community of 30 researchers, developers, designers, and teachers.

  1. Treatment and control groups: Inspired by experimental design, we divided participants into a treatment group and a control group, with balanced representation of gender and region.
  2. Interventions and product design: The treatment group received six iterative digital skills “interventions,” each of which was based on analysis from previous interventions and data from interviews. Interventions included in-person workshops and on-device prototypes.
  3. Community-Oriented: Inspired by Participatory Action Research (PAR), each intervention was designed and delivered with Mozilla volunteers from the regions in which the project took place, because of their local knowledge and ability to communicate and relate to participants. We aimed to ground product design in communities.
  4. Open Source: The data analysis from and the material produced during this project are publicly accessible and licensed under creative commons. Throughout the year, a community of informal advisors reflected on results and guided next steps.
  5. Ethnographic and Quantitative Data Collection: Data was collected throughout the year using quantitative and qualitative questionnaires, and from visits, discussions, and interactions with participants and their communities. Participants also volunteered records of their mobile banking, phone, and Internet activity.
Report: Stepping Into Digital Life

Our research report, Stepping Into Digital Life, provides in-depth information about this study with all of our findings, intervention details and analysis for the ecosystem.

Community in Malindi
The DSO community was diverse and located across the 7 research locations.
We regularly conducted interviews before designing new interventions.
The concept of login was difficult for participants.

To learn more, please visit our website:

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