three women paper prototyping a cell phone

Grameen Foundation

Three ways financial providers can improve digital financial services for women

Guest post by Lisa Kienzle & Emilia Klimiuk, September 8, 2015

by Emilia Klimiuk and Lisa Kienzle of Grameen Foundation

To create easy-to-use interfaces for poor women, we need to go beyond creating an ideal technical product. The overall service – from marketing and support to the technical interface – should be a smooth experience to encourage uptake and usage of the product by women.

In Uganda, as in many poor countries, women are typically the backbone of the home – they manage the health and education of their children and also contribute to the household income. While access to formal financial services can help them protect savings and access capital, they often live too far away from bank branches to tap this potential.

Photo credit: Grameen Foundation

Digital financial services help expand the reach of formal services through agents. However, they are rarely developed with poor people in mind. The user interfaces can be complicated and registration processes often confusing, especially if it is a client’s first time using a phone for anything other than calling or texting. Low phone ownership among women – as of 2010, 21% fewer women than men own phones in low and middle-income countries according to GSMA Connected Women programme – makes this an even greater challenge.

As a part of our Mobile Financial Services Accelerator project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grameen Foundation worked with two financial services providers (FSPs) in Uganda, Pride MDI and Centenary Bank, to make their products more accessible using mobile money agent networks. We designed interfaces that enabled the organizations to connect their banking systems to mobile network operators. Customers can now use their mobile phones to move value between mobile wallets and bank accounts at mobile money agents countrywide.

Grameen Foundation tested the design of the phone interfaces with potential users before helping to develop the final product. (Photo credit: Grameen Foundation)

Our early research into challenges women face in accessing digital services helped in our design. For example, women needed a mobile interface that was simple and easy to understand and a simple registration process [1]. Equally important, they needed ongoing support after they registered.

However, developing the interface and back-end system to offer these services is not simple. It requires cooperation between multiple partners (banks, mobile network operators [MNOs], and third party vendors such as SMS aggregators, etc.), whose platforms are often incompatible. Navigating these differences is complex and time-consuming. Hence, investing in modifications for clients who lack literacy, numeracy, and technical comfort can become a secondary priority for resource-constrained teams.

With our partners, we had to balance delivering a secure, functional system with creating a simple user experience. Some barriers that women might face were incorporated into the technical development; issues that could not be incorporated were addressed through the design of the overall customer experience, as described below.

Based on our experience, here are three ways financial service providers can enhance women’s use of these services:

1. Work closely with SMS aggregators, mobile banking platform providers as well as financial services providers and Mobile Network Operators throughout the end-to-end testing process to address issues quickly: Our research showed that poor women need easy to use interfaces. Standard digital financial systems use feature phones. Small screens and simple technology limit design options, and many organizations give little thought to which characters should be shared on the screens. In other cases, teams like ours create and test specific designs to guide the technical vendor during development. However, even when a design is submitted, not all specifications are followed precisely because of other technical limitations teams aren’t aware of or misunderstandings of the design by the development team.The financial services provider caught the changes early in its review and testing of the product, making it easy to fix.

2. Obtain senior management buy-in from the financial services scaling partner to take strategic decisions across business partners.

Some technical changes require business engagement across partners. With feature phones, limiting information to one screen and positioning it close to the top (to eliminate the need to scroll) removes confusion and makes the overall experience simpler for women.

Financial service providers must design digital services that take user’s limited experience with phones into account. (Photo credit: Grameen Foundation)

In Uganda, the standard option for “Financial Services” was initially so far down the menu that it appeared on the second page of the MNO’s mobile money menu. Technically, changing a menu order is an easy change. Strategically, it has to be prioritized by the MNO’s management. Lobbying from financial institutions, including our partner’s senior leaders, resulted in that option being moved up to number 3 on the first page. This type of change requires deep commitment from FSP leadership to broker a decision that is beyond the scope of the technical teams.

3. Engage customers to address issues - all usability issues are not technology-driven.

While some issues can be addressed throughout the testing process, others run deeper and require massive changes to the underlying system that cannot be changed within the scope of the project.

For example, receiving a PIN number quickly after registration enables customers to test the service when training is fresh. However, constraints of the technical systems meant customers had to wait up to 24 hours to receive their PIN. Though we knew the slow processing time was an issue, we could not address it during this project as it would have required system-wide changes involving third party banks.

Many technical constraints, such as this one, can be addressed by carefully designing the entire customer experience. We worked with our partners to develop and execute plans that focused on experiential marketing to drive uptake. Staff was trained to focus on usage, and enrollment processes were revised to be as quick as possible. We gave customers simple brochures with step-by-step explanations of the process, a contact card with immediate next steps to activate the account and customer services numbers. (You can learn more about the strategies and marketing materials referenced in this blog and accompanying case study. As a result, after launching earlier this year the two partners have 70,000 unique digital users as of July driven by 10,000 user month-on-month growth.

Time and resource constraints, the complexity of the system in which the service operates and the need to create a product that is easily understood force trade-offs. What can be changed technically and what opportunities exist to prepare the user? Where can the technology be adjusted? These are all pertinent questions to answer. To create easy-to-use interfaces for poor women, we need to go beyond creating the perfect technical product. The overall service – from marketing and support to the technical interface – should be a smooth experience to encourage uptake and usage of the product by women.


[1] It is a USSD feature phone interface without images or anything outside of simple words. Illiterate women need to work through an intermediary.

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About the Author

Lisa Kienzle & Emilia Klimiuk

Grameen Foundation

Emilia Klimiuk is a researcher, designer and strategist and a consultant for Grameen Foundation. Lisa Kienzle is Global Director of Financial Services for Grameen Foundation.

Learn more about Lisa Kienzle & Emilia Klimiuk