The rise of digital jugglers

Eleanor Davies

Understanding people is one of the most important aspects of what we do, so in the course of our projects, Fjord conduct primary research all over the world. We don’t do focus groups or acceptance testing – our techniques are much closer to ethnography than to market research. For example, if we’re trying to gain insight into the Retail sector, we might go shopping with people. If we want to understand what people do while they’re watching television, we’ll go round their homes and watch along with them. This kind of open, observation-based work enables us to spot opportunities in ways that multiple surveys can’t – it enables us to catch a glimpse of the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’.

Sometimes, when we look at our insights in aggregate, we spot larger patterns. Recently, we became aware of a whole new segment of people we’d never really observed before: the Digital Jugglers. There are a lot of them, and we think they’re going to be hugely influential in the coming years.

Who are they and where do they come from?

Digital Jugglers are people of all ages, from all over the world (including both developed and developing countries), who are deeply dependent on, and therefore highly demanding of, their smartphones. They are a product of the mass adoption of smartphones brought about by lower price points and deep carrier subsidies. For the first time ever, you don’t have to be rich to have a high-tech device in your pocket – and this has made a huge difference in both ownership and usage. Unlike the demographics typically associated with smartphone ownership (professional, mid to high income, multiple device owning), for many Digital Jugglers, the smartphone is their first computer and their primary conduit to the internet, as well as a personal communication device. Frequently lower-to-middle income, they often ‘juggle’ several jobs as well as personal and family responsibilities, and rely heavily on their smartphones to help them manage their complex daily lives.

Key Behaviours

Our expectations from this group when we first began to observe them were that their their smartphone usage would focus on entertainment, social media and gaming. Instead, we found a far greater emphasis on organisation, local feeds to provide updates on cost-saving or employment opportunities, communication tools to manage various employers, online banking and hacks to save money on international calls or roaming.

A couple we met in Inglewood, California is one great example: to supplement the income from their multiple part-time jobs, they took on management of the apartment block where they lived. This meant they had to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The only problem? The calls came into a landline in an office in the apartment block basement. So the couple set up a Google Voice account and used it to route calls to their smartphones, working around their individual schedules. Needless to say, the landlord had no idea that neither of them had ever spent a day in the basement. But when one of the two had a full-day interruption in their mobile data service, they almost lost the management post, which would have been financially catastrophic for them. By contrast, if the “typical” professional user is offline for part or all of a day, their employers usually understand. For the Digital Jugglers, the smartphone is nothing less than a lifeline.

Another interesting set of behaviours revolves around ‘gaming the system’ – using a mix of free services in innovative ways to save or even make money. For example, in southeast Asia, Facebook is often used as a makeshift storefront: the vendor posts photos of new items for sale and tags them with her customers. Customers then contact the vendor directly to arrange for a purchase – in developing countries, this is completely free through Facebook Zero. For delivery and payment, other services are used – couriers or taxis, either online or analog. Sometimes the transactional loop is closed with a photo taken on a BlackBerry and sent via (free) BBM.

Lessons learnt: what this means for business

1. Forget what you think you know.

As smartphone penetration continues to rise – particularly in developing countries – basic assumptions about smartphone users become invalid. No longer can we assume that users have advanced language skills. They may be highly educated, or have no education at all. They may never have owned a computing device of any kind, but may be perfectly fluent with their smartphone – and still not know what 3G or 4G means. For these people, it’s not about shiny features or marketing; it’s about what gives them the capability to make their lives easier and better.

2. Let them lead you.

Increasingly, successful services will take their cues from users. Instead of trying to lock down the design of a new service, it’s often wiser to leave it a bit open to allow users to be creative, which can uncover entirely new service models. Users are far more creative than we often give them credit for, particularly when they’re pinching pennies or managing critical parts of their lives. One successful example is Multiply, a service that’s hugely popular in southeast Asia. It began as a generic social networking site (they may have even inspired some of Facebook’s features), but almost from the start, it was used by members as a series of storefronts. The service relaunched in 2010 as “The Multiply Marketplace,” modelling its features and functionality on user behaviours and feedback. Multiply remains a highly successful shopping network with millions of active users in Indonesia in the Philippines.

3. It’s about the people, not the technology.

Now more than ever, businesses need to focus on their customers first. Putting the latest technology in the marketplace will only work if it meets a real human need. If it doesn’t, people will either find a way to ‘game’ it to get it to do what they need, or they’ll simply go elsewhere. If the Digital Jugglers have shown us one thing, it’s that as technology truly reaches the masses, it’s truly the masses that count.

Eleanor Davies

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