“Because there is no culture-free behavior, there can be no culture-free competence.”[1]

— John W. Berry

Oral information management (OIM) tools and solutions are intended to enable transactions and clear markets in a situation where that has proved remarkably difficult in the past: between illiterate and innumerate consumers/investors and financial services suppliers (such as MFIs, mobile money operators, savings groups or credit unions). This market segment, of nearly 1 billion adults, cannot be pummeled into the modern world. With pre-cash forms of saving and investing always available in villages today (see photo below), the only way to achieve financial inclusion in the oral segment is to earn its trust.

The general principles of OIM development and design start from the core principles of microfinance: oral tools and solutions must be:

  • financially sustainable and effectively governed,
  • designed around ‘win/win’ propositions that benefit institutions by benefiting clients,
  • integrated into the retail interface as efficiently as possible, and
  • adapted to existing systems and other supply-side investment in as integrated and parsimonious a way as possible.

OIM designs must also follow universal design principles. For example, they should enhance the experience of oral users within a financial services delivery system, so that users can quickly grasp what they must do in any given situation, and can do it with minimal stress and discomfort.

Special principles of OIM tool design are mostly focused on earning trust in the oral segment, and they include the following:

  1. tools must enhance client-side financial product usability,
  2. wherever practical, tools should provide positive incentives to clients to acquire useful financial numeracy and financial literacy skills,
  3. the process of tool design and application must be client-guided,
  4. on a net basis OIM tools should strengthen existing control systems, and
  5. oral tools should not inconvenience or embarrass literate clients.

 1.     Usability

A financial product should be as usable as possible. Trust flows, first and foremost, from usability.

A highly usable product is one that consistently generates high quality transactions. Financial product quality can be measured by observing the extent to which clients are aware of exactly their position at each moment during a transaction. Awareness of the progress of transactions, the size of current balances, the rights and responsibilities linked to accounts etc., are critical to a client’s sense that she is in control of her financial position, and that the relationship with the institution is accomplishing goals she values.

The principle of usability primarily serves the goal of financial inclusion. More usable financial services will also advance the goal of consumer protection, and reduce the perception of risk experienced by consumers in their transactions.


2.     Build Bridges to Financial Numeracy and Financial Literacy

Many of the oral poor suffer from a lack of confidence about text because of an experience in childhood in which they spent a very brief time in school and acquired some skills, only to lose them later. This sense of failure can be reinforced by the attitudes of relatives, friends and others in the oral society surrounding them: a sense that they don’t need to know writing and arithmetic in order to carry out the daily tasks of their lives, and such pursuits are impractical at best, and slightly subversive at worst. Women face a particular burden from such limiting attitudes.

Financial institutions are particularly well placed to offer positive incentives for the acquisition of basic numeracy and literacy skills – especially the former – to clients who are motivated to acquire them. By integrating images and mnemonic priming cues into operational documents, financial institutions can enable a process of learning through frequent, repetitive transacting that can create a powerful and self-reinforcing feedback loop of personal action learning.

3.     Client-Guided Process

The acid test for OIM tools is that they are greeted with rapid, intuitive understanding by oral users of financial services. The tools presented in my paper Oral Information Management Tools: Lighting the Path to Financial Inclusion offer indications of what is possible. Of course, they cannot take the place of field testing with customers in diverse cultural settings, and with widely varying levels of numeracy, literacy and general education. A financial institution’s product mix and marketing strategy can have a significant impact on retail presentation of oral tools.

For interested institutions the first principle of market-led operations is to consult its customers on what tools work for them and what ones don’t. There are numerous tools for accomplishing this goal, including:

  • context of use research (ideally using video recordings),
  • focus group discussions (attribute rankings, prototype review etc.), and
  • structured interviews.

It is wise to test OIM tools with fully literate clients as well, to ensure that they do not cause alienation, but are viewed in broadly positive terms among all segments that will be exposed to them.


4.     Strengthen Supplier Control Systems

The purpose of OIM tools is to make financial products more usable, and customers more aware of their position at each moment during a transaction. This increases user confidence in pointing out errors to staff, and if necessary, raising concerns to higher levels.

If OIM tools are successful, they will attract more illiterate users, which will temporarily raise control risks until those customers have adapted to product use. This counsels that financial suppliers maintain a measured acquisition strategy, in which control systems are consistently strengthened, net of new customer acquisitions.

5.     Seamless Interface

Clients who are fully literate should not be made to feel that an interface designed to accommodate oral customers is signaling to them that they are less important. When Braille was introduced to ATMs in banks, sighted users barely noticed. Certainly, the presence of this new communications medium at the retail interface of their institution caused them neither inconvenience nor embarrassment. For some, especially those with family or friends who found the new features valuable, pride and loyalty in their institution may have increased.

Such seamlessness is entirely possible, and is consistent with our best understanding of how oral individuals learn. Much of the focus is on triggering personal memories as discretely and yet clearly as possible. Combined with discrete mnemonic or iconic images and, for more ambitious financial institutions some training (much of which can take place between clients in savings groups), these interventions are expected to be effective without compromising the relationship of the institution with more literate customers.