Lao PDR is a greenfield environment when it comes to mobile money. Some mobile banking initiatives have been implemented, but there are no mobile money wallets as such – yet! UNCDF has been supporting Star Telecom (Unitel), a mobile network operator in its efforts to launch the first ever mobile money wallet in the country.
Unitel is part of the Viettel Group, with operations in many countries with millions of mobile users. They have developed mobile wallets in several other markets, but always when they were entering after other providers and in some cases when the digital financial services ecosystem was well developed. In early discussions with UNITEL, UNCDF identified the common risk that Unitel or their vendor could replicate the services from these other markets without specific attention to the differences of the Lao environment.
It is important to frame the project to specifically fit the cultural context and needs of the Lao people in order to trigger service adoption and usage.
While the MNO’s team began shaping the product and processes, UNCDF and its Fund for Inclusive Finance structured a performance based grant agreement and support for a team of consultants to carry out a Human-Centered Design (HCD) research study. The objective of the research was better understanding social and financial behaviours of Lao people, their goals and aspirations in life, as well as their needs and priorities. These insights would give the MNO an overview of its potential mobile money users, and a basic segmentation of its clients.
PHB Development was selected by UNCDF and Unitel to carry out the project. Ultimately the research involved 65 participants, with 18 in-depth interviews and 6 focus groups conducted in the regions of Khammouan, Xayabouli and Vientiane Capital. The research mostly focused on ‘early adopters’, i.e. people between 18 and 45 years old, from the urban and peri-urban areas. Although the clear objective is to reach the rural population, where 2/3 of the people live, the first wave of adoption – as demonstrated by other examples around the globe- is generally led by young and technology-fit people living in (semi) urban districts.
66% of respondents in this research were women. The research clearly underscored that in most households, women are in charge of money management and are responsible for family expenses. In some cases, business management decisions are also guided by women, as indicated by this male respondent, “I used to work in the tourism sector. Then I met my wife, and she decided we had to pursue my father’s small shop business – so that is what we did"
The research’s main output has been to build personas and identify the factors that influence a certain persona’s choice to use or reject a product. Using personas nurture empathy for the specific users we are designing for, and gender awareness is a key component. The approach helps break away from the attempt to design for everyone, so the MNO can build a strong and inclusive value proposition for all of its different client types.
“Unitel is in a good position to support financial inclusion with our new services due to our network, distribution and large customer base” said Ms Latsamy Thammavong, Chief of Business Department at Unitel. “Through this HCD approach we can now understand the aspirations of our customers - which is very important when building a trusted financial service.”
Overview of the personas
Five distinct personas were identified. Each persona was characterized partly by their financial and technological habits – but more intimately by their personality, goals, challenges, values, passions and a motto which encapsulates this character.
- The Entrepreneurs: Business owners that are driven by the goal of growth. They are careful opportunists: they go forward little by little, without rushing into things. They are from different age groups, but committed to make life better through a successful business.
"Successful people are not gifted; they just work hard then succeed on purpose”
- The Tech-savvy: The youth (18-25 years old) who are growing up with technology. Tech-savvy people are well educated (students or young graduates) with a natural understanding of technology developments, but sometimes without budget for the technology they so enjoy.
“I cannot live without technology”
- The Resilient: The working-class people with low education levels. They come from poor and rural families to work in the city, and live in modest houses without many amenities. They work hard – mostly in the informal sector - to support their extended families living in the village.
“A bitter life leads on to a better life”
- The Safety-seekers: Educated people working in government offices or government related-organizations. Their life choices are predicated on a need for security and stability. They are trusted and respected people.
“One day I would like to have my own company and do something I really like. But today, security for me and my family is more important than passion”
- The Old-school: Elder people (>40 years old), born before the ‘digital revolution’ of the 2000s. They have a long-life journey and plenty of experiences to share. They have worked hard to get where they are and are now dedicating their life to their family.
"Electronic payments are not for me. Maybe my children will do it, but me, I’m too old to learn that"
With these personas clearly in mind, the consultants worked with the Unitel team and identified the key influencing factors for each group to adopt and use mobile money. This will have impact when deciding what the MNO should propose/communicate to the different customer segments. Finally, the different personas were ranked according to their adoption and usage potential (ecosystem potential, early adoption potential, outreach potential, and literacy towards digital). The Entrepreneurs and the Tech-savvy were identified as the most relevant segments to focus on in this first phase of adoption.
Integrating HCD Research into Marketing and Product Design
Integrating HCD findings into such a fast-moving environment can be challenging. UNCDF recommended this HCD approach because the leap from research findings to actionable ideas is very short and natural. For product development, the marketing and management team all received very concrete actionable recommendations on what steps to take.
Throughout all phases, the increased understanding of the importance of gender awareness became evident. Rather than a “one size fits all” approach, Unitel has acknowledged the role of women in the finances of the family and therefore the relevance of the Unitel mobile money service for women. For example, early marketing materials lacked a human element while later versions were not only more human centric - but also addressed women directly. Unitel’s integration of approaches to reach specific personas will continue to guide their marketing strategy.
With respect to product and USSD menu design, the outcomes of the HCD research informed some of the language used and elements of the menu. Notably, the Lao language menu was revised to reflect true meanings rather than simply a translation of words. This approach will be carried forward in all communications with customer facing materials and agent training.
Perhaps most significantly, Unitel management’s willingness to engage in the new level of customer awareness started from the recognition that customers - the actual users of the service - are individuals with specific aspiration and habits. Willingness to engage in direct qualitative research regarding marketing and product has been directly evidenced by Unitel’s reiterating several similar activities and focus groups as they move through the iterative process of developing materials and services.
As a next step, Unitel is considering leveraging their mobile usages data to market specific personas. The ability to identify sim cards who maintain a balance, use data, and access certain domains (I.e. Facebook) may be indicative of a Tech-savvy persona, a likely early adopter.
The challenges of research in such a greenfield environment were not what we anticipated!
Before starting the research, it could be assumed that it would be difficult to discuss something that people don’t know about – like talking about snow with someone who has always lived in the desert. But that is not the case in Lao PDR. Even though mobile wallets do not yet exist in the country, mobile banking is rising, with mobile apps like BCELOne becoming increasingly popular. Furthermore, the Lao PDR Finscope 2014 survey indicates that 25% of Lao people (even at that time) were aware of mobile banking. Hence it was easy for the people we met to imagine what mobile money could be –assimilating it to mobile banking operations. The challenge of making people understand and accept ‘virtual’ money was not as important as we thought it would be (this depends, of course, on the client segment considered). Additionally, in Lao PDR, many people travel periodically to Thailand, a close neighbour, where mobile money is available. These people could relate to what they have seen there and are interested to see that happen in their own country. Bearing this in mind, it appears that the targeted personas of the people of the Lao PDR are ready to try and use mobile money.
Introduction of HCD approaches and methodology in a new environment
Lao PDR is a very diverse country, with a literacy rate of nearly 80% and with more than 80 living languages. The local language is very strong and English speakers are rare. PHB Development teamed up with a local research firm, Enterprise & Development Consultants (EDC), composed of Lao speaking consultants. This partnership has been a great experience to reinforcing local capacities in HCD approaches. Qualitative market research is not a frequent practice in Lao PDR – which was confirmed by the local consultants and by some clients’ surprise while diving into the HCD discussions. After initial reluctance, the team got comfortable with the methodology and could develop a high degree of empathy for the participants, trying to understand their aspirations and challenges as they were theirs. A debrief session was organised at the end of the two-week long field research, to share insights and start building personas. The debrief session has been a break-through for local consultants to really understand the benefits of using an HCD methodology. Ms Buakhai Phimmavong, Managing Partner and Consultant at EDC commented, “There is no doubt that bringing the remote researchers together for a debrief session was a real awakening to the power of HCD. Through the personas that we identified together, we could see the evidence of our work and the power of this HCD approach.”
The Unitel team is on an aggressive timeline to roll-out services and agent network through a six-month pilot slated to begin in Q2. With the research and personas in hand, the team will test product and marketing materials through a series of focus groups and interviews with the addressable personas to make sure they are well aligned with real customer needs and anticipated use cases. As the first mobile wallet in Lao PDR, it is sure to bring change to the financial services environment and to have an impact. Watch for future news about how digital financial services are being used for the first time by the Lao people.