A Design Guide for Communicating with BISP Recipients in Pakistan
A Design Guide for
Communication With BISP
Research supported by:
CGAP - Consultative Group to Assist the Poor
HBL - Habib Bank Limited
The Challenge of Illiteracy
among BISP Recipients
Illiteracy is the hidden hurdle that makes it difficult to bring financial inclusion to
BISP recipients. Systems that should work in theory break down when poor people
are unable to learn how to use them or are unable to play their role as customers
in maintaining transparency and honesty in the system. If you cannot read your
receipt, how do you know if you received the right amount of money?
The standard for literacy in Pakistan is to be able to write your own name. Most
women in Pakistan are unable to surmount even this low bar. Literacy studies in
other regions report much more capability than we found in the rural areas in
Southern Punjab. In the poor communities we visited illiteracy is compounded by
a lack of personal agency outside the home amongst married Muslim women. The
challenge of communicating with BISP recipients is extreme.
Being illiterate is more limiting than just not being able to read. Other
investigators have shown that learning to read helps to develop a person’s ability
to use language in general and to deal with abstraction.
“Kuvers (2002) observed that the functional illiterate persons are less proficient in
the processing of spoken language than the literate participants. Apparently there
is a relation between the processing of written and spoken language.” 1.
It was also observed that the functionally illiterate participants were less
proficient to mentally rotate geometric objects, indicating that functionally
illiterate individuals have difficulty in mental spatial orientation, which hinders
the navigation through information files. In addition, they are less able to perform
multitasks and to remain their attention focused to the task at hand (vigilance),
which possibly also hinders efficient and successful use of an ATM.” 2.
Some companies are exploring the use of talking ATM’s. Indrani Medhi et al who
has done the most work in the area of communicating with low literate populations
in India found that audio-visual cognitive coordination was difficult and
recommended simpler graphical communication.3 In small sample size tests with
extremely illiterate people in rural Punjab we confirmed the difficulty of following
verbal instructions to perform a manual task, but found that photographs were
better than the cartoons or diagrams that had been used previously.
Levels of Illiteracy among
As we peeled the onion on illiteracy amongst BISP recipients we learned what they
found difficult to do, and what, with some help, they could learn to do.
1. Writing and Reading Urdu script
The women we spoke with could not read or write Urdu script. Generally they
could not read or write their own name.
Most BISP recipients could read English numbers and knew what they
represented. But being able to read a number does not mean that you can
interact correctly with systems using numbers.
Be aware of the challenge of direction. In English we write from left to write, in
Urdu, from right to left. People who speak Urdu, Punjabi, Saraiki, Sindhi even
if they cannot write, may have learned to look at things from right to left. This
is particularly a problem when English numbers encroach on a mostly Punjabi
world. For example, when first using a cell phone a person might punch in the
right numbers, but in the wrong order.
4. Understanding Verbal Instructions
Translating from verbal instructions to manual action was difficult.
Abstractions such as “top, right” or “the square” confused people.
BISP recipients might know that it is the 7th of the month, but not necessarily
what month it is. They might remember that they got their money during
Ramadan, but not know the month that was. They might know that an event
happened ten days ago without knowing today’s date.
But do not confuse illiteracy with stupidity. We were taught this lesson by an old,
blind woman who could barely walk. She had lived her entire life in the country, and
could not use a cell phone. But when we described some financial products to her
she immediately understood how to use them to her advantage in ways that our
team, including a finance expert, had not anticipated.
So, having determined what does not work, we looked for a way to communicate
without words, diagrams or icons, and without verbal instructions. The answer was
simple: use photographs. Photographs are a literal ways to communicate: there is
no abstraction. We found that BISP women were confident and eager to use an ATM
after they were shown a series of photographs showing each step of the process.
Written language is an abstraction, literacy develops a person’s ability to
understand abstraction, so when communicating with illiterate people: avoid
abstraction, be literal.
Use photographs not icons.
Be specific, not general.
If communicating visually, use photos
that show exactly what to a person
needs to do.
Many of the ways in which literate people have learned to communicate rely on
signs, icons, diagrams or other abstractions, which are not self-explanatory, but
we have learned to understand. Illiterate people often have not learned to think in
terms of abstractions, so signs, icons, and diagrams may not make sense to them.
For example, use a photographs of an ATM rather than a diagram. 4.
If you use photos, they should
Literate people have learned to build abstractions from what they see that allow
them disregard details that are different to the particular situation they are in.
Illiterate people can be confused if a detail in the picture is wrong.
For example, use photographs of the specific ATM they are interacting with, don’t
use the same photograph for a different ATM. 5
If communicating verbally, use
Many of the ways in which literate people have learned to think rely on
abstractions, which we have learned to understand. Illiterate people may not
know the meaning of abstractions that they have not interacted with.6
For example, don’t call it “a loan based on an income stream”, call it “get your
money now, but you have to pay a fee”. Don’t call it “a savings account,” call it
“leave your money in the bank, and you will get a reward at the end of the year.”
If you use words, use the words they
use, and the syntax they use.
Illiterate people often live in communities that speak a different dialect. Use that
For example, in Lahore use Punjabi, in southern Punjab use Saraiki.
Prioritize the Illiterate Reader
Avoid using words
Illiterate people may ignore pamphlets with both words and images on them,
even if the images by themselves are self-explanatory. Words indicate to an
illiterate person that it is not for them. 7
Prioritize the Illiterate Reader
If you have to use words, make the
information hierarchy obvious.
Sometimes documents are shared between literate and illiterate people and there
may be legal requirements for more information than the literate person can
Illiterate people often understand some written information, for example they may
be able to read some numbers. However, they may not be able to find the numbers
if they are surrounded by other text.
For example, make the number you want to communicate to the illiterate person as
big and bold as possible.
Do Not Require Strict Syntax
Being literate reinforces consistent vocabulary and syntax. 9 For example, reading
and writing your legal name reminds you of what your legal name is.
Illiterate people do not have this constant reminder and may not be able to hold
on to the exact details and strict syntax that many formal legal and financial
For example, many BISP recipients did not know their full legal name, their
husband’s name, the maiden name of their mother, or their date of birth. After
years of always being referred to by their nickname in the village they might think
that is their real name.
Setting up systems that require people to know exact details and strict syntax
excludes illiterate people and may leave them bewildered and frustrated.
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