There’s a wealth of research, ideas and best-practices on the topic of creating great digital products.

But for those of us designing digital products in markets across the African continent, not all of these global principles apply. We’re a unique continent, home to over a billion people in 54 countries, and within each country we’ll often find many different cultures and languages.

Designing digital products in Africa means understanding user-experience from a uniquely localised vantage point.

It’s no easy task… we often find that our users lie across the broadest possible spectrum of digital sophistication – from the super-users that have been using technology for decades, and know how to push technology to the limits, all the way to the newest users who are interacting with digital for the first time.

So just how do we consider the ‘local effects’ when developing solutions in Africa?

1. Technology

Firstly, we need to understand the types of devices in customers’ hands. Across the continent, we see a range of different devices and mobile operating systems – from with Android dominant in the smartphone world, along with a surprisingly high number of Blackberry and Nokia feature phones. Other mobile operating systems – like iOS and Windows – tend to take a back-seat in most markets.

Considering the vast geographies across the continent, and the high-ratio of the rural population (when compared to developed economies), we also need to consider the quality of the mobile data networks – which range from lightning-fast 4G networks in cities, to very patchy Edge and GPRS connections.

These dynamics raise interesting technical questions… such as how our digital products can be scaled down and adapted to different devices and networks?

Arguably, mobile and digital innovations have the potential to make a bigger difference in Africa, than anywhere else.

2. Language

The ways in which people communicate is different in every region. Terms and definitions that may make sense at a global level will often be less relevant in local markets. For a company to engage with its users in a natural, ‘human’ way, the language used often needs to be localised.

Tailoring the languages used in your digital services helps to personalise the engagements and elevate one’s digital product from the array of global digital services available online and in the app stores.

3. User behaviour and culture

Consider the example of South Africa’s mobile penetration rates (estimated to be in the region of 150%). Embedded within this stat is the interesting finding that many South Africans in the middle-range LSMs have two devices. Most commonly, one is a smartphone, and the other is a feature phone.

The feature phone is often used for basic calling and SMSing, whereas the more data-hungry smartphone is used in WiFi hotspots, and whenever funds are available for mobile data – to check in with social media, read the news, and communicate via Whatsapp, for example. It’s only by understanding why people have two devices that we can start building services for these users.

Through deep in-field user research, we build up a rich picture of what is most important to our users. For many organisations, this leads to a “light bulb” moment where we start to move away from our preconceptions, and worry less about the business priorities. Instead, we start to focus more on the customer priorities.

For all these reasons, and many more, designing digital products for African markets is extremely challenging, but ultimately highly rewarding. Arguably, mobile and digital innovations have the potential to make a bigger difference in Africa, than anywhere else. But getting it right requires us to ‘rewire’ our brains to some extent, understand local dynamics, and build solutions that our users truly need.