An ICT approach to filling the informal employment gap in India

By Priya Iyer

It all started in Fall 2013 when second year Masters students at the School of Information, UC Berkeley had to submit proposals for their final projects, that they would be working on in the last semester before graduating. My classmates and I had been brainstorming a lot on projects that we could potentially work on but did not have a particular problem in mind. The only thing we knew, for sure, was that we wanted to work in the ICTD space. We started out at a macro level to understand the kind of problems that we wanted to target. We were particularly interested in the problems of food insecurity in India. We researched to find out the root of this problem through literature reviews, YouTube videos and anecdotes from our professional and social networks. The most glaring cause that came to the forefront was the problem of unemployment in the informal labor market in India.

We researched more on the informal labor in India that comprises of a large portion of the labor market in the country. People due to lack of a steady income-generating job work as construction workers, manual scavengers, domestic help, government cleaners, vegetable vendors, plumbers, carpenters etc. Based on the personal anecdotes of some of our team members who grew up in India, we knew that, on one hand, there is a high demand for such workforce and on the other hand, there is a constant supply of jobs. However, there’s a gap in the discovery process due to which a lot of these positions remain open and a majority of the informal labor force remains unemployed. Currently, there are solutions that cater to this issue through either manual intervention such as job agencies or through technology solutions such as call centres and websites. However, upon further analysis, we realised that each of these solutions had a problem of its own that left unmet needs. Either the gap remained unfulfilled or the solution was able to take care of only a part of the problem leaving no scope for scaling and expansion to other problem areas.

Thus, given the current situation, we realised that there was a need for a solution that not only filled the gap between demand and supply of jobs but one that was also usable, accessible and scalable. We conducted a needs assessment in January 2014 in different parts of India to validate the findings from our literature reviews and to survey our target audience to understand if they would indeed like to be a part of our proposed approach. This needs assessment phase of the project was the most crucial turning point for us in terms of scoping the project and understanding the potential real world challenges. We realised that an ICT solution cannot single handedly take care of all kinds of labor and that we had to channel our attention to just one particular problem at a time. More importantly, different types of labor require different approaches to design. We, therefore, decided to presently, focus our solution only on the part time domestic workforce and urban households in India. Our solution takes a user centric design approach in that we try to cater to the different users according to different levels of digital literacy. We also realised that in order to test the feasibility of this solution, we needed to partner with someone on the field. Without local assistance, it would be immensely difficult to recruit users to test out the system. Thus, in the following few weeks, we will be testing our solution on the field with a low fidelity prototype (a minimal viable product) through partnering with local NGOs and improve upon our design iteratively.

Some of the most important lessons learnt through working on this project, so far, are:
Literature reviews are great but you can never be too sure about the state of things without conducting a needs assessment on the field.
Solutions that do not incorporate the user’s perspective in design are the ones that have not been successful.
Always confirm all your assumptions about your audience behaviour through surveys and interviews.
Analyse other comparative solutions thoroughly. There needs to be a strong rationale for your solution, given the current solutions.
Try to find partners locally as soon as possible. Without local assistance, it is very difficult to reach out to the poor communities and win their trust.

Thus, with a user centric design approach, we are trying to use ICTs in order to bridge the wide employment gap in the domestic help workforce in India. We have a long way to go but I hope that this blog post helps others working/interested in the same field to inform their design decisions wisely. The field of ICTD is unique and challenging in its own because of the wide variety of the audience that it caters which necessitates solutions to be innovative and usable.

Priya Iyer is a second year Masters student at the School of Information, UC Berkeley studying mobile and web technologies for development. You can email her at and follow her @myy_precious.


  1. Priya,

    Thanks for this insightful overview of your project! I'd really love to learn more and I think you guys can teach me/us a lot! What did the needs assessment look like? Interviews? Focus groups? How many people participated? And how many regions (cities/villages/towns?) did you conduct your research in? I'd love to see the low-fidelity prototype sometime if you guys are ready to share!
    Something I've been grappling with in the general field of labor relations, informality and formality is how far promoting short-term, informal or contractual work can go in the bigger picture. When you think about India's large informal labor market, do you think there is a way to formalize these workers (which would require different types of interventions) or do you think it will only become more informalized and therefore reliant on the type of "match-maker" you are developing? I ask myself these questions about microwork every day, so I'd love to hear what your thoughts are!

  2. Interesting project indeed Priya. I will be following you guys to see how this goes and maybe I could be your local hands if/when you decide to try it on the African continent. I would love to hear more about your design and what specific elements you discovered were necessary through talking to the end users. In a small country like Swaziland, I have seen that word of mouth has been working pretty well, but in South Africa it is definitely a different story.

  3. Thanks for the great pointers on UX centric design view Priya!
    I am very interested in understanding how you designed your UX blueprints for the project. What other methods did you pursue and how did you get local partners onboard with your plan?