Growing Wikipedia’s reach with an app for KaiOS feature phones

Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash

The Wikimedia Foundation recently announced the release of a new mobile app for KaiOS users to read Wikipedia. In a world dominated by smartphones, a significant part of modern online experiences are focused on smartphone users. Yet, feature phones, which have become smarter over the years, are still in use by millions of people. This app, built for the KaiOS smart feature phone platform was first released in India in September 2020, and it has since been downloaded more than 1.4 million times. The app is now available for KaiOS phone users globally. This staggered release was primarily due to the setup of the app stores. KaiOS and Wikimedia Foundation teams collaborated at various stages during the implementation of the technical and other aspects of the development of this app. 

Rediscovering feature phones

In the past 20 years, Wikipedia and its sister sites have increasingly grown in popularity and relevance for a global audience. The platform has evolved around its growing community who have relentlessly pursued the preservation and sharing of all human knowledge. As part of the Wikimedia Foundation’s ongoing medium term plans, growing readership worldwide has been an important goal with several initiatives in progress. The KaiOS Wikipedia app helps advance this goal by extending our reach to include smart feature phone users. This opens the movement up to a wider audience who can now join our community, primarily as new readers. With data connectivity gaining momentum through wider coverage and affordability, we hope that this app will meet their immediate and future needs for information and free knowledge.

Research and Design considerations

Wikipedia for KaiOS App scroll interaction gif
by Angie Muigai, CC-BY-SA-4.0

We learnt that there were over 100 million devices running KaiOS all over the world. After testing the mobile web experience of reading Wikipedia through the browser on these phones, we saw the potential for a more comfortable reading experience  for these small non-touch screen phones. We began by doing research in India to know more about KaiOS users and how they use their phones. What do they read online? Why is this their phone of choice? How do they navigate on a phone with no touchscreen? How different is their internet behaviour from smartphone users?

With the exception of affordability, we found that their motivations to use the internet were on par with smartphone users —to get information, to be entertained, and to connect with others. 

Design challenges

The Wikipedia for KaiOS application was developed by the Foundation’s Inuka team. We designed the app to take advantage of what looked like challenges of having a device with a keypad. For example:

  • Keypad navigation improvisation: For phones without a touch screen, we used the keypad to make it easier to navigate quickly to various parts of an article like sections and language switching. 
  • Page scroll: Instead of continuous scrolling using the keypad while moving through an article, readers can read clear segments of a Wikipedia article on the small screen one page at a time. 
  • Page previews: Readers can see a short summary of an article with an image when they select a link within an article.
  • Gallery experience for small screen: We built in a gallery experience as readers indicated they wanted to see and interact with images within Wikipedia articles.
  • Infobox and template adaptation: Covering for all the templates an article could have, including variations of infoboxes was complicated. In this case, we created an experience that lets readers go through tables with multiple columns and rows in a popup within the article.
  • Easy changing of text size: These phones have a small screen and so to improve readability, we provided a convenient  option to easily change text size.
  • Technical considerations: KaiOS is a fork of FirefoxOS, so applications are built using Web technologies. Any Javascript framework can be used but something lightweight is generally recommended since most devices are low-end in terms of CPU and memory.

Conclusion

With the Wikipedia app in all countries where KaiOS phones are available, we hope to bring a rich Wikipedia reading experience to more people around the world. The Foundation’s Inuka team will continue to do improvements to the KaiOS apps in the coming months. To know more about the app, please see the FAQ page. For suggestions and bugs, you can either reach us on our project Talk page, or through our issue-tracker on phabricator, or on github. Do stay tuned for more updates from us.

– Angie Muigai and Runa Bhattacharjee, on behalf of the Wikimedia Foundation Inuka team