Research Report
Research Report

What Does the Human Experience Mean to Digital Identity?

December 14, 2017

Devi is a peanut seller from Bengaluru. He feels empowered by what Aadhaar can enable for him. “It is my identity as a citizen of India to have this Aadhaar card. Yes or no?” he says. “Well, those benefits [of having a card] are for me to go and get.”

We met Devi through the Identities research project, a body of ethnographic research funded by Omidyar Network to study individuals’ experience of identity in India. The reality of Devi’s identity is more complicated than what his words let on at first. When Devi was a child, his father accidentally registered him for school as Devi, “a feminine-sounding name,” he says. “Because the school refused to admit me, my father changed my name to Dhinkar. But he had not foreseen that it will be a problem in the future for a person with two names.”

Devi’s experience shows that there’s not one answer to the question: “Who are you?”. His is just one among a deep and rich set collected over the course of The Identities Project’s 11-month qualitative survey to surface the voices and lived experiences of real people, generating deep insights into how a multiplicity of practices, and digital and physical credentials and artifacts are used to support, assert, or prove one’s identity. The research reveals insights into whether the day-to-day ‘identity practices’ — not just systems or numbers — might make a person’s life better, but equally, what are the vulnerabilities she or he might face.

Today, we are very pleased to present the Identities project final report that digests all the findings from all of these conversations — individual and expert interviews, transaction studies and stakeholder workshops — to deliver the overarching implications for the digital ID communities, both inside and outside of India.

The research focuses on India primarily because it hosts Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric identity system with more than one billion individuals registered, as well as multiple other public and private sector ID systems. The goal of the research was not to study Aadhaar alone, but to use it as a case to explore identity practices more broadly.

Research Methodology

The research team, led by Caribou Digital in partnership with the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore, conducted 150 interviews with people across three Indian states, in urban and rural settings, across genders (including transgender), castes, and religions. There were also five in-person workshops held in Delhi, Bengaluru, Stockholm, Washington D.C., and London. The team also observed both the user and intermediary sides of identity interactions, such as ID registrations at ration offices.When designing this research, there were four clear goals:

  1. Convey the experience of managing identities and identity artifacts, from the perspective of low-income communities in India
  2. Uncover pain points and under-articulated user needs around identity management including the implications of identity systems from voter IDs, Aadhaar cards, and social media
  3. Suggest principles to improve user experience and the overall design of identity services
  4. Protect and promote individual privacy, agency, and dignity

Additionally, the Identities Project was designed to be unique compared to other conducted research on the topic: Rather than conduct the research, digest the findings, and publish once all was complete, we decided to take our readers along on our journey. Each month for seven months, a research episode with video and articles were released to describe findings from the latest conversations.

Research Findings

The Identities Project distilled the findings into a following set of twelve articles categorized by a) identity practices employed, b) the vulnerabilities exposed, and c) the implications for policymakers and system architects.


  • People have always had, and managed, multiple identities.
  • Physical identity artifacts matter, even in the digital era.
  • Every identity transaction means something to the people involved.
  • People select and combine identity elements for transactions during the course of everyday life.


  • There is tension between fixed identities within rigid systems and the reality of people’s shifting, dynamic lives.
  • There are persistent tensions around gender and identity. The social and cultural contexts of power and status embodied in the use of identification systems can serve to mitigate, as well as reinforce, established dimensions of gender identity.
  • Crossing borders makes managing identities a struggle for migrants.
  • Registration and enrollment into ID systems exposes and reveals vulnerabilities for many individuals.
  • In addition to the end users, intermediaries — the people who support enrollment and ID use — may lack knowledge of awareness of changes to system rules.


  • Critical issues, like privacy, need to be framed clearly in system design. Privacy is often an abstract concept to the user, and can lead to conclusions such as the poor lacking concern for privacy.
  • Intermediaries are key to enabling access and remain significant, and need more support and accountability.
  • Designing for identity should include attention to user agency over their multiple identities. Multiple ID elements should be a feature of systems — “not a bug.”
Key Takeaways

Firstly, people have always had and managed multiple personal identities. The research recommends that multiple elements should be a feature of systems, not a bug. A multiplicity of IDs would also support the concept of an “identity mosaic” — the active choice many people make (and often prefer to have) of which identity to use depending on the situation.

Devi, the peanut seller introduced earlier, is registered under different names in different places. “I have this Aadhaar card from Tamil Nadu. Then there is this Aadhaar card that I have applied for here in Karnataka. I also have Voter Cards and Ration Cards from both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka,” he told us. Having access to multiple identity tools allows Devi to sufficiently navigate his non-conforming situation of having two functional names.

The research also uncovered that physical artifacts — the tangible cards that prove identity — matter, even in a digital age. Physical artifacts particularly impact migrants moving across geographies, and women whose artifacts are in the control or possession of other people.

Suleiman Sameer, a twenty-one-year-old wandering stilt-walking performance artist, said: “From the time I turned ten years, I have been moving around from place to place. Original IDs are at home. I only have photocopies with me here. Two of my friends are back in my tent. They will keep an eye on my things.” His experience mirrors that of many people interviewed who use photocopies regularly and struggle to keep originals safe and secure. And who still reference physical documents, even in the age of Aadhaar, to evidence their identity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was also revealed that every identity ‘transaction’ means something to the people involved — and that enrollment exposes vulnerabilities for many. Perhaps more surprising was the discovery that intermediaries are vulnerable users too, who need more support and accountability in delivering good outcomes as the front face of the system.

John is thirty-eight, a blind teacher in a residential school for blind children in Bengaluru. Registering for Aadhaar took him two years. “I had to go three or four times [to get an Aadhaar card]. I hailed an auto … It took three days, one day after the other. Sometimes when I went, the server wasn’t there. It’s expensive.” There were no forms in Braille, and no one was assigned to help him at the application office. John’s story advocates for all abilities to be considered when designing the digital, physical and human interface of a system, and for formal and informal intermediaries to be supported in helping everyone navigate the system.

Finally, there was a clear tension between fixed identity systems and the reality of people’s shifting dynamic lives, and accommodating that difference was difficult for some because critical issues are abstract to the user. Privacy, for example, was a concept that concerned few when names or addresses were concerned.

For Ganga, a craftswoman who sells handiwork in Delhi, and her son Rahul, showing a woman’s face in a photograph immediately became a critical privacy issue for adoption and use. Asking key questions in clear, relevant language was key to the success of this research, and will be key as identity architects build and refine systems if the individual user is to benefit.

Elevating the User Voice into the Identities Dialogue

Who are you? It’s a question people answer several times a day in order to access services, engage in commercial transactions, and participate in social life. Today, as more than one billion people — largely those living in developing economies — have no access to an effective identity, we need to answer this critical question. While billions in developed economies have digital identities, these existing systems fail to meet the standards for privacy, security and user control.

As one of our research respondents said well, “We want ID systems that make our lives easier, not harder. Incorporating user experiences can provide policymakers and system designers with the local context and understanding necessary to develop more effective, equitable, and empowering identity systems.” As the digital age continues to transform our lives, having a unique digital identity will become an increasingly essential part of daily life. At Omidyar Network, we believe that digital identity has the potential to empower people to participate fully in society and the modern economy — but only if it is available, useful, and secure to the individual who uses it. In a dialogue often dominated by policymakers, civil society and technologists, we seldom hear the voice on these critical issues of the users themselves.

That’s why we spearheaded the Identities Project — because digital identity systems must understand the user for whom they’re built. And more importantly, that is why we are committed to ensuring that identity systems expand economic and social inclusion, for everyone.