5 Lessons in Scale, Engagement and User Delight from India

I recently spoke at DesignUp Singapore on product and design lessons from India. The overall conference was fascinating (I learnt a lot about the South East Asian design community) – and I am glad that DesignUp is increasing its reach beyond India and becoming one of the most important design gatherings in the world.

Weiman Kow did a fantastic job of capturing all the talks through her sketch notes:

Design Up 2019: Sketchnotes and Learnings (Singapore, Jun 18–19)

The cover picture I used above is from her sketch notes of my talk. Hat tip!

I tend to keep my presentations simple: trying to put just one key thought/ insight/ take-away on each slide. This one also follows a similar template. Adding my speaker notes below to provide more depth and context to each slide.

Slide 1

Good afternoon. I have had the good fortune of working on a broad spectrum of consumer internet products for the Indian market - games, chat applications, healthcare, education and video content. The following are 5 lessons that I have learnt – and given the similarities between Indian and SEA – I think these lessons would be applicable here as well.

Slide 2

I always like starting my presentations with questions to the audience. Raise your hand if your answer is yes to any of the questions.

Slide 3

Did you travel by air last year?
Have you ever purchased anything online ever?
Did at least one of your parents go to college?
Do you make more than USD 10/ day?
Is English your first language?

Last year I asked the same set of questions to a room full of designers in India - whether they travelled by air, the level of education their parents had received, the amount of money they made, whether they shopped online. Under each of these parameters - the people in the room fell in the top 10% (and in some cases the top 1-2%) of India’s population. The point I was trying to drive was that none of them represented the true India and designing for the whole of India was a myth - you were at any given point only designing for a part of it. It was very critical for designers to be aware of their privilege.

Slide 4

Be aware of your privilege. You and your user have very little in common.

User research is critical. Bridging the gap between the people who build products (us) and the people who use our products is perhaps the greatest challenge we face is Asia.

Slide 5

You will never design for the whole of India/ Southeast Asia, but only a small segment of it. (And this is a good thing!)

Pick your battles. We live in very populous regions. If the addressable market for our product/ business is 5-10% of our region - it is still a massive user base. Focus on the opportunity.

Slide 7 and 8

Design languages are not as universal as you think they are.
Dominant products become the lingua franca of design. Don’t fight, but evolve.

At Practo, when we were building a social network for doctors, we realized that the percentage of doctors who were editing the information on their profiles was very low. When we spoke to some of our beta testers (doctors), we realized that they had no idea that the ubiquitous pencil icon signified that the particular text field could be edited (doctors are not the most tech-savvy bunch). Adding some contextual copy resolved the issue.

This reinforced an important lesson for me: that design languages are not universal. Interactions, gestures and iconography are not universal.

But the reverse is also true – a dominant product quickly shapes an entire population’s understanding of a design language. Case in point – WhatsApp in India. I learnt the ‘swipe a chat message to reply to it’ functionality from my mother – a technology noob who has quickly become a WhatsApp power-user.

One of the big challenges in India and SEA is that our users are evolving their design sensibilities at a breakneck pace – and this is happening through market-dominating products developed either in the US or China. If we don’t evolve – we will perish.

Slide 9 and 10

Focus on what users do, but never lose sight of what users say. Deliver on needs, but build for aspirations.

At Cuemath we realized that there was a huge gap in what parents said (“we’d like our kids to fall in love with maths and develop mathematical thinking”) and how they acted (“we’d like our kids to score more marks in school tests”). What they said represented their attitude – which was aspirational in nature. How they acted represented their behaviour – and their immediate needs.

It is critical for businesses to solve for a user’s behaviour in the short term: as you will solve an immediate need. But long term – you have to solve for a user’s aspirations.

Slide 11 and 12

Close the loop on your product experience.
If parts of the experience happen outside your product (and are not in your control), you are losing a massive opportunity.

One of the big lessons from Hotstar is how we have focused on closing the experience loop for the user. Our widely successful social feed was built on the insight that while users were watching live cricket on Hotstar, they were reacting to what they had seen (enjoying a six, frustration with the captain of their cricket team, chatting with friends about the game) outside our ecosystem. By bringing this experience inside the Hotstar app, we not only completed the loop but also created massive engagement.

Thank you!

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