Designing for India and its Users

23rd Mar 2012
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Designing for India and its Users

One of the important lessons I learnt about Product Management came when I first saw a South Korean toaster. My impression of a toaster up to that point was that it should be as simple as possible to use, and should convert bread into toast. But this South Korean toaster was unbelievably complex. It has 10 different buttons, an LCD display, interchangeable panels to make patterns on the toast and even a remote control. A colleague explained to me that South Koreans like to have complex user interfaces. It’s seen as a sign of status if your gadgets have lots of buttons and displays.I learnt a very valuable lesson that day - It is really important to know what your users want and design products for them.

I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ve been wondering about if there are any “guidelines” for good product design in an Indian context.

Kishore Biyani, the boss of the “Big Bazaar” stores stumbled upon a similar concept while he was designing the stores. His insight was that the middle-class Indians that his stores were targeting like to shop in chaos, crowds and clutter, which reminded them of the noisy “bazaars” of the old days. In an article in the WSJ, Mr. Biyani discusses how he made the aisles in the stores narrower, in-store announcements louder and made the floors deliberately messy to recreate the atmosphere of the chaotic bazaar, while his competitors were following the western, large-format, quiet and neat supermarkets - that nobody was shopping in.

I wonder what such equivalent guidelines are for designing software products for Indian users?

One of my pet peeves is the concept of the “Shopping Cart” that e-Commerce sites use so pervasively. It fits the western model of shopping - You go to a store, put stuff in the cart, and go to the checkout counter. While this is becoming increasingly popular even in India, I wonder if there are other models could work better:

How can we fit the model of shopping in a local kirana store, which still accounts for some 95% of the market? The mental model could be - You go to the store, pick up stuff you like, and pay at the end. When the user clicks buy, the item moves to the bottom of the screen, where you can see a live view of the “bill”, which you “pay” when you’re done. My hypothesis is most shoppers in India have a “budget” in mind when they’re shopping, and in the shopping cart model, how much you’ve already spent is not immediately obvious. You can see it prominently on the checkout page, and if you have spent too little or too much, it’s not immediately obvious how you can “go back” and shop more or less.

I’ve also wondered if the word “Buy” is too strong a call-to-action on e-commerce sites. It may be too intimidating for novice users? Users tend not to click on buttons when they don't know what exactly the button does. Research has shown that users will click on "Next" far more easily than on "Finish"! What if it were less threatening like “Pick up” or something. Would users click on it more?

A related area is the use of coupons by the websites. Coupons are not really popular in traditional India. The thinking is more oriented towards discounts. We like to calculate how much the total bill was, then haggle over the discount and discuss with friends how much “the shopkeeper came down”. Why don’t websites put an optional, simple game at the checkout page, and depending on how you do, you get a discount!

Another area where we can do differently is the “Address” field. Addresses in India don’t really work like the way they do elsewhere. Lots of streets have no names, houses can have various numbers, there are blocks and mains and crosses and streets, and “next to ram mandir” and “opposite red compound” and things like that. Why don’t we open up a Google Maps widget and say “Click on your house”? That’ll be far more accurate and easier to find for your courier when delivering and avoid the pain of typing out an address for the user.

Obviously these ideas are a bit out there and need to be refined before they can be of practical use. What other ideas do you have that may be relevant in the Indian context? Do you know of any startups that are using the uniqueness of the Indian context to be relevant? Please leave a comment!

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