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Product Customization: Lessons for the Online Platforms from the Brick and Mortar World

Wednesday November 23, 2016,

7 min Read

Great product managers obsess about building a world class product. They are relentless in their pursuit of improving their product through detailed study of user habits both specific to their product and in general. They also keep a tab on incumbents (established players), disruptors (emerging players), evolving ecosystem dynamics (adjacent and complimentary technologies) and similar products in other markets to ensure they are not missing on any emerging trend. 

One more area they can look for inspiration is the brick and mortar world. There are several examples from the brick-and-mortar world in India which can provide great learnings for the online platforms. Here are a few learnings which might be relevant the next time you’re designing and thinking about your product platform for the Indian market.

Minimalistic design might not always work

Many time product managers tend to equate clean design with minimalistic design. This might not always be the best approach. Take the example of Big Bazaar. While they took inspiration from Walmart, they heavily customized the store format to the Indian user preferences. They made the isles narrower and the acoustics louder to simulate the traditional Indian grocery environment. Some of the products were displayed in sacks instead of slick packets so that users could follow their instinct of touching and feeling the products before they buy them. Also, they realized that unlike US, Indians go for family shopping frequently and thus all age groups need to be catered to in the store. Kishore Biyani, the founder, talks about this in his book and refers to this as “Butt and Brush Effect”, a concept where shops are designed to look full; staging an organized chaos. Translated into the online world and all of a sudden the more “filled look” of several platforms (both web and mobile) starts to make much more sense as it might be more relatable for the user.

Link product innovation to user habits and behavior

Universally products are built to address user needs. Product managers need to closely examine habits and behaviors of their target users in order to build the best products for them.

Nokia 1100 is a great success story of a product designed for emerging markets based on extensive study of the user and market conditions. The study revealed that ease of use, durability, no-frills (basic text messaging and alarm clock) at affordable price were top customer preferences. Durability was linked to withstanding India’s tough weather conditions (heat, dust, and humidity) and erratic power supply. Nokia 1100 addressed all the key points (dust free keypad, anti-grip, alarm clock, flash-light, $116 price point) and became the world’s best selling cellular phone selling 200 million units within six years. Another example is Pepsi developing and launching a range of chips, “Kurkure”, specifically for the Indian market based on extensive study of Indian customers and their love for spicy food. Kurkure range became a big hit and was launched in other countries later. Furthermore, in South India, most microwaves come with an Idli (steamed rice dumpling) mold to cater to the local requirements.

We are seeing a lot of user behavior based innovation in the online world too. Flipkart’s Cash-on-Delivery model was revolutionary for the Indian ecommerce industry and addressed the biggest concern with online shopping in the mind of user: “Trust”. Uber, which does not allow cash payment option globally, is making an exception only for Indian market following in the footsteps of its local rival Ola.

Understand cultural aspects to further understand your target user

Product managers need to be extremely clear about who is their target user. This point becomes much more amplified in the Indian context given the amount of diversity in the user base. It is important to focus on cultural aspects along with socio-economic and demographic variables to really understand who your user is and customize the product for them.

There are numerous examples of this in the brick and mortar world. Multinational food chains like McDonald’s achieved huge success by proactively taking steps like replacing their iconic all-beef Big Mac with the mutton and chicken Maharaja Mac in India. They keep dedicated equipment and utensils for vegetarian food. Pizza Hut started several all vegetarian outlets in India, a first for them globally. Another example is that Big Bazaar did not go for lavish stores as they realized that their customers will feel that they will be more expensive to purchase stuff from.

Cultural understanding can have a major impact in online world. Recent examples from the online world will be Google recently announcing special immersive search tools for millions of Bollywood fans in the country. This allows users to get contextual and image-rich answers to questions around films, actors, sings etc. thus enhancing their experience. Multiple platforms providing regional language options is another example of adapting to culture. Similar customizations based on understanding of cultural nuances of the target audience can be a huge plus for online platforms.

Keep infrastructure considerations in mind

In their endeavor to make world class products and delight users, product managers build extensive feature sets based on user inputs. While the intention is great, the infrastructure considerations can sometimes play spoilsport. It’s important to keep those in mind from the get-go while designing products.

To tackle the water supply and power outages, washing machine manufacturers like Samsung and Whirlpool introduced a series of semi-automatic washing machines to save water, and fully automatic machines that restart automatically after a power failure. Similarly, companies like Hindustan Lever, launched water efficient models of detergent powder Surf.

Translated into online world, product managers need to take a hard look at infrastructure dependencies and design their product accordingly. Bandwidth and other infrastructure considerations (backend logistics for ecommerce and delivery companies) need to be taken into account early in the product design or revamp phase. Examples of the same will be Google’s recent launch of products designed for low internet speeds like a new Wi-Fi platform called Google Station, a video app called ‘YouTube Go’, an offline data-saving feature for Chrome web browser and faster browsing in Google Play on 2G network. Also, LinkedIn recently launched LinkedIn Lite version of their app to reach smaller cities and towns where connectivity is poor.

Make product positioning relatable and colloquial

Product positioning, if done right, can make the product more relatable to the users and increase its value in their minds. Some product managers do not actively participate in this phase and that is a missed opportunity. It’s important for product managers to ensure that they are involved in finalizing the positioning around the product. That means extensive communication with the designated person or team who will lead the branding and marketing activities.

There are numerous successful examples of great product positioning. “Thanda Matlab Coca Cola” was a brilliant campaign by Coke to make the product relatable to millions of users, who associated the word “Thanda” (Cold) with a carbonated drink. Similarly, Maruti Suzuki did a great job positioning itself as the common man’s family car focusing on price and mileage, two things super important to the Indian buyer. Big Bazaar’s “Sabse Sasta Din” helped it’s positioning as an affordable modern retail experience.

The online ecommerce platforms have done a great job here. For example, Flipkart’s “Big Billion Day” and Amazon’s “Great Indian Sale” have been a massive success and positions them as value platforms, an important characteristic for their users. Recently, LinkedIn launched their “Placements” product targeted at college students. "Placements" is a very relatable term for college students in India and the positioning couldn’t have been better.

Making a successful product is a tough job. Product managers need to continuously focus on their target users. It requires a lot of user testing and data analysis to make the user experience better and the product more relatable. Hopefully after reading this article, product managers of online platforms will have one more avenue to look for inspiration: the brick and mortar world.