India today has about 225 million smartphones. And most of these belong to the entry-level category. Data indicates that well over half those smartphones were sold for Rs5,000 or less. Once a month, I switch to a Rs5,000 smartphone in an attempt to empathize with the demographic I write so often about. For most of India that’s a lot of money. In fact, according to the ICE survey for 80% of households in India, Rs5,000 is more than their monthly disposable income. Every time I engage in this exercise, the minuscule battery life, sluggish performance, and low memory space force me to switch back to a Rs30,000 smartphone in a day or two. But it is a crucial exercise that helps me understand the state of entry-level smartphones. And if you’re building for Bharat, entry-level is the cutting edge.

Building software for low-end hardware requires extraordinary skill to surmount the performance constraints. But that alone is not enough. To truly build a useable product, the individuals building it today need to possess an almost saint-like empathy. Since the users of the product come from a very different world compared to the founders and developers who build it, that gulf is often hard to bridge. However, there are a set of principles, if observed religiously, can lead to a mobile product that goes beyond the useable, to one that’s actually useful.

1. Speed is a feature: Every. Millisecond. Counts. This principle holds even in developed markets. In the early days of Google, they discovered that a page with 10 results took 0.4 seconds to generate. A page with 30 results took 0.9 seconds. Half-a-second delay caused a 20% drop in traffic. Half-a-second delay killed user satisfaction. Building for speed is even more critical for entry-level smartphones, since low-end hardware only adds to the lag. So, if you’re building for Bharat, performance optimization should be one of the first things you do.

2. Memory is precious: Most entry-level phones today come with about 8GB of internal storage. That might sound like a lot, but once we account for the space taken up by Android and the pre-installed apps, users are often left with less than half that space for day-to-day usage. Perhaps it is no surprise then that, one in three Indian users see the dreaded “Low storage" notification, every single day. This is why uninstall rates in India are higher than the global average. There’s simply not enough space on their phones. So, the rule is simple—if you want your app to stay on someone’s phone, make sure it has got a tiny memory footprint.

3. Mobile phones are shared devices: While mobile phones in Bharat usually have a single primary owner, it is not uncommon to find family and friends casually using a loved one’s phone to make a call, send a message or even (gasp!) to scroll through the photo gallery. Hence apps that are built to handle potentially sensitive personal information would do well to account for this behaviour.

4. Business is done in the customers’ language: Of India’s 400 million internet users, more than 230 million users, or more than half the total, cannot understand English. This is an accelerating trend. By 2020, over 75% of India’s internet users will be Indian language users. The takeaway is straightforward—If you want more than 130 million active users, your product has to speak Indian languages.

5. Bharat loves to talk, watch, and listen: Google released some revealing statistics at their India event this year. 28% of search queries in India are done on voice. Hindi voice search queries in India are growing at 400% year-on-year. Our natural talkative tendencies are beginning to show. With a 74% literacy rate, it’s self-evident that one out of four users at scale won’t be able to use any text-based interface. To get the sort of deep engagement that any software business desires, the user experience for Bharat needs to be driven by rich media interfaces involving voice commands and video/audio content. Thankfully, falling data prices make that more feasible than ever.

6. Do it for me: Literacy and fluency are not the same thing. Also, being literate and being digitally literate are two very different skill-sets. For the overwhelming majority of Bharat, mobile phones will be their first digital device. Consequently, the little things we take for granted such as having an email address, knowing what the “save" icon looks like, or even what “save" means, and filling online forms with checkboxes and radio buttons, are all alien concepts to this audience. Building for them means working overtime so that the user doesn’t have to do much. It is a series of little things done right. E.g. having a “login with mobile" just like a “login with google/fb", pre-filling forms to whatever extent possible, proactively including video explainers.

7. Satchetization of monetization: Given the fact that digital advertising per capita in the US stands at about $165. In India, that number is more than a 100x less. In other words, monetizing user data through targeted ads doesn’t make sense in this country simply because people don’t spend that much online. In this new digital economy, directly charging users is the simplest way to make money. To do this at scale, companies must develop the ability to charge customers for small sachet packs. Let’s not forget: The Rs10 recharge remains the most popular recharge amount for telcos. More shampoos are sold in sachets than in bottles. Pulse candy had a topline of Rs300 crore. The country is replete with examples where less is more. Why should the online world be any different?

These principles are just the beginning of what is needed to re-imagine the mobile experience for Bharat. But I’m confident that if followed diligently, the products that emerge will have a significant edge over those that blindly copy their global counterparts without re-contextualizing it for the next billion users.

Sahil Kini is a principal with Aspada Investment Advisors. The Bharat Rough Book is a column on building businesses for the middle of India’s income pyramid. His Twitter handle is @sahilkini

Close