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Many users whose first exposure to the internet is on a cellphone find it hard to navigate the many steps of netbanking or shopping online and rely on friends, children or a local kirana store to help them out. This also slows the adoption of buying and transacting online in India’s vast Tier-2+ market. (Photo: iStock)
Many users whose first exposure to the internet is on a cellphone find it hard to navigate the many steps of netbanking or shopping online and rely on friends, children or a local kirana store to help them out. This also slows the adoption of buying and transacting online in India’s vast Tier-2+ market. (Photo: iStock)

A tool to shift India from texting to buying online

Bengaluru-based Jiny guides people new to the internet to use apps and complete online transactions without glitches

Kushagra Sinha joined Flipkart as a UX researcher after graduating from IIT Guwahati in 2015 with a Bachelor of Design degree. The job gave him a front-row seat to the ecommerce battle in India at a time when Amazon was looming over Flipkart and Snapdeal. To outflank the American giant, Indian ecommerce players decided to go after the underserved masses who only access the internet with smartphones.

Flipkart went app-only with Myntra, the fashion portal it had acquired, and announced plans to do the same with the parent platform. Myntra shut down its website to nudge people to its app. Behind the scenes, Flipkart started working on a Hindi version of its app. Not to be outdone, Snapdeal launched its app in 12 languages.

Instead of the anticipated surge in mobile users from the “next 100 million", Amazon stole a march over its rivals in the premium segment where the e-commerce action remained concentrated.

Heads rolled. Punit Soni, who had come from Google with much fanfare as Chief Product Officer, left Flipkart in 2016. Flipkart scrapped its app-only strategy. Snapdeal discontinued its multilingual project. They refocused on the premium segment.

Online, but not buying

Sinha believes there was merit in the app focus in a mobile-first market. The reason it didn’t produce the expected results lay deeper in the “digital illiteracy" of a vast majority of smartphone users in the country. What went wrong was their assumption that the second segment would show the same rate of e-commerce adoption as the top 50-100 million consumers.

Even today, despite rosy projections, e-commerce accounts for only 3.4% of retail in India, compared to 14% in China, according to a recent report by Bain and Company. Only a fifth of India’s 500 million smartphone users engage in digital transactions. The rest just use their phones for calls and messaging or to watch videos. In comparison, more than half of China’s smartphone users are transacting online.

Digital payments and logistics infrastructure as well as linguistic barriers play a part in slowing the spread of e-commerce beyond the premium segment into the so-called Bharat, which includes lower income urban clusters as well as Tier-2+ India. Many users whose first exposure to the internet is on their mobile phones find it hard to navigate the steps required to complete a transaction. This makes them wary about paying for anything online.

Whether it is recharging their phones, net-banking, or shopping online, the “digitally illiterate" rely on their friends, children or a local kirana store to help them out. Here, the literacy refers to an understanding of the visual cues that apps use to prompt users, and not just the ability to read and type in their preferred language.

This is the problem Sinha decided to tackle when he left Flipkart to launch his own startup Jiny.io in 2017. His co-founder and CTO was Sahil Sachdeva with whom he had first collaborated in an internal hackathon to improve the browsing experience on Flipkart products.

Jiny came up with a product that tracks a user and prompts them on the next step or action, depending on where they are in the flow of a transaction. For example, if a user is stuck in a recharge transaction, they may be prompted with a voice, “To choose a plan, tap here" or “Enter your mobile number here," accompanied with a blinking icon.

“It simulates a human sitting next to a user," says Sinha. “The way I thought about the product is, if I’m sitting next to my mom, how can I guide her through the whole process." One of Jiny’s trials actually helped Sinha’s mom open a Twitter account. “From the point where she was asking me, ‘What is Twitter?,’ to posting her first Tweet, it took five minutes."

Jiny has an SDK (software development kit) that can plug into any consumer-facing app to enable this. What makes it different from other forms of help is its “dynamic flow." That is, it makes specific prompts after seeing where a user has reached and what the next step is likely to be. Other tools tend to have a static flow—they pop up a list of steps to take or a video demo.

“It’s like the difference between a GPS and a signboard," says Sinha. “GPS asks you where you want to go and tells you how to go there. It can do this by detecting your physical context in real time."

Context counts

When a user opens an app that has Jiny inside, its context detection tech parses through the HTML or XML structure of the UI (user interface) to detect what’s happening on the screen and play the corresponding guidance that’s pre-loaded. “Jiny is constantly detecting the context of the user, so it knows which screen he or she has reached and the state of the screen."

The guidance also depends on interactions with the user. For example, once the user taps inside the password box, a pop-up asks if she remembers her password or not. Depending on the response, the next step is suggested.

The biggest challenge Jiny faced was getting apps with a large consumer base to adopt the product. “Any large consumer application is wary about putting a third party product on their user interface. At best, they would allow a standardized payment gateway, such as Razorpay. That’s a small part of the funnel whereas Jiny sits on top of the app and engages with the user right from the first screen to the last one," explains Sinha.

That’s why it was a huge boost for the startup when the biggest mover on the Indian telecom scene, Reliance Jio, became its first customer after Jiny launched last year. It was integrated in the MyJio app to guide users on recharges.

The opportunity arose when the startup was in the JioGenNext accelerator programme. “That’s how we could get face time with the leadership at Jio. Once they saw our demo, they wanted it in the MyJio app. That gave us the opportunity to test and build features for a consumer application that has hundreds of millions of users. We had to make it lightweight and support a variety of Android devices," says Sinha.

OKCredit, a bookkeeping app for small and medium businesses, and ShopX, which is helping kirana stores come online, were two other early adopters. “Our app can detect if a retailer is struggling with something, like trying to check out or searching for a product and not finding it. Then it will talk to the user in their local language, be it Marathi or Bengali, and guide them on how to do the next thing," says Amit Sharma, CEO and co-founder of ShopX.

Sinha believes design holds the key to digital adoption in Bharat. A charcoal painter since his childhood, he found his true metier in the design course at IIT Guwahati. “The prominent design institutes in India don’t have a tech focus. But human-computer interaction is changing the world and that’s where techies with a design orientation can make a difference."

Sumit Chakraberty is a consulting editor with Mint. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

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