All aboard the Ola Express

Reflection Point : My thoughts on what makes a good product design

A melting pot of many cultures — Chennai is a bustling city, housing a 10 million people and is the fourth populous metropolitan city in India. Businessmen, vendors, college-goers, home-makers, tourists, school kids, ‘i’m-gonna-make-it-in-kollywood’ wannabes — with only a few born and bred Chennaiite mixed into this crazy bunch. Regardless of which category you fall into, you are not a true Madrasi if you don’t find yourself getting mugged, trampled, beaten up, in one of these situations and have a mini existential crisis about the choices you’ve made in your life to get here.

  • First Scenario - First day of watching a Rajnikanth movie in the theatres.
  • Second Scenario - A day at the beach on Kannum Pongal.
  • Third Scenario - Every damn day you take an MTC bus at 8 in the morning; fighting with a fellow passenger to grab onto the handles with a seemingly nonchalant driver cruising in busy traffic at 60 kms per hour while you hold onto your dear life praying you get out alive - sans the mugging and trampling.

This is what we Chennaiites call as ‘just another Monday morning’ and is the usual norm for an estimated 6 million people who use the public transport to commute to work, college and school everyday. Such was the case up until a few years ago when a startup company called ‘Ola Cabs’ introduced on-demand taxi services for short distances - the first of its kind in India. Initially it functioned by letting users pre-book cabs over a phone call. Later it resorted to app only booking.

Ever since its debut, it has revolutionized the way Indians travel; saving us the everyday argument of haggling with auto and cab drivers who refuse to go by Government mandated meters; alleviating the struggles of taking a crowded bus or a train as it is now only a matter of choice to choose one over the other.

Today, the Spanish word ‘Ola’ is resonant across every Indian household and has inordinately influenced the quality of life contributing to great convenience, saving time commuting, hassle free haggling and much more. As of 2015, the company boasts of an estimated 25 million current app users in India and receives one million bookings each day. This number is only expected to increase thanks to the company’s investment in its own fleet of vehicles and a well designed user-friendly application.

But what makes Ola a great product to use?

In a time when before smartphones were introduced (anytime before 2009 if you lived in India), getting from destination A to destination B was a heinous task especially if you were new to the city and didn't want to use the public transport system. A great deal of time was spent in analyzing ways to get to a location, figure out the routes to take to cut down travelling time, identifying the cheaper and different modes of transport available and quite honestly taking a cab to work everyday was uncommon and unheard of only for exceptions of an emergency, long journeys or your mandated trips to the airport. Because using a cab for the urban middle class was deemed a form of luxury.

Fast forward to 2017, a majority of the urban population has Ola application installed in their smartphones; thanks to the everyday problems of commute that it addresses for a common man. In less than 5 simple clicks, Ola app allows a user to enter a destination of their choice, choose from a variety of vehicles based on their comfort and affordability, track the driver’s location, sends a secured OTP(One Time Password) to ensure correct billing, select from multiple payment methods and all of this even before you could start your trip. For a more convenient trip, you can also see live traffic updates, place emergency SOS calls, option to change destination, share the details of your trip with a trusted contact and apply coupons to get a discount (if you are lucky, even a free ride); the cabs also come with built-in Wi-Fi to stay connected to internet on the go; enjoy your favorite music, watch movies and TV shows. Using the product and experiencing the product’s value becomes one and adds to a great user experience.

Not only does it provide great value to the user but also to the driver providing the service. The application is available in 12 regional Indian languages to help the driver use the application in a language of their choice. In a country where only 10% of the population can communicate in English (surprisingly the world’s second-largest English-speaking country), the move comes as a welcoming sign in establishing a deeply connected relationship.

Now that taking a cab is a normal mode of transport and we can consider that the product is of tangible use, Ola takes it up a notch by gravitating towards fulfilling the intangible needs - driving in luxury. With a top-of-the-line luxury cars from Mercedes, BMW and Audi, you can now attend a wedding in style, pick up an important person from the airport or impress your business buddies for short travels.

The app is concise and doesn’t have much features that takes the focus away from the important aspects. It comes with user friendly option to recharge your wallet online. Termed as ‘Ola Money’ it can not only be used a legal tender for cab rides but also use to recharge data plans for your mobile, DTH, pay electricity and gas bills; taking convenience to whole new level.

Although for the amount of flak that Ola receives in terms of driver’s bad conduct, ultimately questioning the safety of a user, it is always good to exercise caution in times of danger. Chances are the likelihood of experiencing a bad situation is just as same as using an auto or a cab that is not associated with the brand. To me Ola is an exceptionally well designed product that is innovative and is responsive to the market needs and performs significantly better than its competitors.


A product becomes useful when it tends to a user’s tangible needs. A product becomes successful only when more users find it consistently usable. A product becomes desirable when it tends to the intangible needs and the users find it increasingly become an indispensable part of their life for the convenience it provides. This is the difference between a good product design a great product design. It not only provides solution to a problem on a primordial or a functional level but significantly keeps up with user’s expectations in delivering great experiences - the joy, reliability, and the delight in using the product/service again and again.



Product Designer | Emaar