The art of building products for emerging markets

Alyssa Maharani
Oct 2, 2017 · 5 min read
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Your typical day-to-day life in Hyderabad. Photo by arihant daga on Unsplash

Disclaimer: I am an employee at Google. The opinions stated here are my own, and not those of my company.

Emerging markets have challenges that are far different from your typical developed countries. As such, building products for these markets require many developers (especially those who learned their chops abroad or have never been to these countries before) to adjust their approaches to these markets. We generally find that to get product-market fit for startups in emerging markets, they generally must use a unique approach to build their products.

Here are some tips to get started based on some of my personal experience working with emerging markets startup:

  • Build an offline mode: It’s a fact of life that you’ll need to build products where for most of the population, Internet is often slow and unstable. Taking a look at Speedtest’s Global Index as of August 2017, you can see that the fastest download speed in the world for mobile is by Singapore with a speed of 55.72 Mbps. Compare this to Brazil with 14.89 Mbps, Indonesia with only 10.21 Mbps, and India of 8.29 Mbps. That’s not mentioning how often Internet users in these countries get “blindspots” in Internet coverage as they are located in more rural areas. All of this requires product managers and developers to pay closer attention to incorporating some form of “offline mode” into their products in order to ensure that customers can continue using their products when there is no Internet coverage.
  • Keep data downloads small: Data ain’t cheap in this part of the world. In my personal experience, I know that in Indonesia and Philippines that people go as far to rely on multiple SIM cards to game the system and get cheaper data plans. My mom, who lives in Indonesia, goes as far to not subscribe to a mobile data plan and only use public Wi-Fi for one of her phones to save money on data. To give you a more concrete data-based example, World Bank reports that the cost of running a mobile phone with data in the U.S. is 0.80% of a person’s gross median monthly income. Let’s compare this to Democratic Republic of Congo where the cost is a whopping 52.7% of a person’s gross median monthly income, and to Cambodia, where the cost is 8.62% of a person’s gross median monthly income. Ensuring that your app requires minimal data to operate is key to ensure that your product adoption is higher in emerging markets. Unless you are Facebook or Instagram, you can’t expect people to download a 300 MB app into their phone when data can cost an arm and leg.
  • English and beyond: Access to learning English vary country by country. However, you’ll notice that in many countries, English continues to be the language of social status. As such, even in countries with low usage of English, you’ll still see people captioning their Instagram posts in English (sometimes with bad grammar and spelling) just to prove their social status. Even then, the most commonly used language, unless enforced nationally (e.g. see Singapore’s enforcement of English as national language), tends to be the local dialect. What this means is that in some countries, you can still design products in English, but you should be thinking of adding symbols and icons to help those with less understanding of English to easily interact with your product. In other countries, you may want to consider adding more languages and dialects to help users understand your app.
  • Think mobile-first: In a remarkably short amount of time, the mobile revolution has taken over emerging markets. Most people in these countries don’t even start with owning computers and have skipped owning a landline altogether. According to Pew Global, more than half of the population in each of the emerging market nations surveyed say they own a cell phone. In many parts of Africa, even a smartphone is ubiquitous with digital payments — nearly seven-in-ten Kenyans (68%) who own a cell phone say they regularly use their mobile device to make or receive payments. For these people in many developing countries, a smartphone is their first computer and their only Internet-connected device. This means that anything you build need to be optimized for mobile — that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to build a mobile app, but a website needs to work just as great on mobile as on desktop. You can read Google’s mobile-friendly test or their mobile SEO guide as reference for web developers. Using responsive web design and testing for mobile landing page loading time are some examples of ways to optimize for your web for mobile. For apps developers, you need to be aware that many people buy secondhand phones in these markets, and as such, your app needs to be supported for older makes, slower processors, and lower memory space. Additionally, Android tends to be the mobile platform of choice — its open-source nature allows manufacturers to create cheap phones.
  • We love social sharing: If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to capture it on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / YouTube / social media of choice, does it really make a sound? In fact for most users in the emerging markets, the Internet is social media and chat. According to Pew Global, 84% of Internet users confess to using a social media account in Indonesia and according to Vogue, Jakarta, its capital city, is the most geo-tagged city in Instagram Stories. Manila, Philippines is crowned by TIME as the selfie capital of the world with 258 selfie-takers per 100,000 people. Given this, it doesn’t get more important to incorporate some form of social sharing into your products. You can take a look at Google’s new digital payment platform Tez, whose interface reminds you of chat bubbles, as an example.
  • Check your local authorities and partners: What is legal in one place may be completely illegal in another. Take the simple example of creating an app that publishes content from people. In one country, the content publisher can be safeguarded from hate speech posted by the user, but in another, that same protection may not exist. Additionally, for certain industries like financial technology and healthcare, you may also need to consider how to get license to operate in the country you’re thinking of.
  • Test out your products in the wild: Some of the best practices I’ve heard from a startup that I worked with is that they would go to known “blindspots” in the country to test out any new releases of their products. They’d buy some secondhand phones with old makes to test for quality, as well as continuously gather user research and feedback to gain more insights on the ground. This is because you might see some interesting patterns that you never saw before — everything from traffic jams (Guess why power banks are so popular in Southeast Asia! People running out of battery on the road) to their local culture (Bet you didn’t know that Nigerians love Indomie). Discard everything you know about Internet users as you know it, and build it again from scratch using insights from the ground.

As I get more insights into building products for emerging markets, I’ll be sure to add more updates and edit the post along the way. Till then, enjoy!

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