On designing for the developing world

sana rao
sana rao
Feb 3, 2015 · 4 min read

And why the Indian designer is set up for innovation

“One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” — Jeff Bezos

For the past few years I have been lucky enough to be a part of a small community of individuals, mostly located in California and New York, who design innovative products and services used by most of the world. Having lived in India for most of my life, I can’t help but notice how much slower the growth and adoption of these innovative technologies is in India. One reason is the gradual adoption of the Internet in general, but that gap is closing out rapidly.

I want to speak more to what I believe is the main cause of this slow adoption of new services/products-

What might be innovation in a mature and developed economy, will most probably be irrelevant in a growing and emerging market.

Most international digital products and services are designed for high speed Internet connections, smart phones and a culture of abundance. Design is based on empathy, but sitting in a plush office in California with free snacks and seamless connections, how does a designer innovate for people in developing countries without having seen and experienced the ecosystem?

Designers from the developing world have the unique perspective of living and experiencing the day-to-day constraints of emerging economies. When they design, they understand deeply, the bigger systems of economies of constraint, that impact innovation. Nuances like the lack of a stable internet connection, the habit of savings, the unorganized sector, the importance of aspiration, are all the building blocks of potential innovation, unique to the developing world.

There are companies that are already starting to use these nuances and making them a building block to innovate:

Image source acumen.org

D.light Energy (where I worked for a short time) is an international solar products company that hired Indian designers to design extremely low cost lighting for rural Indian and African households. These designers along with their international counterparts conducted extensive ethnographic research to immerse themselves in the lives of those they are designing for to understand the value of light and more importantly the value of each Rupee Through this they created the lowest cost and smallest solar lantern of its time.

Image source thenextweb.com

Ola Cabs is a cab aggregating and calling service that started locally in 2010. There has been a surge in cab services globally, so it is no surprise that Uber, one of the leaders in the industry entered the Indian market as well. Ola Cabs however has successfully managed to battle Uber by catering to nuances that are unique to the Indian context. While Uber tried to win over the Indian market with the exact same business model. Ola Cabs paid attention to the average Indian’s budget constraints by introducing multiple car variants, the lowest being priced as much as an auto rickshaw. They took into account the Indian customer’s preference for dealing with cash. Most importantly, they gave access through a variety of mediums, such as desktop web browsers and telephone hotlines, while Uber still depends on smartphones.

Paytm is India’s fastest growing and most widely adopted e-commerce platform. With humble beginnings in the mobile refill business, Paytm was the first e-commerce company to focus on simple and easy-to-use interfaces. Along with this, their win lies in adopting strategies that go hand in hand with the realities of commerce ecosystem and constraints, realities like Internet connections timing out intermittently, or the fact that each KB of data spent is of value to the Indian mobile Internet user. They have also created a fully functional app on all platforms including web, Blackberry, Nokia, Android and iOS in order to reach all spending groups and strata of society. They continue to use Indian cultural nuances as an inspiration for new features like the first of its kind ‘Bargain’ feature that lets customers get the satisfaction of bargaining for price of products much like a real life marketplace, this being the opposite of eBay’s Bidding feature that operates in western markets.

There are a few more examples of companies, originating from an ecosystem of constraint and innovating themselves out of tight boxes.

With the successes of these, innovation and entrepreneurship are slowly gaining a foothold amongst the young Indian designer, but there are still many glaring problems of connectivity, access and infrastructure waiting to be solved by the discerning eye. Going forward, the essence and inspiration for these future services has to come from within, from examining and accepting our constraints and drawing inspiration from them — from making them an asset. Only then can Indian designers climb the ladder to becoming leaders in global innovation.


Originally published on Kyoorius

    sana rao

    Written by

    sana rao

    Interim Head of Experience team @DeliverooDesign, poet, reader, writer | Co-founder @postcardpoets, previously @twitter, @Apple & @svaixd