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Building Apps for the Indian Mobile User

Harshjit Sethi

One of the first questions that piqued my interest on moving back to India was understanding what it takes to build successful products for Indian consumers. While needs transcend continents – like the need for communication, information or entertainment – the differences in culture, connectivity infrastructure (devices, internet speeds etc.) and the physical “offline” world, mean successful products often need to be localized to reflect these realities.

While there are many approaches to this question, one objective way to understand the Indian mobile user is through a study of the most populars apps. A look through the top lists of the Play Store suggests the tremendous popularity of utility apps in the country. Of the fifty most popular apps in India, more than twenty are utility apps. This user pull for utility apps is in stark contrast to the gaming-dominated lists of the US and other Western markets.

What makes the success of these apps remarkable and representative of user needs is that the popularity of many of these has come in the absence of large marketing spends. These apps have grown either due to user need or word of mouth, both exceptionally potent drivers of growth and retention.

The apps that constitute the top lists are an eclectic bunch, and while they offer different functionality, they broadly gratify one of four basic user needs:

  • Privacy: Apps like Truecaller and Applock help users feel safer while using their phones. These apps protect users from getting disturbed by unknown callers or ensure discretion by keeping certain content private
  • Storage reduction: With the average price point of an Indian smartphone at around $150, on-device storage is a limited commodity with as-much-as 50% of space taken away by firmware and pre-burned apps. Apps that help users conserve space like Cleanmaster or help them actively manage device storage like ES File Explorer are therefore very popular
  • Data minimization: Data costs in India, when measured as a percentage of per capita income, are amongst the highest in the world. Most users have limited data to consume on the go, which drives popularity of an app like UC Browser that has features to minimize data usage
  • Offline access: Unlike in the West where data consumption is almost all on demand, a lot of content consumption by the Indian user is premeditated. Users will seek to actively get content on their smartphones from friends via Bluetooth transfers or download when access to WiFi is available, making gateway apps like MX player, Adobe Acrobat or Samsung Video, and content sharing apps like SHAREit or Xender popular.

Many of these user needs will seem simple, even obvious to product teams in India. However actively improving a product on these criteria is a hard task because it often conflicts with building a high quality product experience. For example, reducing data consumption means displaying lower resolution photos, videos and other assets in the app. Or solving for a more functional offline experience means storing more data locally on the device which makes the app balloon in size.

One way in which products have navigated this dichotomy in the past is by either giving users an option in the product (e.g., in YouTube, pick the resolution to watch your video) or by building a different product altogether (e.g., use Facebook Lite that minimizes data usage). However with this approach, the user is left with a subpar product experience in order to optimize for their device/network constraints which is far from ideal.

The future of mobility apps in the country will depend on apps that can creatively work around these user constraints to build world-class experiences. A recent example of this is Prisma, the photo editing app. India is quickly emerging as one of the app’s biggest markets. While the app provides a delightful experience of transforming photos into art work, it also reduces the photos in size by 90% increasing the ease of saving and sharing these photos. By providing users with a full product experience while solving their needs around data and storage, the app meaningfully increases user satisfaction.

These user constraints compounded with the challenge of building a holistic product is an arduous task. However it gives app developers an opportunity to build unique products for the Indian consumer. Many Western companies who don’t have an active India presence lack this context and user empathy.

As I watch a loading spinner complete its fifteenth rotation on a social media app from the West, I am excited to see more teams leveraging their proximity to users, showing engineering jugaad and creativity and building top notch products for the Indian consumer at Sequoia India’s annual hackathon (, happening on September 10-11 in Bangalore.

*This article first appeared in Tech in Asia - *