It must be beautiful: on news product design

Product design workshop at India Internet Day.

Product design workshop at India Internet Day.

How to design a great tech product for news?  The United States has seen some great and lovely new products for digital news, all in the past 5-6 years.  In India, on the other hand, digital design (at least for news sites) remains a race to the bottom.  A quick glance at the websites for the two big English dailies suggests one thing above all: no one seems to give a flying fig about designing a unique UX.

What a tragic oversight.  UX forms the core of any tech product; in many cases it is the answer to the fundamental question: “why are people using my product?”  A great UX can make the difference between a standout, successful product and another defunct web domain.  It’s not what you do, it’s also how you do it.

Recently, I went to a two-hour product design workshop at India Internet Day, where Amit Somani of MakeMyTrip, Sree Unnikrishnan of Google and Satish Mani of Zovi.com held forth on all these themes.  Here’s what I took away from it.

Design by committee – in this case, the 80 people in the room – is inevitably a disaster.  The first hour of the workshop was a mock product design brainstorming session.  Amit asked us to invent a product that could tell the time better than the devices we currently have.  Here’s how the cycle went:

Question 1: What do we want from a time product?  Desires: ability to quickly see multiple time zones at once, a tool that quantifies the value of time.

Question 2: What is wrong with what we currently have? Problems: watches can be lost, cell phones and watches require charge.

So we already had an unwieldy brief: design something that does a whole lot of calculations and syncs with multiple time zones, but at the same time avoids all the pitfalls and minor inconveniences of a device.

We then had pitches.  Someone suggested an earring/piece of jewelry that vibrated according to the time.  Another suggested a brain implant (which we couldn’t design). The winning design – which just goes to show the importance of presentation – was a plate with 24 dots on it, worn on a strap on the wrist.

Exactly. We voted in favor of a product that was essentially a more stone-age watch, and addressed none of the desires mentioned initially.  So much for product design by committee.

But THEN Amit, Sree and Satish took us through their product design manifesto.  At this point I was paying only inadequate attention because my phone and pen were both dying, but I remember a few key things:

BRING USERS INTO THE UX DESIGN PROCESS.  Seems intuitive, and yet, does not always happen.

IT MUST BE BEAUTIFUL.  I stress this point because this concept – that users deserve lovely products – doesn’t exist in India.  The digital design situation is a big game of chicken, wherein media orgs keep waiting for users to start paying more for products while users keep holding out and waiting for a product that is actually worth the money.  Is India a frustratingly price-sensitive market?  Absolutely. But on the other hand, genius design often means giving people something they have yet to realize they want. The notion that Indians either don’t notice or don’t care about beauty is utterly, horribly flawed. Everyone cares about beauty.  But I guess not everyone can afford it? Indian media cos have to stop treating their audience as a second-class audience that doesn’t deserve the best.  That is no way to build relationships, trust, or products that withstand the test of time.  Comparing the revenue earned by the New Yorker on iPad with the revenue earned by Mint on iPad is apples to oranges, not just because Indians have less disposable income but because the New Yorker app on iPad is a far more robust and vibrant product (and they designed it on a flying hunch, btw, not off an existing user base).  Mint is an interesting example because much of their initial traction when they launched was due to the lovely design and layout of their product, both on and offline, which was a novelty for the Indian market at the time.

I don’t claim to have the answers, but whatever we design for India has to have the following at its heart: 1) Android. 2) Beauty 3) Internationally Competitive UX 4) Cheaper, somehow?

(All very easy to say when my money is not on the line.  But still.  Point me to ONE beautiful tech news product that has come out of India and FAILED.  Exactly.  There aren’t any. An investment is not the same thing as an idea.  Indian users are sophisticated enough that we have seen/used well-designed, beautiful products.  We’re not going to magically start settling for less in the world of news.)

The inferior goods trap?

Hudson News and Books, the staple of every American airport, recently opened branches in Indian metro stations

Hudson News, familiar to anyone who’s been through an American airport, recently opened branches in Indian metro stations

I say this a lot to my friends in media, who seem not to have realized it: Indian-native media brands have to be careful not fall into the inferior goods trap when it comes to the way they handle foreign competition.

Here’s what I mean.  Almost every foreign media brand has in recent years thought about an India play.  Many have held off, perhaps because they don’t know how to target an amorphous and price-sensitive consumer, perhaps because they’re uncertain about the still-complex regulatory regime, perhaps because revenue expectations are still not quite high enough, perhaps because they’d rather tie up with local players.  And maybe this last is a trend towards greater conglomeration.  (Look at the Times of India-Gawker deal as an example.)

But, as someone who previously worked at a business magazine, I increasingly felt that our print product faced serious competition from Forbes India and Fortune India, as well as local brands.  Indian brands traditionally point to a few things to explain why Indians prefer them:  1) the fact that their products are customized to the Indian market.  2) the fact that their products are almost always cheaper.

The average Indian biz mag retails for about Rs. 25 to 35 on the newsstand, while both Forbes and Fortune retail for a far heftier Rs. 125.  That’s out of reach for a lot of people, except as a very occasional purchase.  Fair enough.

But what about in the digital space?  The cost of access is often much lower, and foreign brands have a long history of developing strong digital offerings.  I promise you that the average Indian businessman and MBA student has accessed – at least once – articles from the Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal – online.

Traditionally, Indians have shown a strong and enduring preference for homegrown brands, even when foreign options become available.  But in an information-dense age, can we take that loyalty for granted?  If non-Indian brands decide to make a serious attempt at this market, hire the best local writers (at salaries equivalent to or slightly higher than what these people make at Indian employers) and bring their digital expertise to bear, there is absolutely no reason they could not seriously disrupt the landscape and take a greater share.  So far, the economics of it have not made sense (the US media model is costly, and Indians historically don’t pay) but if Indians start to pay a little more, and they have richer, stronger digital offerings available to them, why wouldn’t they choose those?  (The cost of software development is lower in India also, and that arbitrage is likely to remain for at least a little while)

Traditionally, Indian media houses seem to lag their American counterparts in two key areas: 1) investment in talent and  2) investment in R&D.

Both of these things are investments in the future of your product.  There is nothing worse than reaching a point – which I could foresee – where the only thing that differentiates your product in a consumer’s eyes is its lower price.  Then, you’re stuck in the position of hoping that people stay poor, and that’s not a position that feels very good.

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