India’s Inclusive Digital Revolution

Pushing the envelope on India’s Digital Revolution towards inclusion and democratization for the diverse population of this pluricultural country.

Nikhita and Swar are the co-founders of Xeno Co-lab and lead the service design & research process to help companies build user-centric strategies with their deep expertise in Human-centered design. Their background in design complements their expertise in research to help translate user insights into tangible business outcomes for global companies across various sectors. 

Together, they have presented talks & workshops at global conferences around design & inclusivity in digital design based on their extensive experience of working in India and other emerging markets. Their goal is to exchange learnings within the design community with the hope of building a design practice that creates positive impact and broadens our ideas on diversity and inclusion.

The Reality of the Digital Revolution

Watching this video of 82-year-old Shriram talking about how he can now video call his grandson from his small village of Kanda, in the mountains of North India, makes one realize how much of a change India has gone through in only one generation.

He used to walk 5 km to receive or send letters, but is now connected to the Internet at all times. This is a massive shift that only few will be able to recall in the next generation. 

It is stories like this of change, empowerment, independence and equality that bring statistics alive when we speak about the Digital Revolution in India. It’s the story of a housewife who is able to run a successful business from home by selling her products through Instagram and Whatsapp, which shows how democratized services can create financial independence and empowerment. Seeing every street vendor display a QR code for UPI payments reveals that UPI is a huge success story of digital transformation that is now viewed as an inspiration by other global markets1. Such stories show the impact of India being the second largest market for smartphones in the world, with 750 million users that is set to reach 1 billion by 2026, and growing adoption of digital services. It’s proof that India is transforming positively and emerging as a key global market as a result of the Digital Revolution that began in 2015. 

A small grocery store vendor from India with multiple QR codes to received money from the customers via UPI. Photo credit: Xeno Co-lab

While the Digital Revolution is largely attributed to the government’s initiative of Digital India2, it is important to acknowledge the role of strategic partnerships and roles played by private companies such as Reliance Jio3 to make data affordable & accessible and Google’s investment4 to build India’s digital infrastructure. With these initiatives, the Indian digital market has been estimated to be a $1trillion opportunity, and that is why the largest global tech companies are now turning their attention to India as one of the strongest emerging markets. 

Companies have very quickly realized that, while India is a land of opportunity, it has its unique complexity when it comes to decoding consumer behaviors. Its layers and nuances of diversity are unique in its own way. Therefore, products that may have been successful in other markets may fail here if not designed with a thorough understanding of these nuances. Understanding what diversity means for India requires a unique lens and a deeper understanding of its history, culture, and socio-economic dynamics. We have seen multiple companies copy-pasting products from different markets trying to solve challenges that may look similar on the surface level. Uber for example learned a lot  after it launched in India in regards to having safety features for women, mode of payment and limitations of relying solely  on the digital app. Uber found that the usage of the service was hindered by a low internet penetration in India at the time. Its Indian counterpart Ola, had already picked up on such context-specific needs and designed for them. This copy-paste approach has not always been the best strategy to achieve adoption and build relatability with the Indian consumers.  

As founders of a design and research consultancy based in India, we have worked with global tech companies as a regional partner in the last 5 years. Through our work with these companies, we have learnt how the Next Billion users’ digital behaviors and understanding may be starkly different from digital natives, even though they are from the same city/neighborhoods. Through our work with micro-finance institutions to build digital services to facilitate financial inclusion, we were able to explore how education level, family structure, gender, socio-economic segment can dictate the access and understanding of digital services in remote access areas. Understanding these nuances is what makes all the difference in designing digital solutions that can either democratize services and facilitate inclusion, or widen the gap of existing disparity in this country. We have such a great power and responsibility,as designers and researchers, to build and share this nuanced understanding of consumer behaviors to be able to design for inclusion. 

So what is the right way to go about this? How do we make sure that our intentions are aligned with our actions? How do we go about making sense of the complexity in India and designing inclusive digital services in the middle of this Digital Revolution?

Defining and Redefining Diversity

It’s important to realize that working with Diversity is not the end goal, but inclusion is. If companies and design & research teams started to look at the value of diversity from this perspective, they would immediately understand  how diversity could help us achieve inclusion. Diversity for diversity’s sake – whether that is in our teams or in our research sample size or user segments – will not add value unless it results in inclusion. Diversity can mean many different things, whether that is diversity in age, gender, caste, class, race or ethnicity, and each has multitudes of effects on digital citizenship or experiences. Defining what diversity would mean for India, and more specifically in the context we work in, would help us create actionables to understand its implications and needs that can be addressed through design to make a product/service truly inclusive. 

For India, the user segments need to be very precisely defined because the digital behaviors and usage varies drastically from urban to rural, digital immigrants to digital natives, across genders or age. Beyond this, what becomes more important is to amplify the voices of marginalized or less-represented communities through the design process. Ensuring that their voices are represented through research and reflected through design. Who these may be should not be based on biases and assumptions, but on an understanding of the socio-cultural context. Last year we were working with a global tech giant that  wanted to understand the Indian consumers in the context of travel planning, to develop and build their global digital product in a more relevant way for India. While working with them, we realized that their hypotheses and target audience reflected diversity limited to age, religion and caste. While that is important, it was also crucial for them to realize that beyond that, the diversity of class, socio-economic segment, education, and access to digital services would have affected the digital experience of their potential users more, making these factors critical to understand. 

Another example within project planning is how it is necessary to understand context instead of adding ‘gender diversity’ as a checkbox. While working with digital products designed for achieving financial inclusion, we realized that just adding equal balance of genders during research is not enough to make the product ‘inclusive’; socio-cultural factors affect users’ individual habits and consequently our research and design approach. For example, sharing digital devices affects a truly private experience of a financial product or decision-making. It’s important to understand these unique implications and design for it to ensure adoption, usability, relevance and therefore create impact.  

Illustration of Indian woman with low digital literacy using a smartphone with the help of her daughter. Photo credit: Xeno Co-lab

Learning from local collaborators

As a regional partner to companies and design agencies, we are able to add a lot of contextual insights to their work,adding extra value to the end deliverable and localizing the end-to-end process. We help companies go beyond what users say, we show ‘why’ they say what they say. Local partners are more than just ‘translators’, they help global teams read between the lines of consumers’ behaviors and understand the ‘whys’. 

During the design phase, we also ensure that the insights are translated into actionable features or strategic recommendations. We have learnt that it is not just important to build partnerships in the countries or regions we work in, but also to build a ‘collaborative partnership’ that shares ownership of the process and decision-making. This is easier said than done, but extremely valuable,  as it ensures that the product or service we design is relevant to the local context and feels like it is ‘made for me’. For India, it means going beyond changing language to Hindi or regional language. It is about understanding how different languages are really used. It isn’t about just changing the visual language to make it “look” Indian. It’s about  changing strategies to make it feel like it’s designed for India. These are things that cannot be achieved in silos and without the knowledge of a local partner. It’s important to leverage partnerships and truly collaborate with local partners in order to build knowledge of a specific market and challenge assumptions. 

Global team working together in collaboration with local India team to understand the cultural nuances during the insight synthesis phase. Photo credit: Xeno Co-lab

Even within India, we work in a network model to ensure that we have consultants from each region of the country to help us push our boundaries of understanding and share regional insights that help us build products with these nuances in mind. For example – while working with a microfinance organization building an inclusive product to launch in the south of India – we collaborated with teams from South India who helped us understand the best way to address financial topics with the consumers of that area. In fact, the sensitivity towards discussing personal finances varies culturally within India. 

Setting inclusion as a wider organizational goal

Inclusion cannot be a research goal, it needs to be a project goal and it needs to be an organizational goal. It needs to be a shared goal across teams. While inclusion is much talked about in the context of including participation from marginalized and diverse groups – which is most actively done in the research phase -, it needs to be an approach with actionables that is part of all the processes. How is a need voiced by a marginalized community addressed in the product or service? The answers to this require the collaboration of design and tech teams. The responsibility of including diverse and unique needs cannot fall on researchers alone. This is why our processes need to change for the design process to not be a linear process but a much more collaborative one. In this type of process there is no loss of information, and the goals remain aligned to ensure the insights and needs are reflected in the design and implemented. While this may be critical for India because of its diversity, it is something that stands true globally.

During one of our recent projects, the research team built a plan with the goal of understanding the needs of diverse user segments from different types of cities in India. For that project, we also intentionally invited cross-functional teams with engineers in the research phase. For them, witnessing such a diversity of digital experiences became a powerful experience.  They could observe the different needs and the infrastructural constraints first-hand and learn how and why their products would fail. They were able to take back these learnings to their teams in the US to then redesign their product and address these infrastructural constraints and needs, making their products more inclusive. 

The Inclusion Revolution

The Digital Revolution began in India in 2015. Since then the country has started to reap its benefits, thanks to the Government initiatives and private tech companies innovating for this market. It is now a playground for innovation with digital designers and researchers at the forefront, steering the revolution by defining how this revolution should positively impact society moving forward. India demonstrates the importance of understanding contextual diversity. So decoding contextual diversity could help us reach our North Star – true inclusion! In order to build an inclusive society, it is our responsibility as designers to take one step at a time and change the way we work and think about our consumers, society, and product innovation. We should pause and think about the larger impact our products and services have in shaping our society and changing our methods, to ensure that our impact is positive and sustainable. 

If you’re interested in learning more from Xeno Co-lab, Swar will give a talk at the online DEI & Design Masterclass on April 19, 2023. Nikhita & Swar gave a talk at the design conference Design Matters Mexico 23, which took place in Mexico City & Online, on Jan 25–26, 2023. The talk, titled “Design for diversity through inclusion and democratization”, explored how digital design can reset value into imagination and creativity in our industries and daily life. Join our streaming platform Design Matters + and watch them and over 300 designers from around the world.

1 Read more about it in our blog Maximized.
2 initiative of Digital India
3 Reliance Jio 
4 Google’s investment

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