Nikhita Ghugari
Author - Nikhita Ghugari

India is often described as ‘complex’ due to its diverse cultural, economic and social structures that make it challenging for companies to penetrate or innovate. We sought to better understand this complexity and define how service designers can turn these complexities into opportunities.

This article by Nikhita Ghugari is part of Touchpoint Vol. 10 No. 3 - Managing Service Design Discover the full list of articles of this Touchpoint issue to get a sneak peek at more fascinating articles! Touchpoint is available to purchase in print and PDF format.

Decoding a complex landscape

Many factors in India continue to draw the attention and investment of companies from abroad. Its strong GDP growth, youthful demographics1  and thriving global startup culture have led to an influx of new products and services aimed at the Indian consumer. As India and its people rapidly evolve, companies view the country as both a huge playground of untapped opportunities and a mysterious, complicated puzzle to solve. Recently at the Innovation Social Global conference, a CEO asked our team: “Tell me how companies become successful in India. What’s the secret?”

This question, although broad, was direct and valid. We had no single answer. In addition to the country’s demographic, economic and cultural diversity, there is also unequal access to products and services and inconsistent infrastructural support. Because of such challenges, companies have a hard time figuring out how to introduce differentiated products and services that create and sustain loyalty from the Indian audience.

Despite these challenges, global companies such as Google, Uber and IKEA have made inroads into the market. They have done so through the introduction of differentiated, value-added products and services or by shifts in their business models. For instance, Google introduced YouTubeGo after studying the infrastructural limitations of wi-fi and mobile network coverage. Unique features, such as watching videos offline and providing a preview of videos, let the user decide how they want to use their mobile data. Such features address user needs in a way that is relevant to contextual constraints.


How do we leverage these complexities?

As a service design consultancy based in India, it is a very exciting time for us to help businesses identify these untapped opportunities and implement relevant solutions. To deeply understand the user and their context, we change our methodology and approach because social, economic and cultural dynamics vary every few kilometres. To design for the relevant Indian regional context, we evaluate innovation opportunities in terms of unique features, experience touchpoints and business models.

For example, we worked with a global technology company that wanted to help non-English speakers understand English text through a translation feature in their mobile application. Our team observed that although the users appreciated the feature for translating the content to their local language, they also saw this application as a tool to learn English. This was an ‘aha!’ moment for the team because it pointed towards not-so-obvious expectations of aspirational users. Such insights help inform, and sometimes pivot, product positioning.

Another interesting insight was observed during an engagement with ‘Project Kish’ to create financial inclusion in rural India. We spent time to understand the multiple stakeholders – such as banks, insurance companies, local self-help women groups, etc. – involved in local financial interactions. Our team soon realised that a group of local, progressive villagers formed the ‘credit society’, which acted as a trusted mediator between the villagers and the bank. Formal or informal trust circles such as this one have the potential of becoming additional touchpoints to efficiently deliver more trustworthy products or services.


Learnings for service designers

Based on our experience, we wanted to share some of our personal learnings for how one can address some of the challenges when designing solutions for India. These learnings are relevant irrespective of the sector, demography of the target audience or innovation stage.

1. Define a very specific user segment and context

As human-centred designers, we all are familiar with the trap of designing for ‘everyone’. The design community has developed tools – such as personas and empathy maps – to guide the design process away from generic solutions and towards products and services that address the specific needs of their intended users. Given the social-economic diversity and disparity in India, defining user segments and their context precisely is even more critical to deliver relevant solutions. A persona needs to communicate in great detail the dimensions of lifestyle, beliefs, behaviours and services/infrastructure access, because these factors vary greatly even within the same state.

One approach we use to uncover the nuances in our diverse population is engaging with local experts for different states and regions in India. These experts provide a critical entry point into their villages, allowing us to overcome language and cultural barriers, and helping us build trust with the people. This technique consistently leads to quality insights grounded in a better understanding of the people and their context. Even when we conduct field research in a village in our home state of Maharashtra, such local expert collaboration makes these cultural probes easier and more effective to solve for rural-urban disparity.

2. Building shorter feedback loops into the process

India’s fast-changing environment, unique user expectations and infrastructural volatility can lead to unintended consequences. Even solutions defined through a human-centred approach may be used in a completely different manner than what was anticipated. Tried-and-true research methods may fail when you reach the field, due to unforeseen circumstances.

As a result, teams need to be flexible, adaptable and agile in their work. We have found shorter feedback loops in the design process reduce the risk of long-term failure by continuously reflecting on what is – or is not – working. We encourage our designers to think on their feet, adapting their methods to feedback and the given context.

For example, usually for multiple research sprints we plan for iteration after each sprint. But when we were recently working in rural India, we had two iteration loops during a sprint: once in the beginning and once in the end. In the beginning, we began to understand biases in our tools or visualisations. For instance, when we used a plus (‘+’) symbol with a Rupee symbol to show ‘adding money’, the users interpreted it as a medical sign because of differences in education and digital literacy. We realised we had assumed ‘+’ to mean ‘adding more’ money because of the digital payment services familiar to the design team. Based on similar learnings, we made iterations to our visual tools and probes in the middle of the sprint.

3. Building on relationships

Through our personal and professional experiences in India, we have learned that relationships and trust have a critical role in how people engage with ­products and services. Peer-validation and recommendation have significant influences when a user makes decisions both large and small. Companies unfamiliar with this social structure are often surprised when their innovation fails. One secret to succeeding in India: Make understanding personal relationships and social circles a key input into designing, implementing and communicating product and services.

We see many other opportunities to adapt our tools and methodologies depending on the context. In the end, we feel it is equally important to inculcate creative optimism and resilience within innovation teams to work with constraints and complexities. This will open up a contextual blue ocean of opportunities which one wouldn’t stumble upon otherwise.


1 By 2020, it will be the world’s youngest country with an average age of 29. Source: Financial Express, 2017:

Co-author: Swar Raisinghani.

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