For all the IT muscle India has to show off, with billions of dollars in turnover in the sector each year, the ability to ship digital products for consumers continues to elude us. We produce high-calibre engineers in droves, but can’t seem to build the next Facebook. Or the next Xbox. Or even the next Quizup. We’re great at ITES, but have built nothing new that the world wants to use regularly, be seen using or pay for online. What’s holding India back?

Need over want

As a developing nation with various domains like education and infrastructure in different stages of maturity, there are always more problems to solve in this country than there are desires to satisfy. I recall meeting a startup at Microsoft’s incubation program last year that was working on what can be described as ‘Twitter for places and events’ — users could post and read thoughts about their current location that was relevant to when they were there (a music festival in full swing, or a cliff that offered a great view of a setting sun). After engaging with mentors and industry specialists, that novel idea was quickly ditched and the startup began working on an SMS-based website management service for businesses that don’t have access to rich web tools. In essence, the company shifted gears from creating something people around the world might like, to solving a problem in the Indian market.

Smart move, you say? Perhaps you’re right — the market conditions indeed seem ideal for the latter proposition, and the company may be better off building a service that has a shorter adoption cycle. But what about the app they first dreamed of? It was killed off, maybe because it wasn’t viable in the short term or because it didn’t fit the market right, or because it failed to address a need identified among the target audience. Whatever be the case, I feel like it was a lost opportunity to create a new way for people to interact with each other — and if Facebook, Instagram, Vine and Snapchat are any indication, that’s exactly what web/mobile users around the world WANT.

It looks like we only ever seek to solve problems faced by the Indian populace, which leaves us little time and energy to explore the possibility of creating something that has universal appeal for users globally.

I realise this is easier to say looking from the outside in, but I strongly feel like we need to experiment more and try harder to come upon and execute ideas that can excite a global audience.

It takes more than just code

The vast majority of IT startups in India are engineer-driven. It’s rare to find a pure business or marketing maverick at the helm of these fledgling operations — they’re generally brought on board after investors have helped build the nest. And I always wonder whether engineers are the people we should be asking, for new ideas on products. It’s not easy to figure out what new mode of social interaction will click when you spend the majority of your educational and professional career coding.

Just as a fashion brand needs trendspotters on the streets hunting down the next big trend, so does a coder need to be out in the world and imagine what the future holds for people and technology. We don’t have much of the social experimentation that this requires, here in India — but perhaps that itself could be a reason to break the mold and try something new.

That’s certainly not to say that engineers can’t conceptualise great products, but I mean that we need more collaboration from other verticals and specialisations to help bring about innovation.

Cannot able to design

UI, UX and content specialists are few and far apart in India, and most of those who are good at what they do often serve foreign markets. A small pool of real talent means that most Indian web and mobile products are poorly designed, offer a below-average user experience and lack attention to detail in everything from website copy to marketing materials. However, that’s generally not too big a hassle for many ventures, as most Indian consumers don’t expect and/or demand a quality user experience from digital products.

We’re used to services taking days when they should take minutes, objects being potentially harmful to handle when they should be ergonomic — is it any wonder that we don’t care if your mobile app graphics are blurry? Unfortunately for us, good UX is crucial to world domination in the digital age, and we’re almost always bringing up the rear on that front. Yeah, I know, exceptions, but that’s exactly my point — they’re exceptions and not the rule.

India can’t build fun products just yet — and that’s okay

When thinking about what India is up to and what we’re good at, I’m reminded of this recent NYT comic panel. Given our large and increasingly mobile/web-connected populace, there’s too large an opportunity in the essential digital products/services space for startups to ignore at the moment. And that’s alright — if we don’t solve our own problems with local insights and solutions, who will?

That being said, Indian companies need to take product quality and customer delight more seriously if we’re going to approach global markets. We need to focus on higher standards in performance, design and marketing before we can start thinking about how we’ll be the next big whatever. I can’t wait to see Indian teams try something novel, something unexpected — and I’ll do my best to keep an eye on the scene and update my views.

Can Indians succeed in IT? Sure — we’re actually good at services and backend stuff.

Will the next Google come out of India? Don’t bet your stock options on it just yet.

Photo by Ryan McGuire

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