Indians love the news. Uniquely for any major nation in the world, their newspaper industry is growing and TV news ratings are up. And with half of the population—600 million people —under the age of 25, it is a market that will only continue to grow.
It is also perhaps the most uniquely difficult digital news market to reach in the world. More than a billion people in India aren’t connected to the Internet. Three hundred million don’t have electricity and a similar number can’t read. Half the population doesn’t even have a toilet at home.
I’ve spent the past year as a Nieman-Berkman Fellow in Journalism Innovation here at Harvard trying to reconcile this great opportunity in India with these staggering challenges.
We’ve just seen an election in which digital technology has played a greater role than ever before. The new prime minister of India has shown commitment to internet access in his home state and it seems likely he’ll make it a similar priority across the rest of the country.
For a long time too expensive and too complex to reach most of the Indian market, smartphones are now within touching distance of mass affordability. You can get a basic touchscreen, Android device for around 40 dollars, and 3G mobile internet is becoming increasingly prevalent.
According to the most recent estimates, there are currently 150 million smartphones in use in India, and another 200 million new users will be added by the end of 2014. Ericsson thinks 5.9 billion people will have a smartphone in five years, driven largely by places like India.
But at the moment, not all of these low-end smartphones are connected to the internet, because a lot of the available content and platforms are simply not designed for the people buying the devices. Many people don’t yet have a compelling enough reason to fork out the extra rupees.
Any mobile strategy in India must therefore take a two-pronged approach: in the short term, it must be light and simple enough to work across India’s current smartphones and network, while preparing for the inevitable modernisation of India’s network and internet availability in the long term.
India’s huge and diverse population raises many design challenges for media companies trying to reach a mass audience.
The most successful content in India, like anywhere else, demonstrates a deep understanding of its audience. For an Indian content creator, that may be fairly intuitive. But a foreign media company, even one with large resources, has to do some pretty thorough, constant ethnographic and data-led research.
The principles of user-centred design, now taught at Harvard, are also useful here: What does the user do all day? When and how do they use their devices? What are the ‘pain points’? And ultimately, what content and platforms work for them?
These are the key roadblocks that must be overcome with intuitive, user-focused design:
Language – users are less likely to speak English, instead communicating in one of India’s 22 major languages (or more accurately, one of the hundreds of dialects). For news organisations, this represents a big problem in terms of staffing, translation and scale.
Literacy – 25% of the country is illiterate but that doesn’t disqualify them from using smartphones, since many people still use these devices for music and photos, among other things. Digital literacy is an additional challenge.
Low bandwidth – these are not iPhones on 4G. Although the cheapest phones are functional, some don’t even have the processing power to run the Facebook app effectively. Videos often fail to load, and the connection itself is also erratic.
Low attention span – research suggests that smartphone users spend far more time on social media, entertainment and practical necessities like mobile money, than on news. We will need to figure out a way to make news engaging, necessary and shareable.
Since most Indian users seem unlikely to go directly to news sites, we will need to go to the platforms they use most. Facebook with 100 million users, and Twitter with 30 million, are a piece of this puzzle.
But the future – and greatest opportunity – is with chat apps like Whatsapp (50m users) and WeChat. Because they work across most devices and networks, these are now the primary form of communication for smartphone users in India, and growing fast. They’re no longer just messaging services either. You can send and receive media, set up groups, post status updates: they’re proper social networks that work well on low-end devices.
My own research project has focused on the possibility of news in comic book form. In theory, it could work: it’s easily translatable; it has relatively little text; it doesn’t need a lot of bandwidth; it’s engaging and shareable. But it also needs to be carefully and rigorously tested with its potential audience.
And that’s the point, ultimately. Media companies will address the challenges I’ve outlined above in different ways. The successful ones are likely to be those who can work out how to build the right platforms, designed specially for this new, enormous, diverse audience.
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