I’ve Been Designing Apps All Wrong

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ola-luxFor the past several years I’ve been advising many startups on their technology vision and strategy. Invariably, I would get pulled into their design meetings for their apps and would happily give my thoughts on the interface, flow and usability of the app. I would spend countless hours with the team on the consumer facing app and then I had an incident with an Ola driver and realized I was going about it all wrong.

A month ago I got into an Ola cab and when the driver tried to start the trip he couldn’t. Apparently, the language on the app had changed from English to Marathi and he couldn’t proceed further. The Ola driver handed me his phone to see if I could fix the language setting and I couldn’t. Instead, I some how started the trip and ended the trip in a span of two minutes.

The driver called Ola customer service for assistance but the guy on the other end was very rude to the driver. I took the phone and said it was not the drivers fault as the language setting had changed and there was no way to get to the menu option he was talking about. The call center agent was very nice to me and told me to hand the phone back to the driver. Again, the call center agent got very angry with the driver and asked him why he hit the buttons and instead should have called customer service first.

I’ve seen this scenario played out so many times and I’m not sure why I didn’t pick up on it earlier. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people complain about the Flipkart and Snapdeal seller panel. While their consumer facing website and apps are fine, the sellers that spend the most time on their websites are left using a sub-par product. On the other hand, I’ve heard rave reviews of Amazon’s seller panel which is expected since they have had 20 years of experience to perfect it.

Before my Ola experience I would rank in the order of importance the interfaces as 1. Consumer 2. field services agent (cleaner, driver, delivery person, beauticians, etc…) 3. call center agent. Now, I’ve completely flipped my thinking and reversed the order.

That Ola interaction made me realize that a lot of time is spent on the consumer facing app and very little time or thought on the call center agent interface or the field services app. Of course, the customer is king but if you don’t empower your employees and make their lives easier it makes it very tough for them to deliver the customer delight and 5 star rating that everyone is chasing.

You Down With OTT?

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Back in 1991, I was a freshman at Indiana University and the first few months were a haze with my new found freedom. When I look back to that time the one song that stands out is Naughty By Nature’s “You Down With O.P.P.” It was THE party anthem back in the day. You can visit the Genius page for the lyrics to understand why.

Recently, on one of my morning runs “You Down with O.P.P.” started playing and it got me thinking about a similar sounding acronym – OTT. Over-the-top (OTT) is a concept that you can thank the iPhone for ushering in and in the process opening up the mobile internet to anyone and everyone. Let’s first go back in time before we can thank Steve Jobs and Company.

15-20 years ago if you had a mobile phone you were at the mercy of your phone carrier such as Vodafone, AT&T, etc, some would even say you were a hostage. The reason is because the phone carriers had all the power back then, they decided which phones would be allowed to connect to their network and more importantly they would only allow certain “apps” on those phones. Today, if you are at the top of the Apple App Store or Google Play Store you are golden. Back then, you had to cut deals with the carrier to be “on deck”, meaning you would get valuable screen presence on their phones and in the process handover a large chuck of revenue to them. Or in many cases there was no “app” but just an SMS code you could send to get information like horoscopes, stock quotes or other bits of information that the carrier would monetize from the content providers.

Then Apple released the iPhone for sale in June 2007, which was really Apple’s trojan horse into the AT&T network. When the iPhone was first launched there was no App Store, the only apps available were the ones that Apple shipped with iOS. A little over a year later on July 10th, 2008 Apple launched the App Store and that set in motion a whole new industry – the app economy. Multi-billion companies were created like Snapchat, Ola, WhatsApp, Uber, WeChat, etc…

It meant that apps could be created and would automatically connect to the internet without needing the prior approval of the carrier who previously called the shots. In short, these apps went over-the-top (OTT) of the carrier. Today, these carriers are essentially “dumb pipe” providers and much of the revenue and intelligence is with the app providers. So yes in fact, “We Are All Down With OTT”.

Guns vs. Corruption

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As I type this blog post, I’ve got CNN on in the background and they are covering yet another mass shooting. This time it’s in Munich, Germany where guns are very tough to get. While Germany is still in shock and trying to comprehend with how to deal with the pain, for Americans it’s a daily affair. How did we get here? If you ask any die-hard card carrying National Rifle Association (NRA) member, it’s not guns that kill people but people kill people. That logically doesn’t even make sense. But, since the NRA is one of the most powerful lobbying groups inside the beltway, we are left with daily shootings.

While I was traveling in the US last month, many people would ask me questions about India since I’ve been living there for the last 11 years. Many would ask about the state of corruption since the new Modi administration has been in office for the past 2 years. Even before I could get a word out about corruption the same standard phrase would be blurted out “they really need to do something about corruption and lock up those politicians who take bribes.” I would explain to them the Modi administration is doing it’s best to try and curb corruption but there is only so much the government can do. I’d quickly change the topic to talk about gun violence in the US and why can’t the most powerful nation on Earth figure out a way to solve this mass shooting epidemic. Then they would remain silent and you could see the anguish on their face.

It’s so easy to say, they should ban guns, they should eliminate corruption but it’s not a simple process. Guns are so ingrained in the American ethos and part of the American Constitution. It will take a joint effort to restrict certain types of weapons and I’m not sure it will happen in my lifetime. While corruption is everywhere and more so in emerging markets like India, I’m not so sure you can easily wipe it out. You can curb it by using technology and transitioning to a cashless society but humans will be humans.

What is painful about the gun violence is that humans are dying and it seems there is no end in sight to the madness. At least with corruption, some politician might hit the jackpot and earn billions but people are not dying in the process. (Okay, the one caveat is that some of the Indian government programs to help the poor with getting their daily nutrition have been targeted by politicians. Which has led to some “leakage” in the programs.)

 

 

 

Dump Trump

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Dump-TrumpI just got back from an extended stay in the US and Canada and the main topic of conversation has been Trump. Every discussion with an Uber driver started with Trump. When visiting Canada everyone wanted to know more about Trump and I joked I was visiting to check out the country in case Trump gets elected.

But, what really amazed me was the amount of coverage he was getting from the media. After the Brexit vote came in, all the news anchors wanted to know what Trump had to say, no one really cared too much about Hillary. My guess is that they know Trump will provide them with a sound bite that is provocative. Then the 24 hours news channels can spend hours dissecting the statement and bring in more ad revenue.

The run-up to the US election in November will be very interesting to watch. More importantly the debates between the two candidates should start to shed some light on their policies and economic views which at this point is the most important thing. When I hear Trump say he wants to bring manufacturing back to America, it’s a great sound bite but I don’t think it’s that easy.

How did we get here? That’s the billion dollar question that no ones seems to have an answer for on the Republican side. Democrats have their own issues with Hillary, she’s probably one of the least trusted candidates and is a political insider. For a country with a population of 320 million and to have these two candidates rise to the top, shows that the system is way beyond broken…it’s a joke. The cream of the crap.

 

India’s Love Affair with Licenses

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10362Have you heard the saying one step forward, two steps back? That’s how I feel when it comes to public policy in India. One day they release a new policy that seems to be a game changer and positively impacts certain industries. Then the next day they release another set of policies that totally kills or curtails other industries. It’s like the left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing, in the end it’s just masturbating.

A year ago, the one step forward was the concept paper around electronic payments. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) introduced the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) which would connect all the banks and make it very simple for people to send money to others and generally make e-commerce much easier. The good news is that last month it was launched and it’s gaining traction as more and more banks integrate to the UPI platform. UPI is really just like a Paytm wallet, so instead of having a Paytm wallet you would get a “Payment Address” issued by your bank and then make payments or receive money directly into the bank account.

UPI is not completely new, it’s an advanced version of the Immediate Payment Service (IMPS). The basic flow is that when you visit the checkout screen of an e-commerce company you would enter in a unique “Payment Address” such as 9820012345@AxisBank. This would then route this transaction to the National Payments Corporation of India (NCPI) and it would automagically go to the correct bank. If the bank is Axis Bank, you would open the Axis Bank app and then authorize the transaction in the app. There would be no need for a one time password (OTP) as the Axis app would required a MPIN (mobile PIN) or potentially your fingerprint scan from your Aadhaar enrollment. Magic.

If you are interested in the technical features of UPI, I suggest you download and read the UPI specification document. When you start to read it, you quickly realize how this technology could leap-frog the e-payment systems that are currently in use in the US and Europe.

If UPI was the one step forward, then the newly introduced draft bill called the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016, (the Geospatial Bill) is two steps back. The Geospatial Bill was released by the Ministry of Home Affairs and when you read it, you realize it’s more like two thousand steps back. Take for example, if on a map you accidentally misrepresent the borders of India, it can be punishable with a fine ranging from Rs. 10 lacs (USD $15k) to Rs. 100 CR (USD $15 million) and even crazier is the potential imprisonment of up to seven years.

Oh, but there is much more. You have to apply for a license via the Security Vetting Authority (SVA), which sounds fucking ominous like something the US Government would have created after 9/11. So who or what is the SVA? According to the draft bill:

The Security Vetting Authority shall consist of an officer of the rank of Joint Secretary to the Government of India or above as Chairman and two members, one, a technical expert and the other, a national security expert.

That just sounds like code for – be prepared to pony up some cash so we can “move your file” through the process. This licensing process is a throwback to the good old days of the License Raj in India. And, don’t get me started on how this will effect EVERY phone app that asks for your location or shows you a map. As I said, one step forward and two thousand steps back.

UPDATE:
Some sensible people have come together to rally against the current form of the Geospatial Bill, please visit SaveTheMap.

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