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Notes from the road: How do you get online in India?

At Jana, our product folks travel regularly to our target markets so that we can better keep a pulse on both our clients and our members. Each time I do this, I come back to Boston reinvigorated by the realization that we’ve actually been doing a lot of things right, but also that there are a set of blindingly obvious things that we should be doing differently.

In addition to these more profound observations, I also can’t help but notice some more mundane details of everyday life that help color in the pictures of the people that we serve every day.

Case in point: how do you get connected to the mobile internet in India? There’s some variation in this, of course, but here’s how it worked for me.

  1. Locate a SIM card reseller shop
  2. Hand over physical copies of your address proof (e.g. electric or phone bill), ID proof (e.g. driver’s license or Aadhar card), and a personal reference to the shopkeeper, and then fill out a form with some more personal info.
  3. A representative from the operator physically picks up all of the applications from the SIM card reseller each day.
  4. The operator checks your identifying information and follows up with your personal reference to make sure that you are real.
  5. About a day later, a person from the operator calls and gives instructions for how to activate the SIM card.
  6. You call a call center to activate your card. You will have to re-enter your ID proof and confirm your answers to questions on the documents you submitted previously.
  7. Once your card is activated, you still have to add money to it before you can use it for internet, voice, or SMS. In my case, this meant traveling back to the SIM card reseller shop and purchasing these packages with cash on hand. For Rs. 312 (~$5), I purchased Rs. 40 of voice / SMS (called “talktime”) and 1 GB of internet, which expires in 30 days.

Mostly this is good background context to help us design our product for the “typical Indian member”, but it also gives me a few things to keep in mind for our app in particular.

First, people must be used to jumping through hoops in order to get something that they want. This was not a seamless process in the way that it was for me to upgrade my mobile phone plan in the United States after my latest contract was up. Perhaps this means that we should focus on creating greater benefits within our product rather than on removing signup roadblocks.

Second, even digital transactions here can be very high-touch. To sign up for a mobile plan, I had to submit paper copies, talk on the phone, and pay a shopkeeper in cash. As we build out our mCent product, which essentially introduces our users to a new set of useful apps, we need to be aware that our users may not be accustomed to making purchases, hailing cabs, or playing games on their mobile yet. Perhaps we’ll need to focus more on convincing our users to take previously offline activities online in order to get them to try out these new apps.

Third, operators take care of a significant part of identity verification already. We’ve already built out our own identity verification by factoring in device identifiers, phone numbers, and other network factors, but perhaps it would be better to integrate with operators (or governments) on identity directly as at least another data point.

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