Lessons Learned On App Design For Fast-Growth Markets

Editor’s note: Alan Mamedi is the co-founder and CEO of Truecaller. He is based in Stockholm.

One of the typical mistakes developers make is thinking that because they’ve had success in one corner of the globe, they should be able to employ the same strategy to drive adoption elsewhere. The truth of the matter is apps that are wildly successful in the U.S., Europe and Japan often fail to gain substantial traction in areas like India, South America and the Middle East; these problems go well beyond simple translation issues and lack of cultural understanding.

Something I faced when speaking with our early investors was that they sometimes could get too obsessive with the Western world and overlook the high-growth markets – often referred to as the “next billion markets.” That was a challenge for us, as our growth and data were pointing to the developing markets, and the VCs were pointing to the developed markets. It was a difficult choice for us to make, but we followed where the data pointed. Today it has shown that it was the right path for us to take in order to grow fast.

If your business is facing similar questions and app success relies on international expansion, here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to compete and win over the next billion consumers:

Stop Building Just for “Ferrari Phones”

Mobile app developers usually have a top-of-the-line phone or tablet like an iPhone 5S or a Galaxy S5. This is the device they use their app on day-to-day, but it’s not representative of how most of their users are experiencing their product or service. Lower-end phones are much more commonplace in fast-growth markets than they are in the U.S. or Europe. For example, smartphone penetration in India is only 13 percent, compared to 56 percent in the U.S., according to Google’s Our Mobile Planet study.

Americans and Europeans love to complain about their cellular data caps of a few gigabytes a month, but the situation is far worse for those living in countries where prepaid plans dominate.

The takeaway here is that you should not create an app that just works well for a small percentage of potential customers. This is the equivalent of automotive designers only focusing on their company’s top-of-the-line cars, rather than what most of their customers are driving.

It’s important to pay close attention to the types of devices that reside in the hands of a majority of our users. Truecaller’s app, for instance, often runs smoother on low-end Android phones in India and the Middle East than the operating system itself. Simply maintaining a quality experience – rather than one that chugs along and takes forever to start on most phones – can do wonders for audience retention and repeat usage.

Think Small When it Comes to Design

Bigger doesn’t always mean better. It’s true that phone screens are getting larger in the U.S. and Europe, though in many countries, smaller screens still have a powerful hold. According to Google, 85 percent of U.S. smartphone owners have a phone with a large display (iPhone size or larger) – compare that to Brazil, where just 61 percent of smartphones have a large screen, or Indonesia, where only half of smartphones do.

Although it may be tempting for designers to utilize all the extra screen real estate, this shouldn’t be done at the cost of the user experience. Designers can be too eager to cram their UI with fancy bells and whistles, leading to an ugly, awkward layout for those looking at it through smaller screens.

Much like programming for low-spec phones, accounting for a small screen size is key to improving the overall customer experience.

Don’t Take Data for Granted

Americans and Europeans love to complain about their cellular data caps of a few gigabytes a month, but the situation is far worse for those living in countries where prepaid plans dominate. Prepaid customers have to be extra conscious of their mobile data when every extra megabyte means a higher phone bill. In India, as an example, users often turn off cellular data on their phones to prevent apps from using it in the background.

This is very much in contrast to the average Western developers who typically build their apps with the assumption that their users will have a constant Internet connection, even if the core functionality of the app doesn’t require one. This is a recipe for poor adoption. In fact, Google’s data shows that only 43 percent of Indian smartphone owners use a Wi-Fi connection for their smartphone at home, while nearly three quarters of Americans do.

This may sound limiting, but there are ways to use this to your advantage. For example, Bollywood music streaming service Saavn gives paid subscribers a feature allowing them to save songs on their phone to play when they don’t have access to data. It’s an effective way to reach the widest possible group of users while still giving them the most value from the service.

Seek Out Carrier and Device Partnerships

Only a few years ago, original equipment manufacturers paid license fees to app developers to develop for their smartphones. But today, partnering with carriers and OEMs in foreign markets can be a major boon to all involved. For app developers that don’t have a great deal of brand recognition outside of their home country, joining up with a well-known local brand can be an inroad to reaching millions of new customers. App placement has become real estate developers need to fight for. With a robust partnership, carriers and OEMs can differentiate their increasingly commoditized phones and cellular services and your app gets exposure to users you otherwise might miss out on.

Developers across the spectrum have successfully increased their worldwide user numbers by working with big local firms. For over a year in India, Nokia’s low-cost Asha line has featured a dedicated WhatsApp button and a free lifetime WhatsApp subscription. Evernote accelerated its international expansion by offering a year of premium service to Vivo cellular subscribers in Brazil. Bubble Motion has long partnered with Asian carriers to bring its service to feature phones, which represent a large majority of its audience. Coordinating with device makers and operators is essential for maximizing audience reach in fast-growth markets abroad.

Examples abound of apps becoming more successful by being more accommodating. WhatsApp didn’t get its colossal user base just by targeting those with the latest phones. Word Lens, a translation app recently purchased by Google, owes much of its popularity to the fact that it does not require an Internet connection, making it perfect for international travelers. Similarly, VoIP service Rebtel was able to create an entirely new revenue stream by launching a mobile top up service Sendly, which gained widespread appeal in India by addressing the mobile minute transfer needs of customers in a country where prepaid mobile plans dominate.

To fast track your app for success, do not simply pay attention to making it the most sophisticated app in the category. Rethink your app’s design for approachability and maximum reach. Most importantly, make sure you have conducted extensive user testing to identify and work around major consumer annoyances that can inhibit your app’s growth, virality, and reach.