Reframing tech solutions for emerging markets

Reflecting on the past year since launching Ula in Indonesia, it has been an immensely rewarding journey to digitize Indonesia’s offline SMEs, bringing the world of online e-commerce to their fingertips. Admittedly, building these solutions presented an amazing set of challenges too.

The typical small store owner is in their 40s or 50s, not tech savvy, and has rarely made use of mobile apps before. The thought of stocking up inventory using e-commerce is an overall unfamiliar concept for them. The predominant method still involves calling up suppliers, passively waiting for a sales person, and relying on paper receipts for record-tracking.

The many lessons I’ve picked up building complex tech solutions during my time in Amazon and Booking.com requires a reframe for Indonesia, especially for the Indonesian SME. We needed to operate from first-principles thinking again, and begin understanding what kinds of hyperlocal problems we were dealing with, and the solutions required.

So what have we learned thus far?

Utility trumps bells and whistles

A solution that’s simple and with a clear and direct value proposition is sufficient. People in emerging markets need solutions to their problems to put food on the table, not fancy fonts or UI transitions.

UX approachability of your tech solution is especially important

In developed markets such as the US and Europe where internet technology has been available for decades, it’s not uncommon to build for a user who has a desktop, a laptop, a tablet and a mobile phone — in other words, someone who is hyper-connected and already understands the paradigms of UX concepts such as the highly-recognizable “hamburger menu”. In Indonesia, where the largest technology startup (GoJek) is just over 10 years old, and much of the population has only seen a few generations of mobile phones, creating a super-simple and intuitive UX to help the user navigate and understand technology is paramount. Our approach to making an intuitive and simple UX through online and offline research, combined with intense brainstorming sessions, ensure that our app always provides clear value to our users.

Design for compactness and runtime speed (due to low-end mobile devices)

Mobile internet connectivity is underdeveloped in remote regions where Ula can deliver the most impact. On top of that, our store owners use lower-end phones and pay-per-use data plans. With that in mind, we needed to design our app to be very small and lightweight compared to typical apps in other markets, and even our competition.

Bottom line, know your customers and be customer-centric

During my time in Amazon, our mission was to be Earth’s most customer-centric company. I have left Amazon since, but have brought that lesson with me to Ula. At Ula, we put our store owners at the center of everything we do. We are always finding new ways to empower them, and to better serve them. That customer trust and loyalty that comes with customer-centricity done right, will always be integral in the success of any tech solution we build.

It has been a humbling experience reframing how we build tech solutions. At the same time, it’s been one of the most fulfilling experiences to be learning again every single day. Yes it’s a challenge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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