17 Jun Technology for Good – When Mobile Apps Create Space for Change
Around 12 years ago, I used to dread traveling to cities like Bangalore, simply because the local auto-rickshaws used to fleece any newcomers or outsiders. Every journey was a series of calculated negotiations with drivers, using upfront information from local colleagues, just to avoid being fooled by tricksters. The alternative was to be generous and pay “cool cabs” a much higher price than what they ideally should be charging. Regardless of the option, I, as the customer lost the negotiation front every single time and would inevitably pay up. I wondered if this was the end of mobility in an otherwise cool, technologically forward-thinking city.
Now, 12 years later, I don’t have to be bothered with long waits in the heat of summer, or during thunderstorms, since being vested with the newfound power of choosing my commute from a variety of apps – whether it’s Ola, Uber or even smaller, apparently easier apps that are driver-and-passenger-friendly. Today, I’m faced with a supermarket experience of choosing a ride from an array of providers and luxury levels. Has this really changed my behavior as a consumer? Has this really revolutionized space and increased city infrastructure in India? To a certain extent, this may be true, but this reality is caused by private firms filling up the void left by state administrations. It successfully turned the tide around, giving rise to the consumer-first experience.
Laying a Foundation
When we started Saathealth a few years ago, the consumer was at the center of the Design and Prototyping phase. We simply started with a problem statement: “How can we nudge parents from low-income communities towards better health-seeking behaviors through mobile apps?”, better yet, “through technology”. With such a global problem statement, it was important to limit our scope for possible implementation, thereby avoiding the entire gamut of behavior changes that we would have to think of or the full array of problems that parents in low-income communities would experience while raising a kid. This limitation seemed like a blessing, and yet a tough nut to crack, particularly with a multidisciplinary team, without specific expertise in government agencies. However, as classical Product Management dictates: it’s tough to push a need into a target group of consumers when the need does not exist; it’s easier to pull the demand from one of the many needs of the target group and center your product around it. Then, you measure the impact the product has created.
It’s All About Context
Saathealth started with a scope of impacting the lives of 5000 families in some of the worst slums in Mumbai. Our first visit to Govandi and Mankhurd proved that humans are remarkable beings, with the ability to create togetherness and incur joy from the transience of living itself. Despite the lack of hygiene, clean air, clean water, and regular electricity, people from different parts of India lived in utter harmony in a mess that we call civilization. It was questionable whether our app, compared to the norm of public health workers, would be able to create better results in nudging people towards a better life, and a healthier childhood for their loved ones. The environment in which we were launching was scary. It was filled with loopholes and dilemmas, much like a Grimm’s fairytale, where the rosy picture is only the facade, and underneath lie darkness, gruesome horrors and possibly death.
Mankhurd has by far the worst Tuberculosis rates in India, with 1 in 10 people suffering, or having suffered from some strain of the very contagious disease. Govandi is better organized, yet suffers from massive malnutrition. Launching an app with some sort of gamification incentives for watching content and actually getting people to answer questions related to their health-seeking behavior in this sort of setup would be a challenge – or so we thought. When Saathealth launched in September 2018, the initial user base was pretty satisfied with a slow app, limited content and not many features. Knowing that the average Indian mobile user’s appetite for novelty and affinity towards smartphones was increasing rapidly, we had to launch an incentive structure for consuming content, however with a variation of points awarded to keep the learning curve of the users high.
Technology for the Emerging Internet User
This was the second time that I’d worked on an app where behavioral scientists and psychologists had contributed to the betterment of user experience, not just designers. Additionally, we had to make a choice between pushing over-the-air updates or let users choose their update mechanism as other apps were doing – since the former meant we had a quick push means, and the latter meant the app would be lighter on their phones. Despite launching incentives, our biggest gain in the last 6 months seems to be every time we improved the speed with which our users accessed the app and consumed content, or when the size of the app and its footprint on their smartphones decreased drastically. Looking at the size of more successful apps like Facebook or Instagram, one might think that size does not matter, however the stickiness of Facebook or the drag that Instagram has due to its self-profiling and attention-grabbing user experience trade well against a constraint such as a mammoth app. People would obviously not delete Facebook’s app from their phones against a community betterment initiative. Hence, our incentive mechanism, coupled with redemptions at local department stores in these low-income slums, helped triggered a surge in not only the new user acquisition, but also in the overall consumption of content, leading to a subsequent surge in redemption of healthy, nutritious food-stuff such as lentils, eggs, peanuts and cane sugar from the local stores.
Our biggest challenge still was the size and the launching speed. We recently increased the efficiency of our app by about 90% by simply re-writing some parts of the code, removing redundancy and by eliminating methods that would load the database with multiple calls without any real-world consequences. The result was an app that loaded in 4-12 seconds depending on whether the user was on 2G/3G/4G network bandwidths, and the size of the app came down by 4 MB. What we can already see is an increase in the number of sessions, and an increase in content consumption per video or quiz, or just the number of minutes users spend on our app on a daily basis.
Tech for Everyone, Tech for Good
To solve a real-world problem, you need the right mixture of technology that has a strong behavioral science backing, and a deep link into the mentality, the aspirations and the real needs of the target group. Technology alone cannot aim at pushing a great idea into the world and expect everyone else to follow. If mobility can be solved, it would need support from the surrounding ecosystem – such as the introduction of rented bikes, carpooling, season tickets for the entire transport network in a city and the increase in smartphone usage with a combined increase in e-wallets or easy-to-use payment instruments. Introducing an app hence puts the developers of such a product at the helm of pioneering an initiative that is well thought out, and using conducive variables of the ecosystem to turbocharge the initiative. At Saathealth, we are aiming at exactly this – influencing the behaviors of parents to build a more knowledgeable, self-aware society for healthier children. Like Uber or Ola, we’re starting to shape the way parents think about their child’s health and their own needs. And this is just the beginning.
Head of Product – Saathealth
Srini is a product manager with extensive experience in building fintech products in Europe and delivering health tech projects in India. He strongly believes that mobile apps hold the key to parents raising healthier children. Visit https://www.saathealth.com/ to know more about his work.