Let’s call him Kumar, a cab driver, who drove me to Mumbai airport a few days ago, just when disembarking the cab, I realised I was short of cash but had adequate money loaded in a popular digital wallet; I offered him to pay through it, he too had that app but refused it and demanded cash since he had forgotten the password and can’t comprehended the instructions on the wallet app to reset it. The reason? It was in English and this humble migrant from hinterlands of UP has no reading proficiency of English knowledge. Duh! So much for everyone cheering to promote a digital first nation. Did technology fail him? No, it simply oppressed him. Kumar is a literate, can fluently read, write and speak in Hindi, something that 400 million more Indians do. Yet the world wide web consists of less than 0.5% of content in Hindi and arguably relegates a powerful computer called smartphone into a portable entertainment device.

Technology is what we make of it, but for millions of Kumars out there, it is a yet to uplift their lives and livelihood, for now it offers a worthless tapestry of memes, jokes and rose bouquet good morning forwards.

It is not that hard to empathize with the likes of Kumar, just go to your smartphone settings and change the language to Bahasa or Simplified Chinese and try using the phone for an hour. Unless you know either of these two languages, you are unlikely to even revert the phone setting back to English language.

The ordeal for non-English literates does not end here at apps, it taunts them at interpreting healthcare information, booking a ticket online, comprehending a legal document and so on. The lack of localisation is holding the nation back from leveraging technology to its true potential. Something that needs to be addressed collectively and imminently. Here’s why:

The ordeal for non-English literates does not end here at apps, it taunts them at interpreting healthcare information, booking a ticket online, comprehending a legal document and so on. The lack of localisation is holding the nation back from leveraging technology to its true potential. Something that needs to be addressed collectively and imminently. Here’s why:

Available, accessible, and useful: have entirely different meaning when talking about web technologies. An internet connection is available on a phone (is like owning a kitchen), a user may find it difficult to access it via a browser unless they can comprehend it (have a recipe book, but not in the language user understands), and even if they succeed in accessing it, how useful is it? (they realise it’s a cuisine they don’t consume). Building in local languages can help in entangling this three-tiered knot.

If the offline world is any indication, during 2016-17, over 46,500 Hindi publications were registered in India and circulation wise, Urdu came third with 5.6 crore copies in circulation but the content on the web continues to be skewed towards English. The puzzling dichotomy may be fun to read, but at this rate, it may devour and alienate the next generation from learning our culture, values and literature that are inscribed in vernacular languages.

India beyond the 6.8 crore people: 42 may be the Douglas Adams’ answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything in his fiction ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to Galaxy’. But in reality, 6.8 crore happens to be a magic number for India. In 2017, we had 6.8 crore passport holders, in financial year 2017-18, 6.8 crore people filled taxes, and with some guesstimates, the transacting people on ecommerce sites are at similar range. I like to call these cohort as ‘India’ and rest of the 126-crore people as ‘Bharat’.

Almost all the technology products that touch our lives everyday (search, social, shopping, entertainment) are from the West, there’s nothing wrong in it. But for an engineer in the Silicon Valley, it is beyond fantasy to build culturally relevant products for a sub-continent where language, dialect, accent and culture change for every 100 kilometres.

What’s more surprising is that, we Indians ourselves don’t yet fully understand Bharat. Is Malayalam a state? Karnatakaaaaa is irritatingly pronounced as car-na-tak, phew! And any person from south of the Vindhya range are deemed to be Madrasi.

We can repeatedly spot large billboards for brand messaging along tier 2 and 3 towns completely written in English, often, it is because the studio that designed it and the boardroom that approved it are from the ‘India’ cohort whereas the intended audience are in ‘Bharat’. A colossal spill over. it’s time to refresh our business strategy, perhaps dusting out and reading CK Prahalad’s book ‘The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid’ is a good start. Something that Bill Gates appreciated and FMCG companies perfected.

All it takes is little empathy: and a very high amount of applied common sense, the two keystones of building a good UX (user experience). For instance, if one were to launch an app in Germany, and France would it be prudent to classify the two markets as ‘Europe’ and approach it same way? Then why expect Bengali reading audience to behave the same way as that of Tamils.

For entrepreneurs and tech companies wanting to build and thrive here, it is imperative to build ground up, address one market at a time, be cognizant of cultural nuances and weave context at every step of the user’s journey.

There’s no shortcut to this, yet. Something even Hollywood realised and prudently makes Superheroes speak Hindi, Tamil and Telugu on our silver screens next door.