15 Oct 2014

Mobile First Design a Must in Emerging Markets

Businesses that hope to succeed in emerging markets should focus on delivering high-quality mobile customer experiences.

Some businesses in developed markets aren’t only thinking about desktop-first when it comes to online strategy – many are still desktop-only. Research from early 2014 found more than a quarter of US businesses still had no mobile strategy in place.

Even social media giants such as Facebook have been late to the table when it comes to mobile: this summer COO Sheryl Sandberg admitted that the company made a big mistake in underestimating the impact of mobile. This failure to grasp the significance of the mobile audience meant that Facebook didn’t tailor its site and advertising for smartphones and tablets until as late as 2012.

What’s the reason for this slowness to respond to the proliferation of mobile device users? Perhaps it’s because, for adults in the developed world, the first experience of the internet more often than not came via a desktop connection. This might explain why the decision-makers in the developed world always think in terms of desktop first, with mobile only ever an after-thought.

Emerging markets are different

For internet users in emerging markets, the first experience of the internet is far more likely to have come via a mobile connection than their counterparts in a developed country.

These users are sometimes described as having ‘skipped the desktop generation’ and gone straight to mobile. And unlike consumers in the developed world, whose attention is often split between the various internet-enabled devices they own, consumers in emerging markets are more likely to be exclusively on mobile. Not only are they ‘mobile-first’, many of these consumers are also likely to be ‘mobile-only’.

What this means is that consumers in emerging markets don’t have recourse to desktop devices if they can’t successfully complete an activity on their mobile device. That makes it more critical to get mobile design right for users that have no alternatives.

Companies with a web offering are going to have to get it right first time on mobile, as they can’t expect their customers to have any options beyond mobile. This situation represents quite a threat to the desktop-centric developed world view.

It’s also the case that, unlike consumers in the developed world, emerging market consumers may access a company’s mobile site or application without ever having accessed the desktop version. This means their entire online experience with that brand is likely to have come via the mobile site.

Companies offering mobile users a mobile site which offers only a scaled-down version of their desktop site, with a reduced offering, will be selling themselves short to mobile-only consumers by only showing a partial view of what they do. It seems responsive or adaptive design options which incorporate the full range of offering are far more likely to be necessary faced with this kind of audience.

Internet users in emerging markets may be relatively new to the internet in general, and have a more limited experience and knowledge of the technology and design conventions required to interact with it. Conventions of web design that originated in desktop may be unfamiliar to users coming from a mobile-first, mobile-only perspective, which has implications for designing for these consumers.

It’s also important to consider the speed of access when building for emerging market audiences. Companies that have run user testing programs in emerging markets are often struck by how patient users will be when interacting with sites they really value. This patience with slow download speeds is a good indicator of what consumers value.

Why mobile matters in all markets

Companies in the developed world woke up to the needs of the mobile audience not simply because of the rise in their numbers. It’s also because these mobile users represent key audiences for them.

Research seems to indicate that smartphone users, especially iPhone users, tend to come from higher income households. Over the last few years, consumers have also been spending increasing amounts of time on their mobile devices and that rise continues. From 2013-14 eMarketer forecast that, for adults in the US, the time spent online using mobile devices would increase by a quarter.

Consumers in emerging markets are expected to hugely expand their smartphone adoption because of handsets have now become available under about £30. This critical price point opens up a huge market of consumers with annual incomes around $2000-4000k. Smartphone sales in India were thought to grow around 95% in 2013, expanding opportunities for businesses to connect with the Indian middle class.

Frugal innovation: the key to success

Much of the expansion in emerging market mobile phone ownership is accounted for by cheaper feature phones rather than smartphones. This has implications for how companies market to mobile users as it reduces the technological options available to them. Writing in 2012, Kaushik Mukerjee described ‘frugal innovation’ as the secret to success in emerging markets. His argument was that consumers in emerging markets would respond well to frugal, not frivolous, innovations; particularly those tailored to them.

That’s certainly the approach taken by Facebook, which is responding to the needs of feature phone users by designing a stripped-down version of their offering available even to those users with very slow connection speeds, accessible on several thousand different types of feature phone including the very cheapest.

For businesses without the resources to tailor their offering to feature phone users, along with translation and localisation considerations, the key to success in emerging markets seems to be to shed the ‘desktop first’ approach that developed market decision makers have been guilty of for so long. To engage with the mobile-first, mobile-only audiences of emerging markets, the approach needs to start and possibly also end with mobile from now on.


Sign up to our newsletter

Get our blog articles straight to your inbox.