For our tenth (!) Asia Digital Life Podcast, I talk with Hasit Shah — formerly a producer at BBC News in London, now a research fellow in journalism innovation at Harvard’s Berkman Center. There, and in his family homeland of India, he is drawing upon the principles of human-centered design to develop an innovative new mobile news platform for Indian smartphone users inspired by comic books — a project for which he and his team have received a grant from the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund.

Uniquely for any of the world’s major nations, India’s newspaper industry has been growing and TV news ratings are up. Indians love following and discussing the news, Shah says, but also observes that for the moment traditional distribution networks remain much more successful than digital news platforms because they can penetrate every corner of the country. “Where the Internet can’t reach yet, newspapers can, TV can, and radio can.”

While India’s biggest advertisers’ digital spend is usually well less than 10% of their total budget, it’s 30% or more in the US. “Advertisers there don’t yet have faith in digital, and that’s partly because it’s not yet that big of a market.”

Indeed, Shah notes that less than 20% of the country has a digital connection — far less than in neighboring Asian countries such as China, Thailand, and Vietnam. “And those people tend to be among the more affluent members of society — better educated, possibly English speakers who have a proper internet connection and can access news and information from around the world.”

But, Shah says, the rise of mobile, and the ability of Indians to connect to the Internet on increasingly popular cheap mobile devices, “will be a game changer.”

“The ubiquitous Nokias and feature phones in India are now being replaced by cheap smartphones which cost $30 or $50 US dollars,” he says. “They’re not iPhones or Samsungs, but other manufacturers from China, India and elsewhere are stepping in with cheap, functional, smartphones.” In fact basic touchscreen Android devices from emerging companies like China’s Xiaomi and U.S.-based Mozilla sell for a fraction of the cost of higher-end models but have most of the functionality of top-end devices. 3G mobile internet is becoming increasingly prevalent, with 4G on its way. According to recent estimates, there are currently 160 million smartphones in use in India, to which another 200 million new users will be added this year. Ericsson thinks 5.9 billion people will have a smartphone in five years, driven largely by places like India, which will make it the world’s second biggest smartphone market.

Hasit Shah

India’s Buzzfeed, called ScoopWhoop, understands its users well — and how they differ from Buzzfeed’s.

Shah feels the biggest incentive for innovation in India — and the way smart companies will capitalize upon the local culture, as viral content sharing  sites like Storypick and ScoopWhoop are doing — lies in the country’s linguistic and geographic diversity. “India is not a country in any relevant respect,” he says. “It’s a continent of its own,” with 22 official languages, each spoken by millions of people, and for each of which there are dozens of different dialects. There’s also the fact that 25% of the country is functionally illiterate — yet many still use mobile devices for music and photos, among other things. Digital literacy, of course, is an additional challenge.

It’s here that the principles of user-centered design have come in especially useful for Shah, who studied innovation and design thinking at Harvard.

“One of the challenges of doing any kind of business in India is understanding the idiosyncrasies of the country. There are so many cultural sensitivities you’ve got to be aware of, so many languages, it’s a bureaucratic place, the pace of change can be slow, the way that business is done is different, the way that people manage their time can be different. So having detailed knowledge of the country and its people is an absolute prerequisite if you’re going to design products for them.”

“I’m really interested to see what Indians do to the Internet. A billion people coming online will change the nature of the Internet in some dramatic way, I think, and it’s going to be really interesting to see how.”

Shah believes earnestly that a smartphone-based news solution is possible in India. In theory, he has written, news delivered in the form of short comics could work: It’s easily translatable; it has relatively little text; it doesn’t require a lot of bandwidth; it’s engaging and shareable.

Shah hopes to draw on India's long history of comic book culture

Shah sees in India’s long history of comic book culture inspiration for a mobile news platform

“Given that comics have a long and distinguished history of storytelling in India, it just made sense to try and do a news in a simple, light, engaging form of comics.”

But he says, like any platform, any new idea – this one also needs to be carefully and rigorously tested with its potential users. Like users everywhere, India’s 1.2 billion aspirational citizens — and especially the 600 million of them under the age of 25 — are full of surprises.

“There are usage needs that we don’t yet fully understand. India’s coming of age at a time when the social web is now the Internet, having bypassed the age of the PC and the laptop and the early Internet. We have to build in understanding of how people relate to one another, communicate with each other, when we’re trying to build products for them, and it’s not that easy in a place like India.”