Inspired by research among first time mobile users and my reading about the Chinese mobile market, here are 5 great ideas to build mobile apps for multi-lingual markets like India.
1) Use QR Codes
Derided as an old and dead technology, QR Codes actually represent a simple and powerful way to discover apps, content, buy products or even add contacts to your phone. Popularised by chat apps in China, QR codes are widely used in the country on products, restaurant menus, coupons and even in the back of airline seats and restroom doors. These codes are used to log in on sites, add contacts, and buy products. QR Codes help to bypass text inputs which can be troublesome if you don't understand English.
2) Use Voice
Voice messages, voice-activated apps and voice search represent a huge way to bypass both language barrier and discomfort with technology. As it evolves, and becomes better at recognising accents and dialects, it can be a great way to bridge the language gap.
3) Add new features, not new apps
If app discovery is a problem (and downloading multiple apps leads to heavier data charge, and usage of precious space on the phone), then take a leaf from the OTT messaging services and add newer features into the app, using a ''Discover'' feature. The European notion that each app needs to be mission specific in functionality, does not hold true in Asian markets. Chat apps include shopping, taxi booking, money transfer, games and other functions. And the latest - WeChat in Africa has launched a service for discovery of beauty parlours and booking appointments, with an in-app Beauty Map.
4) Pictures and videos speak louder than words
There is a reason for the huge popularity of emojis, posters, Inspirational Thought for the Day and more. They transcend language and cultural barriers. Apps that use the universal language of iconography, visuals and video will do a better job than those that utilise a lot of text.
5) Look at language technology in the long term
In the long term, language technology needs to evolve to find a solution to the challenging linguistic diversity in India. China has successfully tackled a similar problem (albeit with fewer languages than India). As Dan Grover observes in his post on Chinese App UI Trends, the apps accept Latin character input and happily resolve it into Chinese characters, independant of operating system. They even use heuristics to tackle similar sounding words that could be confused, or typos. India needs to arrive at a similar system.