Episode 22 E-Commerce for the Next Billion with Bharath Ram, Flipkart

In this episode of Thoughtcast by Onething, Divanshu is joined by Bharath Ram, Senior Vice President, User Growth and Retention at Flipkart! Bharath is a veteran of the e-commerce space, both in India, and abroad, and we picked his brain about the nature and evolution of the industry. The discussion kicks off by discussing the nature, and quirks of digital consumers across the globe, and how geographic factors can influence the success or failure of a platform! Diving deeper, Bharath breaks down his philosophies about design at Flipkart, alongside which metrics are utilised to understand and maximise customer satisfaction. Furthermore, we delve into the redesign of Flipkart, and the things that need to be considered when designing for the next generation of a billion digital buyers and sellers. Be sure not to miss the e-commerce & design connection, in the newest edition of Thoughtcast.

Episode Transcript

[Divanshu]

Hey guys, welcome to another episode of Thoughtcast by Onething Design.

This is Divanshu, your host and I hope you are enjoying our conversations and it is bringing the kind of insights we are trying to deliver.

Did you know 59% of regular internet users make an online purchase every single week. Online retail is now 49 trillion dollar industry worldwide and is expected to grow by 50% in the next 4 years.

Flipkart, one of India’s largest ecommerce platform, recently redesigned their app. So, we went hunting to find who is the right person to speak at Flipkart about this design journey. And, today we have Mr.Bharath Ram who is Vice President, User Growth and Retention at Flipkart. This conversation is all about understanding how Flipkart understood their consumers needs and they used UX research and design principles to deliver to the next billion consumers. 

Thank you, Bharath for joining us for this episode of Thoughtcast by Onething Design. Really happy to kinda meet you here in Bangalore. And I mean, I’m so happy that we are doing it in Bangalore because the weather is so nice. In fact, you know, just before the podcast, you know, we got confirmation that you’ll be available, I was just going through your background in terms of, you know, where all you’ve worked and your profile on LinkedIn and all. You know after spending a lot of years in the west, you’ve come to India and, you know, India is going through a different story right now. What made you kind of come to India and leave the west? Was it something to do with, oh, this I wanna go back to my roots, or was it completely a logical decision?

[Bharath]

Uh, sure. First of all, welcome to Bangalore, and it’s a pleasure talking to you. So, the decision to move to the west or to the US was the hardest. This one, the reverse decision in my mind was the easiest.

At the time that I left, there weren’t the kind of opportunities that you find today. So I’m a little bit envious of kids graduating out of college today with the kind of opportunities that they have. But, so I mostly went out in search of some thirst for some intellectual pursuit, and one thing led to another and, and actually I ended up staying more than I thought I would.

So the decision to move back was just purely, I was in awe of the revolution that was happening in India, both in the eCommerce ecosystem and the startup ecosystem and I wanted to be a part of that. This was like the kind of the golden era that I thought and I prayed when I was a student that India should go through and that was very exciting for me. 

Yes. There was a personal element as well. But it was more in my mind a question of where and when and not if or why or something like that.

[Divanshu]

Well, that’s interesting. I mean, if, you know, back there, back in the day, if scenes were different, I mean, I think we would’ve been ahead of a lot of different markets, but I mean, better late than ever right? I mean, we flux and I think we are headed in the right direction.

But I wanna understand is like, you’ve spent so many years there in the west. How are, you know, how is consumer behavior? How are products differently built than what it is happening in India.

[Bharath]

There are a couple of factors that in general is in top of mind. The one that I will talk about, which is an overarching philosophy, right? The US has also iterated and developed its product thinking and design thinking over the years. It’s just that it’s got a good head start. It’s failed more times than it has succeeded. And those failures have crept in as osmosis in the system.

So, there are people who would learn, um, from a failure in a particular company, they would kind of iterate on the same idea in a different company and 3-4 attempts it would start to work. So they’ve given themselves that time and space for the idea to meet its right timing, right?

So that’s the overarching philosophy. And I think, from an Indian perspective, we are going through that journey. We will like, you know, make a few missteps. We’ll sometimes be lucky and get it right. The first time, sometimes it’ll take like 6-7 steps. So that’s, that’s the overarching philosophy.

The second is around how thoughtful people have become over time in terms of very clearly establishing, this is the goal that I want to create, right. Being very, working from the customer backwards and thinking about this is how I want the experience to render and how do I measure the success of that. Once that is very clear, everything else starts to follow and it becomes more about am I true to my original vision or not?

I think people have become very principled over time. They don’t react to some short-term things, or they don’t do any knee-jerk reaction. They kind of, they hold steady to an end vision. I think they’ve become very disciplined about that. And we will get there in, in a few years as well.

[Divanshu]

Shocks don’t deter us now.

[Bharath]

Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. It’s and you need to, you need to have 3-4 shocks to get used to it and hold steady. That’s pretty much.

[Divanshu]

I think that’s how products are built. Like you have to make sure that, you know, shocks don’t deter you.

So, you know, it’s always been a question around like who we are closer to as a user? Are we closer to a Chinese user or a Chinese market or a user in the west?

Who do you think like, and you’ve spent enough time to kind of understand that both the spaces, right? Who do you think we are actually closer to, you know, would be the right analogy for a user.

[Bharath]

Yeah. So, this, this question always comes up when, when someone is sitting on the drawing board and thinking of a product and invariably, even for the other countries that you mention, the answer will always, no matter how much research you do, or you come at a gut research, it’ll be like, we are our own kind right. And even within India, there are so many Indias within India that it’s a very diverse set of people. But there will be a common denominator across all people. I mean, just to use a movie analogy, certain movies will apply across countries, right. Because it touches a common emotion.

[Divanshu]

So in terms of let’s say that we, in the future, people will say there’s a user in the west, there’s a user in the east and there is an Indian user. We’ll have our own genetically designed ecosystem, right? Like it is getting designed. Startup ecosystem is getting bigger, product ecosystem is getting bigger, but every market has its quirks.

Like for example, when back in the day, when eBay tried to enter China, they went in just the way, they were in the west, you know, plain minimalistic design and all that. They went with the same aesthetics and they failed terribly, right. On the other hand, Alibaba was building back then and, everything in the face, you know, a hundred products put them on the website, right. That’s what Chinese user liked. Are there any such quirks that you observed for the Indian consumer, for the Indian user?

[Bharath]

Good question. So, the way to think about it from first principles is, where do you wanna start? And then will that give you the shortest walk to what is the actual persona of the Indian user, right.

So, we make decisions around. Do we want to start around a very minimalistic approach and then slowly add a little bit of bells and whistles and colors to get to the right amount? Or do you start like very colorfully and then get to, and then slowly kind of remove things. I would say we’ve done both. And what will happen is you will have a series of learnings along the way and that is the beauty of establishing our own niche in the world and in the market, right. It’s you don’t know what you’re about to learn in the next six months or one year, and you don’t know how that is going to change the way you’ve thought about or the initial hypothesis that you’ve formed around the product, right. And so that’s the journey that we are here. Two years ago, I didn’t think we would make this kind of a design or we’d be in this kind of a position. It is just come as a result of a series of learnings. Some unexpected left turns, some right turns, and then we are here, right.

So, we do try and be as minimalistic as possible, right. Because there is like, you know, it’s like a movie scene. You don’t need a scene that you don’t need. It only needs to be, you edit a little, three seconds extra, people lose information, right. That’s ideally how every designer wants the world to be.

But then it depends on what works and what does not work and what appeals to the audience. Some like a long editorial speech, some like, an SMS text or a telegram. So that’s how it works.

[Divanshu]

We do our discounts for sure. Yeah, that’s what we’ve been chasing on eCommerce sites.

Do you think it is reducing or it is where it was? Like, are people getting loyal beyond just discounts?

[Bharath]

So, yeah. People in fact, focus on and look for platform interest, intrinsic success, especially in India, people go by trust. And that is the core of how we try to build our philosophy is how do we win people’s trust in a longer period of time. Because the intention is always to establish a very long term relationship, for the people to not just come and buy one t-shirt they should love that experience, and from t-shirt they should move on to buying like, you know, a hundred grams of atta and then a mobile phone and slowly start to expand across different selection that we have. We have like one of the largest selection in India. And we’d like them to explore that selection and buy from that.

[Divanshu]

So, you know, you’re managing growth and retention here, and you are also responsible product design and the team that, you know, work on it, right. How are your metrics and love to know what metrics are you chasing if it is not confidential? How are you translating those with the design teams? Because it’s always a battle, you know, business and design to come together and work on metrics, you know.

[Bharath]

From a hypothesis forming perspective, which is, this is what I believe to be true about the customer. And, if that is true, then this is the exact design experience that will help the customer.

So, that will translate obviously to a few metrics. And it is a little bit of art and science. And, because I work with the team very closely and they’ve heard me say these things a lot, or to use the star Trek analogy. It is a little bit of Kirk and Spock.

Spock is a very logical being, very metrics, data driven, kirk is very intuitive. They makes decision based on gut. In general, people are Spock by nature, I’m trying to get people to become Kirk by nature. So, Kirk as well, that person as well. So, we discuss this a lot. Like when do we make a gut based decision? Even if the metric is not showing or not going the way we thought it would.

But if, if, if the gut kind of beats in a particular way, how do you like develop the boldness to make those decisions? And especially for design.

[Divanshu]

For you, design is not just what customer facing is. It’s something that is behind as well, right? Something that is enabling the service that is enabling from ordering to delivery, to ship, and tracking to everything. So do you synchronize, synchronize all these, events and all these touchpoints into one single design system?

[Bharath]

Yeah. You see, at the fundamental awareness will be there even when you are tweaking one particular knob in a large set of levers, right.

So there will be assumptions that has to hold true. Based on those assumptions, we will try and solve problems, in specific parts of the system. Sometimes we need to look at the system O overall and overhaul it. Sometimes you just need to look at different parts of the system and understand if, if I made a change to the specific part, what are the second order effects that will flow to the other parts of the system and having a good understanding of that will limit the shocks and surprises that come later on.

And, and so that’s, that’s how we approach it, but we there’s no change that happens that kind of like, I will do it here and then figure out what happens at the delivery point. We are very conscious to make sure the overall experience does not degrade for the customer.

[Divanshu]

Because UX translates to CX, right? Like customer experience should not get affected just by, you know, UX changes here and there.

[Bharath]

The fundamental motivation to make the change itself should be that some CX will improve. And it can be incremental or a step function growth, but that should be the primary motivation for making this change, right.

[Divanshu]

Okay, cool. So, you know, you’ve seen, Flipkart alone is like 12 years old now in India. And last 2-3 years you’ve been around and you’ve seen, it is really evolved and it is evolving very fast, you know, and new users getting added, users getting advanced in terms of their behavior as well. What are those key changes or key evolution points that you have seen in users’ behavior or in design that you think, okay, you know, these are something that need to be tackled, or these are something that will evolve Flipkart into something that even you haven’t imagined, you know?

[Bharath]

So, simplicity is something that people expect. Especially in the post-pandemic world, there are many people who are considering the app today, who they would’ve otherwise normally not considered, or would’ve considered much later in their digital maturity process. Right? So, we’ve been kind of put in a situation where a bulk of people are like, I need to buy stuff now, and this is the best way to go and buy it.

So they’ve installed the app, opened the app. The things that they’re looking for is one trust. That, “Hey, I’m, I’m ordering something. My money is going out. Will I get it in the two days?” That they say, it will come to me. So fulfilling the trust is very, very important and also ability for them, if for example, if they don’t like a t-shirt, communicating to them that, Hey, in 14 days you’ll be able to return this T-shirt with no hassles.

So one of the biggest learnings that we have had for example, is that for, for certain lifestyle fashion products, we do flash a message in the app. Very, very prominently saying, “Don’t worry, buy this. If you don’t like it, in 14 days you can return it.” That confidence actually, that gave consumers a lot of confidence to purchase more. And we were able to see these things LIVE, like the effect of trust on people. And so that cost us to like doubled on more.

Another example, which was a pleasant surprise is when people search for something, showing how other people have liked the product. It could be something like, “Hey, some 7,000 people have bought this product in the last three days.” A message such as that instills trust again, if you’re playing towards trust, a core trust, or these people have rated the product, So and so, right. Those are trust signals that you send out which give the confidence that, “Hey, I mean, other people have bought it. They’ve liked it, so I can go ahead and buy it.” Right.

So, as you get from like the Metro India to Bharat, where people are probably buying something in the internet for the first time, establishing that trust and letting them know that it is, it is normalizing this entire experience that you are not like taking a space walk, this is actually something that millions of people do day in and day out. That gives them the comfort that this is something that can do. So, yeah.

[Divanshu]

You’ve actually answered the question that I was about to ask you next. Because every design, you know, thinking on every design journey has a basic foundation that you’re building it for. And trust is what you want to, you know, I wouldn’t say solve for, because you’re already a trusted brand, but gartner into the product so that user sees this is an experience the way it would, that user would buy any product from a local mom pop store, or, you know, a neighborhood store because that’s where actual trust is. You know, I can actually go to the store and say, “Mujhe nai chahiye”, I want something else. You know, that’s what the trust that you’re trying to build in into at least the users who are non-Metro users because they’re the next, they’re the part of the next growth story, I guess.

So e-commerce platforms have always been considered to be slightly transactional in nature. I mean, that’s the nature of the business, right? You go, buy, come out. Right. But, you know, because you have to build that user attention. And, you know, that’s, I think one of the primary goals here at Flipkart. What is that customer engagement or customer retention strategy that you’re taking to kind of ensure that user comes back on Flipkart? Not just, you know, once in a month, probably, you know, every two days, you know.

[Bharath]

So I’ll, there are a few of them and I’ll talk through them because they’re super important. One is in the current transaction. We want to give them as great an experience as possible, right. Which goes, from the time that they order to the time that they get and their entire returns experience. If there is such a need to return, that is one thing. And that’s by far the most important thing.

Second is, we do have, features where they’re able to, earn some loyalty points, which it’s called “Super Coins”. So for every purchase, a customer makes, they earn super coins that they can reuse in Flipkart as a discount to get products at a lower price, right. So that’s, it’s very close to cash and Flipkart. You can also use it outside. You can use it via PhonePe, etc. The second, construct that we have is super coins, right? And our plus program. Where if people make more purchases in Flipkart, they become a plus member. And that membership gives them early access to certain sale events. They get a lot of other benefits as well, which Flipkart provides to plus members. So that is another way where we encourage people to purchase more from Flipkart.

We also have games and, gamification constructs where people can come every day and they can play a new game, win rewards from playing games.

So these things cost people to come back again and again and establish a much more loyal relationship with Flipkart.

[Divanshu]

Nice. Interesting.

No, I mean, Super Coins sound interesting. I mean, every loyalty, if it executed well, I think brings back user. Like I’m loyal to few brands only because there’s a loyalty program that runs around them, you know? So yeah. I mean, I think it’ll work really well.

So in terms of, you know, it’s a huge platform, it’s not a small platform, and users are hooked onto it. There’s a understanding of the platform that users have, you know, the ones who are buying from Flipkart on a daily basis or on a monthly basis.

Now, how did you plan the rollout?

[Bharath]

Sure. So, the way, the development process and the rollout process works is, after all the planning and the execution, there is a lot of rigorous testing that goes on within the company where we make sure that existing features that we offer to people they do not break. And the overall app is very stable. So, once that is complete, what we also do is a process called “Dock Fording”, where employees, they play around with the experience. They like, you know, with within employees, they kind of discuss the experience on whether it’s working as intended. And, there is a lot of feedback that is, that is given at that time.

And once people are satisfied that this meets our high quality bar for it to be exposed to people, then what we do is, is what’s called as an AB test. Where like 5% or 7% or 10% of people will start to see it. And at that time we will be able to start comparing this with other people who don’t see it, right.

One of the things that was very interesting is how quickly people learn. We thought, it will take a while for people to like understand. This is a pretty big change, right? So, it’s your cart. You have items in your cart and it does certainly move down. But people quickly adapted to that change and they were able to see it in the bottom bar. This is probably because that it’s a very natural, intuitive place. I’m going to, like, my thumb is here, I’m gonna look at that place. And if these four things are where I’ll be able to quickly find it. So, that was a pleasant surprise. The amount of times people visited the bottom bar overall, that increased much more than even our wildest imagination.

[Divanshu]

Nice. So is it, is it something to do with like, you know, from cart commerce to daily commerce to quick commerce? Right. So is the grocery getting closer to quick commerce or is it schedule based grocery that you’re getting into right now and maybe, quick commerce at a later stage?

[Bharath]

Yeah. So, good question.

Things that we debate internally and think about a lot as well. Like we mentioned, we talked about it before, right? Many, many Indias within this India. So, there are people who would like things to arrive at their doorstep within 45 minutes. And, we have a feature for them.

There are people who are value seekers and a two day delivery is okay because they’re well planned and they stock up and purchase. Right. I’m purchasing for a month. That is a persona that people do. And, they expect value out of that. And so we have a large selection of grocery to cater to people for that. And we have now expanded grocery, across to, to many, many more cities in India. And so there are places in India which previously did not have the experience or the opportunity to purchase grocery online, which are now getting that experience. And they’ll also find that the value proposition is better, and our aspiration is to make sure that they like the experience and they continue to purchase that experience.

The other interesting thing is also which speaks to the origins of the grocery tab is the purchases that grocery people who purchase grocery make, is very frequent. They kind of build a list throughout the week. So when they enter the app, they need a quick way to get to the grocery page and add to their list or see what’s the new, like, you know, what’s the new selection that’s available and all those things. And this gives them a very easy way to get to the grocery page and start seeing that selection.

[Divanshu]

Nice.

So, you know, as I, as you just mentioned that this is a continuous exercise and keep evolving as you go along, understand customer better, you know, put it against the hypothesis that you build or research that you build. How, what are those checkpoints that you are, you know, putting together that, okay, hey, if we have to kind of keep them in check, you know, in mind, and this is how we course correct, If we’re not able to get there. Like, how is that continuous evolution of the new Flipkart design, on the platform on both app and web will take shape?

[Bharath]

Sure.

See, here, it definitely gets into a, a metrics conversation as well as you know, how people are navigating across the app conversation.

So previously people used to go to those different navigation points and there was like a particular traffic that was flowing through these points with the consolidated view, the things that we check and that we guardrail for is the places that they used to visit before. Are they visiting the same places?

Let’s say if they’re visiting a particular place more, why is that interest. Like, why do they want to visit, for example, my accounts more? Or like, why do they want to visit notifications more? I’m just giving examples. Right. That is one thing. If they, if they are visiting a place less understand, is it like truly something that they didn’t need that was there. Now we have made things easy for them. That’s like, you know, in a place where it is accessible, if necessary, those are good learnings as well. but we wanna make sure that people’s purchase behavior and overall metrics from like purchase what their transactions that they’re doing, Those are healthy, holding steady, same as before or better than before. That’s a very important guardrail for us.

[Divanshu]

Does it bring any change to Flipkart Plus program?

[Bharath]

So this doesn’t particularly change, Flipkart Plus as such. Because it’s more of an aesthetic design change to make. It easy for people to get to where they want to. It doesn’t fundamentally change the value proposition of plus.

[Divanshu]

Are you guys doing or planning anything to do around that 3.0, metaverse all the conversation around?

[Bharath]

So, the new technologies that are evolving, we have an innovation team within Flipkart. And we do want to have an eye towards 18 months or 24 months into the future on how the world will evolve.

And Web 3, as an industry it’s going through its evolution and growth pains and all those things. So which is also like very powerful lessons that people are learning. But, things like NFTs and will there be a marketplace for that? And, and what role will Flipkart have to play in those things? Those are all like, very, very interesting things that we have an eye towards the future on.

[Divanshu]

This was good.

So now I’ll surprise you with a small rapid fire. This is not like a KJo, Karan Johar rapid fire, no controversy. Yeah, but something that we do with everyone as part of the, you know, episode.

So it goes.

One thing everyone should know about the new Flipkart app design.

[Bharath]

So, there’s a new tab at the top which allows people to explore our selection in grocery. Please check it out. Lot of interesting selection that you may not find elsewhere. That’s, that’s here. Please do check it out.

[Divanshu]

One thing about this design that will definitely deliver. That you’re very confident about.

[Bharath]

The ease of use.

It’s the bottom bar is super close to the thumb. You can find anything you want, uh, in the bottom bar. So try playing around, go to the categories tab. Explore different categories that we have. Go to my accounts. Look at your Super Coins balance. Look at your buy now pay later and credit. Very, very intuitive and easy.

[Divanshu]

One thing that you learned about designing for the billion through this process.

[Bharath]

It has to be super intuitive. If people pause to think you’ve already gone wrong. So people have to just do it as a matter of reflex. Like the way we blink our eyes and we don’t even know we are doing it. That’s the level of intuition that needs to be built.

[Divanshu]

Thank you so much Bharath for being part of this, and I’m glad that you enjoyed this conversation.

[Bharath]

It was a pleasure. It was a wonderful conversation.

[Divanshu]

Great, great. Can’t wait to kind of release advice soon and, for you to actually listen, the new edit, the final edit actually. And, we look forward to most of the conversations man.

[Bharath]

I’m looking forward to seeing it myself.

[Divanshu]

Great. Thank you so much.

And yeah, thank you for listening to our conversation. Before I say goodbye, please subscribe to Thoughtcast by Onething Design on Spotify or your choice of audio platform. We are also there on YouTube, you can find us by Onething Design Studio.

Please sharing your feedback and your love and subscribe, and share with your friends so that we can take these conversations out to right kind of people and they can learn from it as well, just like you are. Thank you so much.

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