Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Nov 03, 2020

India is ahead of the entire world when it comes to fintech. This is an unprecedented time, ripe for entrepreneurship.

Simpl: Platform for simplifying payments and credit wallet

ORF: What was your thesis for Simpl and how do you place the customer at the centre of your product design and experience?

Chaitra Chidanand: Simpl is effectively a digital credit card (no plastic, instantaneously issued and extremely user friendly).

Simpl derived its inspiration from the age-old tradition of a khata or tab (book of accounts) used by merchants to serve their regular customers. Neighbourhood grocers, milk men, local fruit vendors, the sutta (cigarette) guy outside an office, basically any merchant providing high-frequency services to a customer commonly offers this convenience of a tab to their regular customers. Because it simply makes business sense. It cultivates loyalty, enhances revenue per user (RPU) and lifetime value (LTV) of the customer.

With commerce shifting online, the payment systems that were built for offline transactions were repurposed to serve the new online use case. Repurposing legacy was achieved by adding more layers to the old system. This increased cost and complexity, and sacrificed flexibility and ease (from a user experience perspective).

We saw an opportunity to disrupt the legacy payment stack by re-imagining payments for the new stack — internet, cloud, super-computer in every pocket (the smartphone) — using human-centric design and man+machine intelligence systems.

Human-centric design — or placing your customer at the center of your product design and experience — is a continuous process that requires extreme attention to detail, the ability to look around corners, read between the lines and hear what is not said in customer interactions. Tools and frameworks, from surveys to deep design thinking approaches, are all available to make this happen. However, like with any tool, the will and skill of the wielders determines the end results.

I will illustrate with an example of how I went about applying one such framework while conceptualising a particular product last year.

In mid-2019, I was exploring the potential for building a digital payments product for offline merchants — to be used in brick and mortar stores — to replace the book-based khata of the merchant. I zeroed in on the local grocer (used for milk, yogurt, top-ups of daily essentials) as the target use case to start with.

The first order of business in human-centric design is to spend an extraordinary amount of time with the problem and understand it inside out. As Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

Towards this end, I applied the ‘observe, interview, immerse and follow the money’ framework as my guide to thoroughly understand the problem. By following this approach, I unearthed three crucial nuances that I would otherwise have missed, and the pilot would have failed:

First is the criticality of the cashier in the adoption of a new payment system. As part of my research, I hung around various grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants and fruit vendors to observe how transactions happened and payments were made. I paid specific attention to the emotions of the various stakeholders. I timed every mode of payment discreetly using a stopwatch and recorded my findings. This made me realise that when a payment method did not work, the cashier got incredibly stressed, especially during rush hour since this causes a line build up and people get restless, and both customers and managers vent their anger on the cashier.

Digital payments took the longest (90-120 seconds) to process. If the internet worked, cards took about 32-35 seconds; and cash payments took 45-50 seconds (from the time the card/cash was handed over to the time it was returned). And so, cashiers urged customers to use cards and cash, especially during rush hour. This made me realise that although the customer is god, the cashier is the priest. If our product was to succeed, we needed to ensure the cashier was naturally inclined to champion it (and have no reason to dissuade its use).

Second is the role of keyboard-shortcuts in the product prototype. Once it was clear that the cashier was a key stakeholder, I decided to dig deeper into their role. I became an undercover cashier for a while to experience first-hand how money flows through the cashier’s life. I learnt that a cashier’s most stressful time is the rush hour, at which time they rely heavily on muscle memory. Keyboard shortcuts were crucial to any data entry they had to make. Shifting to a mouse added unwelcome delay, broke their flow and increased the chances of making mistakes. Since the product prototype we built required them to make some data entry, unearthing this seemingly minor detail ensured that we did not inadvertently add any complexity to the cashier’s life, and instead ensured we built a product that was 10x faster from their perspective.

Third is the invisible accountant. The back-office accountant was a critical stakeholder, otherwise invisible to any observation, unearthed purely by following the money. The crucial thing with respect to this role was not to keep the person happy but to ensure they do not become unhappy. What could make them unhappy? Any inexplicable discrepancy in the tallying of payments system accounts with orders and inventory.

With the experience of building Simpl’s online product I was convinced to believe that reconciliation was a critical function managed by computers via back-end APIs and not humans; the merchant dashboard existed as a secondary tool.

By interviewing these stakeholders and focusing on money-flow questions, I realised that in a brick and mortar store, reconciliation was done manually, every day before closing the store. And any inexplicable discrepancy, no matter how small or large, was deducted from the cashier’s wages. This meant an easy-to-use merchant dashboard was the number one priority, as opposed to customer facing product elements.

Had I not discovered these little details by meticulously following the ‘observe, interview, immerse and follow the money’ process, our pilot would have looked very different. Out of sheer habit, we would have focused on the obvious — the end consumer and store owners and built beautiful products for them — missing these crucial priests in the middle. And though the gods might have blessed us, the priests would have blocked the blessings, rendering them inconsequential.

Unearthing these nuances and solving for them in the product prototype itself led to alignment of all stakeholders early on. The cashiers prompted customers to use our product, especially during rush hour (a step that was critical in the early days when our product was unknown to the customer). Since the bulk of purchases happen during this time, we were able to capture 20 percent to 25 percent of the store’s payment volume in a matter of four weeks since launching at a new store.

ORF: How do you envision the FinTech revolution in India and what learnings can we deploy globally?

CC: India is ahead of the entire world when it comes to fintech. This is an unprecedented time, ripe for entrepreneurship. That does not mean it is easy or that success is a given. To succeed is still going to be hard, especially given the noise. But how often do you get events like Unified Payments Interface, demonetisation and COVID-19 happening in quick succession? Technology, a political experiment and a freak global catastrophe happening one after the other, each acting as a forcing function for acceptance, usage and advancement of financial technology.

There are no ‘learnings’ that can be deployed globally. Banking in each country is a deeply entrenched lobby, a legacy system that cannot be displaced or even edited easily. It requires strong political will, which cannot be transported as a ‘learning’. It either happens or it does not; when it does in your country, make the most of it.

What I see in India that is great is that there is an unprecedented openness from both government and regulatory bodies like the Reserve Bank of India to listen and collaborate with the private sector. The last time this happened was in the early 1990s and it led to the IT boom. While the direct effects of the IT boom are obvious, the indirect effects are more noteworthy and offer parallels to envision the fintech boom’s impact and effects.

The success of IT, more than any other change, helped legitimise capitalism in a country where policymakers and intelligentsia long harboured a suspicion of markets and the private sector. This unleashed a tremendous energy among people; entrepreneurship, long denied, started to become celebrated.

I believe the fintech sector is going through a similar moment. The energy is palpable. Entrepreneurship in this space is just starting to take off. Open architectures, unbundling of data, an open mind towards first principles-based thinking are all promising vectors. I can say confidently that there’s a lot left to come.

ORF: It is great to hear that your next venture endeavours to further improve financial inclusion among women in India. What is your vision for this?

CC: My vision is to create a global coalition of women thinking, speaking, and managing money for themselves. My mission statement is ‘organising money in the lives of women, globally.’

When women manage money, they invariably co-opt their households’ best interest. Empowering women thus will benefit the entire household and society at large in ways that may not even be apparent to us today. We have the opportunity to create an irreversible generational shift when it comes to women and their relationship with money.

ORF: You have worked across company scales, from startups to mid-size to large conglomerates. What lessons do you share for technologists on building multidimensional skillsets for entrepreneurship?

CC: My hard-learned lessons are:

Lesson 1: Whatever the source of wisdom — books, successful entrepreneurs, or conventional wisdom — do not accept it blindly. Continue to seek your own truth, and continue to test it; keep unlearning and relearning newer truths (because contexts evolve; what worked yesterday maybe irrelevant today). This lesson is courtesy Bruce Lee.

Lesson 2: Try not to be stupid, instead of trying to be highly intelligent. To do so, always invert. Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. This may not seem cool, but it works. Consistently avoid the stupidities and you will succeed. This lesson is courtesy Charlie Munger.

Lesson 3: Do not straitjacket yourself in your career or life choices. Look at them as a collection of experiences. Whether they delight or disappoint is immaterial; they invariably offer up learnings that you can lap up only if you are not caught up in the emotion of delight or disappointment. The journey is the purpose of life, not the destination. The destination is death; it is useful to remind yourself this from time to time. This lesson is courtesy Chaitra Chidanand.

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Chaitra Chidanand

Chaitra Chidanand

Chaitra Chidanand is co-founder of Simpl a fintech startup in India.

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