The Sangam bathing site, at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers near Prayagraj, India, site of the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering. Photo by Bryan Denton/The New York Times
India is the world’s largest democracy. Indian entrepreneurs and products are inspired by our democratic traditions that seek to empower as many people as possible. We want to make the world a better place for everyone by bringing great innovation and products to both Indian and global markets.
Our passion is to design products based on five principles steeped in India’s democratic traditions: Simplicity, Self-reliance, Scalability, Craftsmanship, and Affordability. We call this Indian Democratic Design.
Our definition of Democratic Design is deeply rooted in Indian culture and history. Whether it’s the Simplicity of Yoga, the Self-reliance of our Satyagraha Movement for Independence, the Scale of our elections, the Craftsmanship of our artists or the ingenuity of our engineers — who send rockets to the moon for a fraction of the cost of a Hollywood movie — India is pushing the boundaries of the possible around the world. We think with both a simplicity and a scale that India’s 1.3 billion people inspire in us every day. We can change the world by tapping the power of the world’s largest democracy.
We want to make powerfully-simple products available to everyone. And we want to do it in a way that empowers individuals and organizations to be more productive, across small and large groups, and geographies near and far. We want to shake up the world by showing that simplicity, combined with practiced, ancient craftsmanship can empower consumers to improve their lives in ways they never imagined. That it is possible to create products that “wow” people with both their impact and value. And that it’s possible to create products so inexpensively that the vast majority of people can afford to buy them..
We believe it’s possible to change the world with these five dimensions of Indian Democratic Design in all our products. This book captures how our culture and tradition inspire us. And as you flip through these pages, we hope you will be inspired, too.
Democratic Design has truly become a global phenomenon. French designer and visionary Philippe Starck and many others have stressed on the need for design to be centered around the everyday person. Inspired in part by Ingvar Kamprad, the legendary founder of IKEA who lived a modest life, as well as the Swedish way of living, Democratic Design at IKEA is built upon the five principles of form, function, sustainability, quality, and low price.
I’m happy to see that Democratic Design is growing into a global movement, not only for IKEA but for new, innovative companies like Freshworks out of India. I’m inspired by Girish’s philosophy of how Democratic Design emanates from Indian culture and history.
The values of Democratic Design describe India’s emergence as an innovative product nation dedicated to the broad empowerment of users from all walks of life. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me to see that Indian designers and engineers share the same ideals we had at IKEA. We have the same source of inspiration, our research of the everyday life of the many people, how they live, work and play.
It’s so important to side with people who use our products. Democratic Design means not just reaching people, but siding with them by getting as close as possible to real people and finding out their needs. We want to be on their level and really understand the how and the why of what works for them.
Design is not just about making things look pretty. Good design brings together form and function to solve problems in the simplest way possible. Democratically designed products are approachable, easy-to-use and self-explanatory. They sell and support themselves. It just works for everyone.
A simple and sustainable utensil that is part of the Indian way of life
Kullhad cups are the simplest form of pottery that can be thrown on a potter’s wheel, author and perfumer Jahnvi Lakhóta Nandan notes in her book Pukka Indian.
It’s molded from clay made of sediments sourced from riverbeds and dried in the sun after the potter shapes it. It is then baked in a kiln using dried cow dung as fuel.
Kullhad cups are widely used to serve Chai (tea) and delicacies such as Malai Doodh (sweetened creamy milk served hot) or Kulfi (a type of rich ice cream) across the country. They are biodegradable and more affordable than glass or plastic cups.
Global products must be easy to deploy and maintain with minimal assistance, so they can empower as many users as possible. The product experience is designed to make users autonomous in using the product, thereby maximizing productivity and minimizing dependency. This, in turn, leads to greater adoption at an affordable cost.
A movement that empowered
millions of milk producers and made the nation self-reliant in dairy products.
Amul, or Anand Milk Union Limited, was born as a resistance movement against middlemen who determined the pricing as well as controlled the trade of milk in the Indian state of Gujarat.
Marginal milk producers of Kaira, a famished village in Gujarat, registered the co-operative in 1946 to collect and process milk by themselves.
By decentralizing milk collection and, over time, using modern techniques, the simple movement became a large-scale business and kick-started India’s white revolution, an important step in the country’s journey to achieving food security and self-reliance.
At the grassroots level, it has empowered 3.6 million milk producers in Gujarat who own the co-operative and at the global level, it made India the largest milk-producing nation in the world.
Democratically designed products take into consideration the needs of a large number of users and, therefore, are easy to access through a wide range of digital and physical distribution channels — through the Internet, social networks, and other digital or physical scalable channels.
A complex exercise: the world’s biggest election is spread across the nation from remote islands of Andaman and Nicobar to the Himalayas.
Shyam Saran Negi was the first person to cast a vote after India gained independence in 1947. The retired school teacher from Kalpa, a small town in the Sutlej river valley along the Himalayas, cast his vote in the 2019 general elections as well. He was 102 years old.
Every month, nearly a million Indians turn 18, the youngest age at which they can cast their vote, adding to an already large electoral base.
In 2019, about 610 million people voted in the election — that’s twice the population of the United States of America, the world’s second-largest democracy. On boats, tractors, cars, through lakes, treacherous passes and teeming multitudes in urban India, thousands of electoral officers travel every election year to set up polling stations so that no voter has to travel more than 2 kilometers to cast their vote.
Elections in India is as much a demonstration of its thriving democratic culture as it is a spectacular event that goes on year after year even as it grows in scale. It underscores India’s commitment to democracy and inclusion and also a philosophy that leaves no one behind.
Global penetration of products is impossible without a passionate commitment to
high-quality experiences crafted to perfection. Global markets and customers expect the best possible product at a reasonable cost, given the economies of scale and expertise available through global talent and supply chains.
A large wooden ship made by craftsmen in Kerala dating back to the beginning of India’s maritime trade with Mesopotamia. It’s now used as a luxury boat.
The art of making an Uru, or the fat boat, has been passed down from centuries orally by master craftsmen. There are no drawings or sketches and documents for the craftsmen to refer to.
A secretive master carpenter passes on daily tasks and instructions to his assistants and protects the know-how. Call it early intellectual property protection if you will.
The Uru is arguably the biggest ‘handicraft’ in the world, with the ancient art of making these vessels going as far back as the beginning of India’s trade with Mesopotamia. Made primarily from teak wood using local hand tools, the boats have long-lasting hulls and are surprisingly durable at sea.
Miraculously, Uru-making still survives in Beypore, a village in the South Indian state of Kerala. Nowadays, Urus are sent to Gulf countries to be used as luxury passenger boats .
Central to the idea of Democratic Design is affordability. Making scalable products available to a large number of people not only means fusing form and function to create products that work for everyone but also passing on the benefits of economies of scale to the end-user. This involves keeping an eye on the cost of making products and efficiently deploying resources.
A mission to the moon that costs less than a Hollywood blockbuster.
India’s second lunar mission, Chandrayaan 2, cost about $142 million. It took more than double that money to make the Hollywood blockbuster Avengers: Endgame. James Cameron’s Avatar cost three times as much.
The space program of India had barely taken baby steps — it began in 1962 — when Neil Armstrong pronounced his famous “giant leap” in 1969. A half-century later, the country’s space agency, ISRO, is getting wide recognition for its scientific feats and frugal innovation.
So while India’s first satellite, Aryabhata, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1975, the country ramped up its own capabilities and went on to launch several satellites from its own soil. In fact, ISRO flipped the equation in the years hence: by July 2019, it had launched 269 foreign satellites from 32 countries at a fraction of the cost. Up next are plans to develop reusable launch vehicles, send a human to space, and explore distant planets through its own probes.
India has even made it possible for students to launch microsatellites using state-built launch vehicles!
All this, with amazing cost innovation and, in the context of Democratic Design, a sustained focus on delivering value to the everyday person.
Walk into a random grocery store in India and chances are you will find a QR code to scan and pay through PhonePe, one of India’s top payment apps. It won’t be a stretch to say that PhonePe peered into the future and placed the right bets.
The founders Sameer Nigam, Rahul Chari, and Burzin Engineer were among the first build a consumer app on top of the Unified Payments Interface (UPI), a real-time payment system developed in India to make quick inter-bank transactions.
The numbers speak for themselves. PhonePe now has around 150 million users. Growing at this rate, the company would clock total payment volumes of $95 billion in a year. About 335 million transactions were carried out on PhonePe just in July! Nearly 5 million merchants accept payments through PhonePe.
PhonePe was acquired by Walmart owned Flipkart in 2016, even before it had a product ready. But, the trust paid off and Walmart now owns a market leader.
The company has been at the forefront of innovation in the exploding fintech space in India. Its calculator-PoS (Point of Sale) machine, for instance, allows a user to pay from the PhonePe app. This machine was a fresh take on the traditional calculator and was also a rare hardware innovation from a software product player.
I and Sameer were part of the senior leadership in Flipkart before we quit to start PhonePe, along with Burzin. We started PhonePe in December 2015 and we got acquired by Flipkart in April 2016, even before we had a ready product in hand. At that stage, we were working on a payments solution around the Unified Payments Interface.
When existing digital payments players were launching digital wallets, we decided to take the UPI route, it was unexplored. It has been quite a journey from then to now. Today, we have around 150 million users.
Our app is available in over 11 Indian languages. Using PhonePe, users can send and receive money, recharge their mobile packs, cable services, data cards, make utility payments, buy gold and shop online and offline. Customers now have a unified login and payment experience.
We have always wanted to democratize payments and one of our ambitious projects was our PoS calculator. India is a country where people largely go to the local Kirana store to buy their daily groceries. In these Kirana stores, the calculator is a constant. The shopkeeper quickly calculates and customers pay cash. We wanted to reimagine this experience with a digital twist.
In October 2017, we came up with a truly ‘Made-for-India’ device. We started working on it at least 18 months before the launch. This calculator-PoS device uses Bluetooth technology and allows the consumer to pay the Kirana shopkeeper using the PhonePe app by selecting the ‘Scan and Pay’ option on the app. No need to carry cash at all.
The merchant can do all his calculations and just press the ‘PhonePe’ button on the device to accept the payment. Moreover, the merchant does not need any internet connectivity. We did not have to have to change the intuitive behavior of the merchant at all.
This innovation has been a learning curve for us and has inspired us to keep innovating and pushing the bracket. It has only been around four years for us, but the writing on the wall is clear— the future of payments in India is digital and we are just getting started.
Saregama India owns music from some of Bollywood’s greatest singers, including Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar, to the classical giants such as Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Pt Jasraj and M S Subbulakshmi.
In 2017, at a time when music streaming was in vogue and companies were chasing young listeners, Saregama surprised everyone by launching Carvaan, a simple hardware device targeted at older folks. With big dials, an easy display, and a simple randomizer algorithm, it was a runaway hit. With sales of over a million units in India, the product is now going global.
How did the company develop the conviction to launch a product like the Carvaan? By listening intently to customers.
Saregama studied music consumption across the country and interviewed hundreds of listeners in 23 cities to come up with an insight: people aged 35 and above wanted a laid-back music experience rather than one they could micromanage. Carvaan was then built around this insight to keep the music listening experience simple and accessible.
Later on, Saregama launched smaller versions, Carvaan Mini and Go, and also built features such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The company now aims to make Carvaan a platform play by bundling different types of audio services, including podcasts and specialized channels.
In 2015, when I just joined this organization, I was very intrigued on hearing that nobody in India wanted to pay for music. Marketers take this shortcut of saying that Indians are very tight-fisted people and music is something they will never go back to spending money on.
But what we did instead was carry out a 23-city study to find out people’s music consumption habits. One very interesting finding: people above the age of 35, especially outside the top four metros, develop a fear of technology. They are perfectly savvy with whatever technology they were comfortable with till that point.
People said they loved our music but, despite our content being digitally available, found it difficult to figure out what button to press when, suddenly, a pop-up ad appeared or some other song started playing on its own. Apps were complicated for them. “Can you get us back to the world of CDs where we used to put a CD or cassette in and the music started to play?” they enquired.
This got us thinking. ‘Are we making a mistake of not looking at this other large audience in this country right now?’
Another insight is that not everyone wants to exercise much control or make too many choices. As someone put it to me, “We used to ask for coffee, drink it, and we were set. Now we say “coffee” and the next questions are: ‘Cappuccino, Americano? Milk? Without milk? Decaf?’…”
Carvaan is trying to capture those insights. Carvaan is not about music. Carvaan is about the convenience of listening to music in a laid-back fashion. Carvaan is not a lean-forward experience right now, which other apps offer. Apps are great, but this product is trying to appeal to a different consumer mindset that says, “Right, I just want to go back home and, with my cup of tea or drink, relax with music in the background.”
I’ll say two things like a stuck record: one, you need to be in close touch with your customers; two, you need to embrace failure, learn from it, and move on.
From the Amazon forests in Brazil to urban slums in Mumbai to hospitals in California, devices made by Forus Health have made eye screening affordable and accessible. Their screening devices are portable, easy-to-use, and affordable at one third the cost of other similar devices.
Connected to a smart, cloud-based platform, the medical devices are designed taking into consideration the acute shortage of ophthalmologists, the widespread nature of eye-related health problems in far-flung locations, and prevailing high costs. With its easily accessible and affordable eye-screening devices, Forus Health is also working on incorporating Artificial Intelligence into them — thus bringing the power and benefits of AI to the end consumer.
Forus Health was founded in Bengaluru in 2010 by K Chandrasekhar, an alumnus of India’s top engineering school BITS Pilani and premier business school Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata., who was inspired to solve the problem of diagnosing for preventable blindness by the initiatives of Aravind Eye Care — a compassionate provider of affordable, high-quality eyecare services through its network of hospitals.
Within a short span of nine years, the company has touched over four million lives, helping tens of thousands of patients in 34 countries identify eye-related ailments and seek early medical aid.
The fact that a blind man is seen as a mouth without hands by his own kith and kin was something very overwhelming for me. I was moved by the plight of daily-wage earners, who spend almost 50-60 years of their lives working very hard, taking care of their family and children — and then suddenly, when they go blind, their own children find them a liability.
It is happening primarily because people don’t screen themselves. And because they don’t screen, they don’t know they have a problem. By the time they go to a hospital, it is either too late or too expensive for them. That is where we thought we should play a role.
Another important thing that inspired me was the ‘sachet revolution’ in India — wherein a person could buy a 2ml or 5ml pack of high-quality shampoo for a one-time use. So I felt, why can’t we deliver healthcare in sachets? Let’s not differentiate people by their ability to pay or not pay.
One of the biggest differentiators for us is that we are not a medical devices company by DNA. We wanted to eradicate preventable blindness, and making a medical device was a consequence of that whole mission. So, we looked at why there is a problem and found that devices are expensive. So we made devices cheaper. But since everything is connected to the mission, it is not just about making devices — it is about thinking through a lot of questions. After identifying somebody with a problem, what will we do with them? How will they go to the healthcare ecosystem? How will they get treated?
We did not reverse-engineer any product. Before us, nobody made a product so slim; earlier, it was a bigger device but we made it quite simple. This comes out of a lot of design thinking.
Now, to take our product to many more millions through public health services, we are taking a platform approach and integrating AI into it. We are not doing it all by ourselves but also integrating Microsoft’s technology — and we are the only partner in that space.
“We come from a very humble beginning,” says the man responsible for putting the humble idli on the table for masses. In an age when fast food is the go-to option, home cooked food is losing out. PC Musthafa and his four cousins set out to change that. iD Fresh Foods is on a mission to take Indian fresh breakfast food to the world.
What started in a 50-square-foot room is now a brand to reckon with across four countries, 35 cities, and 30,000 stores – one that serves close to a million customers every day.
iD Fresh Foods sells packaged Indian food products such as idli/dosa batter, paneer, chapatis, and parotas, among other items. The company has disrupted the unbranded packaged foods business at scale.
Musthafa has relied on innovation to stay ahead of the game. Take, for instance, the vada maker. It takes skill and practice to make the perfectly shaped vada, a doughnut shaped Indian snack fried in oil. iD’s packaging takes the complexity out of the equation using a cleverly designed nozzle through which the batter is simply pushed into the frying oil.
iD embodies the Indian Democratic Design principles of simplicity, accessibility, and craftsmanship through its products.
Several years back, my cousins were facing quality issues with the idli/dosa batter supplied at their kirana store in Bengaluru. They tried to fix the issues, but to no avail. That is when we thought of creating batter for our own store.
We started small: with just one grinder, one mixer, a sealing machine, one weighing scale, and a second-hand TVS Scooty.
Until 2010, we were a single-city, single-product company. But today, we are present in 35 cities and four countries with 10 fresh-food products.
We have kept something core to the brand — our products are 100% natural, with no artificial chemicals or preservatives. Also, innovation has played an extremely important role for us.
Traditionally, it takes three weeks for a food product to reach the stores after production. With a three-day shelf life of our product, we couldn’t follow that model. So we created our own business model: throughout our supply chain, we ensured zero inventory.
Next, we invested heavily in innovative packaging. If you open the zip lock of our batter pouch, it converts into a vessel. Our most popular innovation was the vada maker, which took three years to build.
Another thing we did was to capture the last eight years’ store-wise and item-wise sales data, and use it to predict the next-day demand for a store. When we started, we had 90% wastage. Over three years, this came down to 25%. Today, in a mature city and with a mature product, our systems are able to predict the demand accurately and we have less than 1% wastage.
In our business, manufacturing is not scalable with a wet grinder: it grinds only 1.5 kilograms of dal per hour. Today, we grind 25,000 kg dal per day.
How did we do it? We went to the US, identified a similar product, a mustard-paste-making machine. We got it customized to make idli/dosa batter.
We innovate in marketing as well: our campaigns are unique in their messaging. And since we don’t want to burn too much money, they are designed to be viral. Our dream is to take the best food, idli, to the whole world.
How Freshworks’ software embodies the 5 core principles of Indian Democratic Design
Millions of Indians board trains every day to get from one place to another, thousands access the healthcare system, and many more go to school. Each year, about 60 million Indians turn 18, and become eligible to vote. These systems and the people involved in them go to extraordinary lengths to try and make it work for everyone.
Now, if you dip into our culture and roots, you’ll find that it has inspired generations to do exceptional work. Music, handicrafts, yoga, philosophy, food, and the Indian way of living have not only permeated the West but also inspired a large section of global society to live better. Take, for instance, Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha civil resistance based on non-violence and non-cooperation. A key element of India’s independence struggle, it became a blueprint for other civil rights movements across the world.
One of the principles of Satyagraha was the Swadeshi movement for economic self-reliance and empowerment in India: instead of exporting raw cotton to British mills only to have it re-imported to India as finished goods at exorbitant prices, Gandhi called on Indians to spin their own cotton and produce their own fabrics and clothing. This Swadeshi spirit infuses India’s emergence as a product nation today and drives our vision at Freshworks.
When I lived in the US, I realized how over-dependent business customers were on vendors to set up, learn, and use their software. What’s more, the vendors charged so much for their products that only the biggest companies could afford them.
As an Indian, I couldn’t understand why everything had to be so complicated and expensive — and why users disliked using the software so much. This was when my sense of “Democratic Design” kicked in.
Indian design is shaped in part by our democratic roots and in part by the limited resources around us. It drives the need to be simple, affordable, and yet of the highest quality. It also calls on us to build systems that are efficient at scale.
My mission became to massively simplify business software, designing first and foremost for the front-line user, and then for the team, and then for the managers. This bottom-up approach to software is akin to the Swadeshi movement, declaring independence for users and then customers from the vendor and empowering them to “take the software and run with it themselves”. That’s why I like to say we design software NOT for the Fortune 500, but the “not so fortunate” 5 million.
Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy of “everyman design” and IKEA’s mission to “create a better everyday life for the many people,” we design software that works at scale. In many ways, what IKEA did for furniture is what we are doing for enterprise software. IKEA, for instance, took “knockdown” furniture mainstream. Until then, transporting furniture was costly and prone to damages. IKEA’s ready-to-assemble furniture, neatly packed in a flat box, made it easy and cost-effective. Similarly, Freshworks software works off the cloud, it’s easy to set up and run, and we work very hard to make sure it works for everyone.
Unlike traditional enterprise software companies that design for the Fortune 500 executive suite, we design for the millions of SMBs that need business software to work out-of-the-box — and empower end-users to be productive in no time with beautiful software they will love. These principles of Indian Democratic Design, as you will see in the next few pages, drive everything we do at Freshworks.
Our software is designed from the bottom up to be easy to pick up and learn by the front-line user in sales, support, marketing, or tech. Moreover, Freshworks takes what have traditionally been difficult software problems — Artificial intelligence and omnichannel communications, for instance — and integrates them “out of the box.” It’s powerfully simple.
Freshworks’ products are easy to set up, and simple to use and integrate with other tools, making life easy for everyone. It also allows users and managers to focus on their core tasks instead of struggling with managing the complexities of using clunky business software.
It doesn’t make sense to spend inordinate amounts of time or money implementing and “configuring” software when you could just do it yourself.
Look Ma, No consultants!
At Freshworks, we strive to put more power into the hands of end-users through intuitive interfaces, easy integrations, and straightforward workflows. This, we believe, not only makes users more confident and autonomous but also spurs them on to get the most out of their software — and their money.
Designing software for the front-line worker first is the key to scalability. The next step is to add collaborative capabilities so that the efforts of individuals are rapidly magnified across teams of users, helping businesses become more efficient and productive.
Our products work seamlessly with each other, thanks to our highly secure and scalable architecture. Our cloud infrastructure helps us rapidly scale multiple products across businesses of all sizes. Scalability also means flexibility, enabling us to invent new products and technologies rapidly.
Our sizable community of over 200,000 businesses allows us to tap the power of newer technologies like Artificial Intelligence. Effective AI depends on large datasets. In the small and mid-sized companies, however, there may be a paucity of data. Freshworks democratizes AI and machine learning for everyone by training algorithms across a massive user base to make AI useful for even the smallest users of our products. It’s simply a myth that you can’t scale cloud software across large and small businesses.
Just like a well-crafted object draws a person closer to it, software should be built in such a way that user experience becomes a thing of joy rather than a burden of boredom. After logging in, users should actually want to move about the screen, access more information on their phones, and engage meaningfully with customers.
This is made possible only with the most exacting of design standards and a keen sensitivity to end-user needs and emotions. The result: software that motivates users to “jump into action” and “wow” customers with great service.
Our native integrations work seamlessly. You now have a single source of truth. No silos. We also have the “AI smarts” in our products — Agent Assist bot, for instance, helps agents solve customer problems more efficiently by automating data entry or suggesting next best actions.
Without affordability, all other Democratic Design principles fail. Making beautifully crafted software that’s within the budgetary reach of even the smallest business is what animates Freshworks developers and employees to wow their customers every day.
Our pricing has no hidden costs. What you see is what you get. You can also pay as you scale. You can customize our plans as per your needs, both within a single product and across products. We know that you are the best judge of your needs.
We’d be delighted if you joined hands with us to take the concept of Indian Democratic Design to the world. Nothing gives us more joy than to partner with like-minded enterprises and individuals. If you’ve used the principles of Indian democratic design to solve problems, we’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org and feature your company’s story.