Friday, January 16, 2009

Web 2.0 gets active

For all its expertize in writing software, Indian developers tend to have a weak sense of UI and intuitive features. Whether it is home-grown software or desi websites, the flow and look of the UI is always secondary, as long as it works. Maybe the roots lie in our chalta-hai attitude, proven by narrow lanes being laid out even in recently developed parts of the town. Or our easy acceptance of long queues instead of 'token' systems at the passport office. This is why I was pleasantly surprised by a couple of B2C Indian-owned and operated websites recently. The navigation, feature-set and after-sales service from both Picsquare and CAMS have left me rather optimistic.

Picsquare is a photo-printing start-up based in Bangalore that provides excellent quality prints and gifts (like personalized calendars and tee shirts) at half the cost of others like HP Snapfish and Kodak. In our experience, the creative designs at Picsquare have been much much better than the amateurish samples we saw at Myntra, GK Vale and other competing shops. Their revamped website makes great use of Web 2.0 to allow quick and easy customisation of gifts with your own photos. Interestingly, the output on screen was a close match with the final product-- something I frankly did not expect.

CAMS is a registrar for mutual fund investments for many companies in India. They sent me my usual statement this morning by email. Only, this time, the statement was on fire. The tiny 37KB PDF contained a wealth (no pun intended) of information. It provides transaction history, account details and charts in neat tabbed layout. The best part is, they allow many service requests to be made right there at one click. This "paperless" approach has been long missed, with most funds and banks still requiring us to visit the branch for signing forms for every little request. Except for the requests, all other interactive content is visible even when offline.

The reason I was excited enough to blog about this is how Web 2.0 allows even Indian websites, that are traditionally weak on intuitive user-interface, to "look pretty" and "act smart". While the fonts are still large, the color combinations tacky and security suspect, these initiatives are still a leap from the baby-steps that B2C websites have taken in the past. I have already waxed eloquent about Ixigo earlier, an sophisticated travel-search engine that beats MMT et al hollow. Picsquare, CAMS and others like them now bring a similar "comfort" to delivered-goods services as well.

That said, I strongly caution you against using shopping websites like IndiaPlaza, Rediff and Indiatimes. Unlike the start-ups, these brands have missed the point and use e-commerce as a sly tool to palm off duplicate and/or tacky products. In many cases, their delivery systems still remain unreliable and customer service/ after-sales service is conspicuously absent. Despite the market of a billion users, Amazon and its clones have yet to bless our shores with their awesome service and prices.

Given below are some snapshots of the CAMS "Active Statement", just to give a feel of the new service. While I loved the UI, I wonder if it appeals equally to less tech-savvy account holders?

The "ActiveStatement" Home Page

The Missing Information Tab

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