Vokal is not a spelling mistake

Vokal – an Indian language app exploring human search
Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash

The people who use Vokal don’t care how it is spelled. It makes no difference to them at all. As far as they are concerned, they ask questions in their native Indian language and get answers. It is early days for a company attempting to bridge the gap between the English language internet and the rest of the world. It’s not a gap, its a chasm! All Indian languages are grouped with the ‘others’ in the world – so, you can either look at it as a massive problem or an insane opportunity – which is where the story of Vokal begins

Pic courtesy: SpeakT.com

Aprameya Radhakrishnan was sitting pretty with the bounty from his first venture – TaxiForSure. One of the problems he came across every day was the difficulty his drivers faced in navigating maps with English instructions and interfaces on smartphones. Since it was essential to their job, they just about managed. And what else did they do? They watched videos and forwarded messages to families and friends. It’s still hard to type on a smartphone – and even more so with language keyboards. They have to be downloaded, installed and configured. Here’s a comment by a user, Maneesha Chaturvedi, on the Play store Google Indic app: It is designed by somebody either whose mother tongue is not Hindi or who is not well versed with Hindi. Hindi has many complex sounds and this app is not able to cover all those. It cannot give good suggestions either nor can it understand typing errors. Its settings are not user-friendly. It doesn’t enable me to switch between normal Google keyboard and Indic keyboard. The updated Google Indic keyboard is horrible

The experience of using Vokal

The founders of Vokal – Mayank Bidawataka and Aprameya Radhakrishna
Pic: BW Disrupt

When you download the app, you are presented with a set of instructions to mark the language in which you want to interact and your areas of interest. A small introduction tells you how to go about selecting the topics you are interested in. English is not available as an option.

One of the first things the app asks is whether you would like to record an answer. That seemed to indicate that the flood of questions is bigger than the number of answers available – though the claim of over 10,00,000 answers is prominently flagged on the site. It does not break down the number of languages that the answers are available in. The model is to generate both questions and answers from users.

The founder is clear that he’s in a market where even a sub-optimal solution has takers because the need is so keenly felt. And the app has clocked over a million downloads, so it does look as if the company has tapped into a fertile ‘felt-need’ What is not so clear, however, is whether they will be able to take the feedback they get on a daily basis and chart out the course for the future. And while the claim is that audio questions are perfectly routed and get answers from experts, a question I asked in Hindi “What can I see in Chennai?” was apparently sent out to over 1000 users and two days later, no answers were forthcoming. It is also possible the question was not interesting or enticing enough to generate replies.

The most popular questions

A series of questions recorded by users flow into the app every day

The company’s biggest set of users are men in their 20s, looking for jobs or information. Apparently, one of the most popular questions is “How can I start a liquor shop?” Seeing the crowds outside liquor shops drivers people to conclude that the liquor business generates a lot of money. There are already a fair number of ‘self-help’ gurus promoting their courses on how to attain success in life and using the app as a magnet for fresh recruits. Like every social app, you can ‘like’, ‘follow’ and respond to the answers or questions. And Vokal is trying to develop an environment in which they can balance interaction, answers, accuracy and generate profits.

The founder spoke about a large screen in the office showing the flow of questions into the app in real-time for employees and developers to figure out what is important to their audiences. The names of the users or their location are not revealed but only their interests.

Timing the market right

The rise of the internet in Indian languages
Pic: Medium article

India’s market for the language internet opened up with Jio in 2017-18, expanding the telecom network with the lowest data rates in the world. It was time for Indians to explore the delights that were prohibitively expensive until then. Tik Tok captured some of the largest share of the market – video entertainment is the launch vehicle for millions of eager viewers who were not satiated with WhatsApp forwards but wanted some of their own action. Facebook is another contender, having made the language version available to countries around the world. 

That set the tone for exploration in native languages and the early work done by Daily Hunt and other news apps got the first wave of traction going. As Aprameya, the founder said in his YourStory interview, the first things that early users of the internet looked for were “information, engagement, and ways to express themself online“. What the second wave of Indian users was looking for was precisely the same thing – and there was hardly anything for them to browse in their native language. Which is where Vokal saw the emerging window of opportunity. And the way native users converged on the app confirmed his theory. Now, what it evolves into is work in progress – whether it will be an Indian language Quora or a native language social media player.

Removing interaction friction

Voice search is set for exponential growth
Pic: Forbes article

By making voice and video the prime inputs for entry and asking questions, Vokal could corner a share of the market for ‘human search’. It uses the time-honored and time tested method of people volunteering their time and attention to help others. Vokal has kept its team small and focused on directing the queries to the right panel of ‘experts’ as they call them, it is relying on user-generated content to keep the site going. 

Vokal does not have the luxury of getting people with the right credentials to fill in as experts, initially. It will have to live with people who have a business interest in providing entry-level jobs, or training opportunities. And if it deteriorates into a question bank with largely unanswered queries, interest will quickly drop off. Finding the content streams that will keep the curious masses coming back for more with positive word of mouth is essential. 

Right now, the majority of users are young men in their 20s asking questions about their careers and love life. How technology can be used to chart the course for them as they grow will determine whether Vokal will become a search engine, a social media player or a job search board. There’s a 2-decade long history of the early internet to learn some lessons on building for the next billion

Read Next: India reinvents the digital newspaper

Or this: How Swiggy cuts through the clutter

Author short bio: I head Ideascape, an agency that I started in 2004. I have over 35 years of experience building brands in businesses as diverse as payroll services, software, cycles, HR services, hospitals, hospitality and project management.

We’re a boutique creative agency but we provide the full range of branding services in partnership with several associates in digital marketing, web development, and event management. This blog is a collection of my experiences and my point of view on marketing and advertising