177K users, a legal notice and some learnings

internetuage story
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March 2013, I had recently moved to Gurgaon for a new job and was staying in a Paying guest house. This PG had a shared Airtel broadband connection provided by the owner. Those days, broadband connections would have a per month high-speed bandwidth limit and you could buy extra high-speed data called SmartBytes.

In a shared connection, it was crucial to know how much high-speed data was consumed / available so that I can finish all binge-watching on time :).

I created InternetUsage android app to do exactly that!

Here are a few things I learned by creating, marketing, supporting, and shutting down this app which went from 0 to 177K users in a short span.

1. It’s not only your problem

While talking to friends and colleagues about InternetUsage, I found that many of them could easily relate to the use case for this app.

It was easier for me to pitch it to people who were staying in a PG like me, or friends staying together sharing single broadband connection.

Being able to find early adopters, beta users, and use case critics are few added benefits of the famous “Scratch your own itch” mantra.

When you build a product or service, you make the call on hundreds of tiny decisions each day. If you’re solving someone else’s problem, you’re constantly stabbing in the dark. When you solve your own problem, the light comes on. You know exactly what the right answer is. — Jason Fried and DHH in their book REWORK

This has been true with other apps (most recently jsontoolbox) I have created in past where I have been trying to solve my problem and found so many others were looking for just that thing.

2. Useful > Beautiful

I have never been great at creating beautiful things and the first version of InternetUsage was no exception. This is how it looked like in the beginning –

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Initial UI Of InternetUsage

But this was in no way a complaint by any of the users because it worked exactly as expected. To quote a user –

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An app review that focused on what users want

User experience will always have more value than a gorgeous UI where you might have to squint your eyes and make an effort to find a feature.

This is not to say that nice looking user interfaces have no value, but it should not be a priority over working features and ease of use.

After getting enough traction, I did work on revamping the logo and user interface while also working on the iOS app. This is how it ended up looking like –

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Latest UI of InternetUsage android app

Many users noticed this change and were very happy to see an app they use every day was not an eyesore any more 🙂

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3. Small things can have a big impact

As the app kept getting traction, there were multiple new features requested by users. Some wanted speed test in the app, some wanted an always-on widget and some asked for intelligent usage trend analysis.

Along with these good to have/ high effort requests, a friend asked if it was possible to get a notification when usage had reached a threshold.

This was a request which seemed feasible and important at the same time. Something even I would want to have in the app!

Though at that time I did not know what a prioritization matrix is, it felt like the right thing to do.

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Prioritization Matrix, used for evaluating the relative importance of ideas

I spent only two weekends coding and testing this feature, but it was loved by many. There were multiple emails and reviews saying how useful this single feature was.

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4. Customer delight is all the marketing you need

This was a simple app to develop, but it took a great number of my nights and weekends to support queries from all kinds of users. Mainly because I was scraping this data from Airtel’s SmartBytes page and I had to modify my code whenever they would change their page structure.

This meant for some users data won’t be shown if their SmartBytes page had a different layout. It could have been a case of a staged rollout or some change for a specific set of users.

I would get multiple emails for support requests. I made sure to reply to each one of them, get more details of their problem, and if required make the code change to publish new app version.

It does seem like a lot of work, but I think this was the main source of new app installs.

Happy customers would always leave a nice review and tell their friends about it. Which in turn improves your ASO.

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You know you have made an impact when a user argues for you!
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5. Don’t completely depend on another product

As mentioned above, I was scraping data out of the official Airtel SmartBytes web page for this app to work. Which meant my product was 100% dependent on that web page.

Whenever they would make a change, my app would stop working. They had different data for a different set of users and even for different states.

Plus if they had downtime, it meant my app had downtime (and bad reviews). At one point I was doing tech support for InternetUsage and Airtel SmartBytes.

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This has been one of the most important learning for me from InternetUsage (even WeWorkRemotely app, but that story some other day). Never put all your eggs in someone else’s basket!

6. Don’t take trademark and IP lightly

In addition to the dependency problems, I received a legal notice from Airtel because I was using “Airtel” in the app name and description. This was once I had more than 100K downloads and multiple reviews saying “this app is even better than official app for this data”.

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Such reviews are always great to read!
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I knew they were right, but for some reason I was more happy than afraid of receiving this 😀

Thankfully I was able to comply with terms of Airtel with some help from a very good friend and an IP lawyer.

Although my intentions were not bad, this could have been the end of the road depending on how seriously Airtel wanted me to shut down the app and my ignorance in using trademark/IP.

Eventually, I decided to shutdown InternetUsage because the fate of data was not in my hands and it was not worth it to keep managing this as an unofficial hack.

It remains one of my favorite projects, not because of its technical complexity, but because of the positive effect of its simplicity.

It is a sign of how technology doesn’t always have to be about Artificial intelligence or machine learning or some other buzz word. There are so many simple problems out there which impact large number of people, waiting to be solved with technology.

I have met a lot of new people since shutting down InternetUsage. If you are someone who used InternetUsage without knowing I created it, please leave a comment below or send me a DM . I would love to know more about your experience and how you discovered it.

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