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A visual story of Covid-19 in Asia, as told through mobile apps


The Nutgraf

As we approach a month of complete lockdown in India, all I will say is, from all of us at The Ken, we hope you are fine, doing well, and safe.  

Welcome to another edition of The Nutgraf, the weekly newsletter that connects the dots and helps make sense of Asia’s business, economy and technology developments. In this week’s edition, I am trying something a little offbeat, so I’ll start with three requests: 

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Let’s dive in. 


The most valuable real estate in the world right now

Here’s a question. 

What’s the most valuable real estate in the world?

Perhaps you may say it’s Canary Wharf in London. Or South Mumbai. Or Manhattan. Sure. Maybe. If you live at one of these places, chances are that you are locked in. If you lease or rent property there, you are probably paying the rent, but not getting the value for it. My point is simple—real estate isn’t that valuable when everyone is forced to stay indoors. 

The real question is, what’s the most valuable real estate in the world during a global pandemic when large parts of the world are in lockdown?

Here’s my answer. 

The home screen of a mobile app. 

Think about it. Everybody is at home and dependent on apps more than ever. For groceries. For entertainment. For food. For connecting with others. If you are a company who owns one of these apps, what you put on your homescreen is more important than ever. It says what you prioritise and what you think your customers value. 

By extension, it’s a useful signal about how businesses view the pandemic, how major players are reacting to it, where the opportunities are being created, and who is signalling what to what end. 

We looked at some prominent mobile apps across Asia, across categories, and tried to surmise what companies are doing, why they are doing it, and what this tells us. 

This is the visual story of the Covid-19 pandemic in Asia as told through the most valuable real estate in the world right now. 


Two becomes four


Ask any UX product designer, and she’ll tell you that designing the home screen for a popular app is probably one of the toughest assignments out there. For three reasons: 

  1. A mobile screen is much smaller than a desktop screen. Less space means less information.

  2. On the mobile, information is consumed in one direction. There’s just one way to read. Top to bottom. Think about any mobile app you use. WhatsApp. Google. Netflix. You start at the top and go down. You don’t go from left to right. Unlike a desktop. There’s a reason why feed layouts are ubiquitous these days.
  3. The way users interact with it is different. Users touch things on the mobile. There’s no mouse or a trackpad. A mouse makes things equal. It’s the same effort to move a mouse to any part of the screen. Not on the mobile. Important things cannot be more than a thumb-length away. This is also why a lot of apps have navigation at the bottom of the app, not the top. Easy to switch. Easy to use. 

Typically, under normal circumstances, UX designers have to decide the priority of two things on a mobile app. 

  1. Product i.e., what you are selling
  2. Service i.e., how you are selling it 

Let me show you. 

Take the homescreens of Swiggy and Zomato, the two leading food delivery apps in India. These are their homescreens, as available on the app store, uploaded before the Covid-19 pandemic. 


Notice the similarities. The navigation is at the bottom. And at the top, there’s a clear prioritisation, starting with products, then the service, and then the products again as a feed. 

That was before. 

The Covid-19 pandemic changed a lot of things for apps. So, apart from product and service, apps had to make decisions on how to include two other elements. 

  1. Product i.e what you are selling
  2. Service i.e how you are selling it 
  3. Promise i.e how you are keeping users safe
  4. Empathy i.e what you are doing for those who are at risk, like delivery partners. 

Just two is hard. Two more, much harder.

And so, both delivery apps in India made a similar decision, in slightly different ways. Just look at their homescreens. 


For both Swiggy and Zomato, it was important to show they were safe to use. That was more important than what Swiggy and Zomato had to be used for. The app home screen is a reflection of that. Safety. Then Products. Zomato chose to go with an overlay about safety, and kept their product on top on the home screen, followed by safety. Swiggy just went with safety on top, followed by products. 

There’s another reason for Swiggy to go with this approach. The safety information is at the top, farther away from a user’s thumb. Safety measures need to be read. Products need to be tapped. 

This is in India. 

What are food delivery apps doing in other countries? What are they prioritising? 

I called Ben, our reporter in Singapore, and asked him to send me the homescreens of the most popular food delivery apps from there. 

What I got was fascinating.


KFC has prioritised service above all. McDonald’s has focused on safety, service, and then product. And if you open Deliveroo, a popular food delivery app, all you get is product, product, product. This is followed by, as Ben describes it, ‘an emotional guilt-trip message’ at the bottom.

Why is this happening? Why aren’t delivery apps in Singapore obsessed with reassuring their customers that they will keep them safe?

Maybe the answer lies with the Singapore government’s approach to Covid-19. 

The cautionary tale at the moment is Singapore. For weeks, public health officials have been enviously lauding its response to Covid-19.

Singapore officials have been screening and quarantining all travelers from outside the country since the beginning of the pandemic. Their contact tracing is second to none. Every time they identify an infection, they commit to determining its origin in two hours. They post online where identified infected people work, live and have spent time so that potential contacts can be identified. They enforce quarantines and isolation of such contacts, with criminal charges for those who violate orders.

Lesson From Singapore: Why We May Need to Think Bigger, The New York Times. 

Of course, despite this, Singapore was forced to go into a lockdown. But the real takeaway (hah!) is that most citizens expect their government to control Covid-19, not food delivery apps. 

Even Nadine, our reporter in Indonesia, told me that contactless delivery isn’t really that prominent there. It’s “a message in a slider on top of the food tab. Between other messages like discounts and vouchers”

But let’s go back to Swiggy and Zomato for a moment. 

This time, take a closer look at their products. Swiggy and Zomato are food delivery apps. As Rohin, our CEO, wrote on Twitter, this is very interesting. Especially Swiggy. 

  • Genie competes with concierge service Dunzo
  • Grocery competes with e-grocer BigBasket.
  • Meat competes with meat and seafood startups FreshToHome and Licious.

Swiggy is announcing on its home screen that it’s a substitute for all of these. 

But why? 

Let’s look at the homescreens of the other apps. 

The “Sorry please come back again” homescreen

Forget product. Forget safety. Look at the focus on services.

  • FreshToHome is all about informing users when their service opens.

  • Dunzo is telling users that their service is limited, and requesting them to only order essential items.

  • BigBasket is my absolute favourite. It has put up a graph showing users how many orders it delivers everyday, just to credibly tell users that they are indeed ramping up, so please please come back.
  • And e-pharmacy 1mg is using prime real estate just to inform users that everything is fine and they are doing what they normally do. 

All these apps are informing users about the new normal, and their capabilities during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

I don’t know about you, but this is terribly fascinating. 

Why are these apps doing this, though? 

Chances are that when the pandemic hit, and people were locked at home, and needed, say, groceries, they didn’t download Swiggy. They didn’t download Zomato. They downloaded the app that they associated the most with groceries i.e. BigBasket. 

The app store rankings bear this out. BigBasket currently ranks as the 41st most popular mobile app on the App Store in India. Three positions above Truecaller. And just three positions below Gmail. For a grocery delivery app which mostly operates in metros, this is ridiculously high. BigBasket is probably seeing crazy levels of downloads, probably the highest in its history, and has no way to meet it, so they need to tell their users that they are going to get better. And Swiggy can tell its users that it’s a viable alternative. 

This puts Swiggy and Zomato closer to becoming super apps—a single app that does everything you need.

And where are super apps most popular? 

That’s right. Southeast Asia. 

Enter Jum and Kay, our reporters in the Philippines and Malaysia, respectively. They sent me screenshots of the same super app across three countries. Nadine sent me some from Indonesia as well. 

One app. Three screens in three countries

Notice how the safety in Singapore is actually a deal. And how in Malaysia, Grab places a lot of real-estate around disseminating information from the government. The Philippines, on the other hand, has a lot of emphasis on empathy. You can buy a meal for your delivery person. You can donate. 

No guesses why

On March 12, hours before Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte announced a community quarantine would be implemented in Metro Manila due to the coronavirus outbreak, an informal settlement in the city was demolished, leaving the vast majority of its more than 1,000 residents homeless. Days later, the quarantine was made into an island-wide lockdown of Luzon, where Manila is located, and many municipalities implemented curfews and other restrictions on movement. Within a week, the settlement’s impoverished residents had lost their shelter and, stranded on the streets, become de facto curfew violators in the midst of a global pandemic.

The Philippines’ Coronavirus Lockdown Is Becoming a Crackdown, The Diplomat

That country is in a bad place. We wrote about it, in more detail, for our Southeast Asia subscribers, here (it’s a free read!).

Malaysia isn’t the only country which has real-estate on the home screen for empathy or the government. 

Look at India’s two largest e-commerce apps. 

Apart from focusing on empathy, both prominently allow users to donate to PM Cares, the Indian government’s fund for combating, containment, and relief efforts against the coronavirus outbreak. Flipkart and Amazon are trying to get on the Indian government’s good side. For obvious reasons

However, if you take any e-commerce app in Southeast Asia, like say, Thailand, as I asked Jon, you wouldn’t even know that there was a global pandemic in progress. 

This is because, unlike India, in Thailand, e-commerce continues uninterrupted. And with people locked at home, if you are an e-commerce company, there’s no reason to do anything else than focus on just products. 

Finally, just for fun, I decided to look at two apps that, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, were rendered non-operational. No product. No service. No empathy. No safety. What were these apps doing? 

I asked Jon to send me his movie booking app. He said he used SF Cinemas in Thailand. And I picked BookMyShow in India. 

The difference was stark. 

SF Cinemas has shut down operations. 

But BookMyShow has become…Spotify. With links to TikTok videos. And movies on Netflix, Hotstar, and Amazon Prime. This used to be a ticket booking app. It took them less than two weeks to get here. 

I suppose the real lesson of the pandemic is that if you want it hard enough, your home screen can become anything you want it to be. 


That’s about it from me. 

If you liked this, you can share this on WhatsApp, Twitter and LinkedIn. 

Oh, and huge thanks and credit to Sharath for creating these graphics. And for the wonderful Desk team at The Ken for editing it down. 

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Stay safe. Wash your hands.