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Every Major Newspaper in The World Has These Dharwad-Made Crosswords. Here’s Why

Dharwad-based PuzzleMe is a crossword software developed by Standford alumnus, Sudheendra Hangal and John Temple and IIM alumni Jaya Hangal.

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A great vocabulary and intelligence are not the only prerequisites to solving a crossword. With a little practice and a lot of patience, you can master this game too. At least that’s what my grandmother preached.

Every Sunday, she would religiously sit in her favourite spot on the sofa with a pencil and eraser in hand to solve crosswords published in a local Gujarati paper. She disliked taking help but didn’t let her pride get in the way of filling the tiny white boxes. It would inevitably become a family quiz. There was an unparalleled joy and satisfaction on her face when she got the answers correct.

Years later, the newspaper replaced crosswords to accommodate another segment, and I wondered if crosswords would become a thing of the past. With new entertainment options and the influx of digital games, a decline in crossword enthusiasts seemed like an eventuality.

Stanford alumnus, Sudheendra Hangal and John Temple, along with Hangal’s wife Jaya, feared the same.

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They decided to explore the digitisation of crossword puzzles and the result was PuzzleMe — a software that can create or play puzzles. The beauty of the software is that clues can have multimedia forms such as voice notes, images, songs, YouTube and more.

The trio launched ‘Amuse Labs’ in 2013, and in the last eight years they have garnered millions of users from across the world. The software is free for non-commercial use and is being used by media houses, educators, corporates, children, medical experts and more.

“I met John, a journalism fellow and former editor of the Washington Post while researching the scope of digital journalism. We learnt about our mutual love for crosswords and started working together to develop a crossword application with the central theme of Hindustani classical music. I wanted to spread awareness on the same among the millennials and children. We kept the app more engaging, colourful and one that was an immersive multimedia experience. We soon decided to build a software where users can make their own puzzles based on things they are passionate about,” Sudheendra, who lives in Dharwad, Karnataka, tells The Better India.

Being a journalist, John knew the importance of crosswords published towards the end of every paper. “After reading heavy news articles, crosswords and other games are a great way to unwind. Solving a crossword is a social activity where a family sits around the breakfast table and solves the clues together. The Internet breaks down the walls of distance and our software offers multiplayer features too. So, a mother in Mumbai can play with her daughter living in Delhi. One of the benefits of this software is receiving constructive feedback. This helps us innovate and interact with the users,” John, who lives in the USA, says.

Brain Treats

It takes barely 15-20 minutes to create a puzzle on the app. All one has to do is form questions, add answers and provide media links, if any. It can be on any topic, ranging from key speeches of world leaders, dance forms, cartoons to health trivia.

The HTML-5 based software is such that puzzles can be embedded on any website and customised as per the user’s portal.

To make it more visually appealing, users can customise colours, fonts, the masthead, images and even shapes. The team had made a heart-shaped crossword for the Journal of the Medical Association. Other features include rebus squares, circled or shaded letters, barred grid and presently the team is working on developing right-to-left scripts for languages like Urdu, Arabic and Hebrew.

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Some of the features were added over the years due to user feedback. For example, the Eenadu, a Telugu newspaper, found it challenging to include certain maatras and consonants in the language. That made the company develop a voice-based interface. So instead of typing the answer, a user could say the word out loud. This is being implemented in other languages too.

The puzzles also cater to the millennials with trendy lingos, slang and pop culture. This has helped them shatter the popular myth that only the elderly are the target audience for crosswords.

“We have a presence across several countries, including Norway, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Spain and the South Asian ones. Each region has its own distinct culture, identity, and topography. Our customisation feature has helped us grow tremendously. The commercial segment also allows the creators to track analytics, audience behaviours, time spent, how many completed the puzzle, device used and so on,” says John.

Their growth rate is backed by the figures, and according to the duo, the company records a 50% growth rate every year. At times, it even touches 100%. According to the Times of India, they make 10 crore puzzles every year.

“A user spends an average time of 15 minutes on one puzzle, which is an extraordinary amount of time to stay on the site, given that they spend 2-3 minutes per article. Last year, there were a hundred million game plays,” adds Sudheendra.

John jumps in at this point to give the example of the New Yorker. The publication had one crossword puzzle a week and one editor, before Amuse Labs came into the picture. Today, they have three regular columns for crosswords and they have hired a team to make them. He says, for subscription-based publications, PuzzleMe is an effective tool to attract and retain readers.

This habit-building factor is also reflected in Juggernaut, a news publication for South Asians. They publish one crossword a month but the unique references of geography, culture, food, ethnicity, etc. have made it an awaited segment in the community.

Some of the news publications that use PuzzleMe include The Guardian, The Hindu, Washington Post, Atlantic and so on. The Los Angeles Times recently published an ad for Shopify in the form of a puzzle that was made by Amuse Labs. Besides crosswords, the trio have ventured into a similar brain teaser of games.

Unfortunately, my grandmother is no more. But if she was alive, I’m sure she would have revelled at the thought of playing and, more importantly, creating these puzzles for her group of friends.

You can get in touch Amuse Labs here.

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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