Remembering Prof M P Ranjan…

It has been just over a week, since the Design fraternity in India woke up to the tragic loss caused by the sudden demise of Prof M P Ranjan, who has been the most revered Design Evangelist in India by a long way. His passing way has left too huge a gap both in the academia and the professional side.

Professor Ranjan was a Designer Teacher, whom I never had the fortune of getting taught by in person in a course in particular at NID (where he taught most of his life), but I am still hugely inspired by. Way back in 2003, when he was visiting the Bamboo centre in Tripura, he had stopped by at the Department of Design, IIT Guwahati where I was a student. His fascinations with processes and methodologies was indeed inspiring. His association for the cause of Bamboo and its revival or survival (depending on the way you see it) was highly motivating. What also remained with me was his eagerness to record all his meetings, and visits, then done with the Sony Digital Camera that he carried around. Later this tool gave way to the iPad, and the famed Selfie with Ranjan.

Later I was only fortunate to have read through his postings on his popular website. Design for India. There was so much passion into even the name of the website. Today when I reflect back, I must admit, his writings also played at the back of my mind, when I decided to come back to India after studying in the US for my masters. I wanted to contribute back in India and help the discipline of Design grow and find more takers here.

Finally I did a chance to sit through his classes in 2013, a good 10 years after I had first met him. During his meeting, I did remind him of our meeting in 2003, of which he had no memory, but I had clearly. In my capacity at the India Studio Director of  L’École de design Nantes Atlantique, we invited Professor Ranjan to Bangalore to take sessions on Design Thinking and Design Methodologies. This was when I happily became a student again. Sitting through those 3 days of workshop style classes itself was filled with joy. The one thing that stuck with me from these sessions was his emphasis on System Design Thinking and why we need to think about different stakeholders. A simple exercise like understanding the Pizza Delivery Service, and using that as a reference to teach Design Methodology is something that I will cherish.

M P Ranjan at TCD Class
M P Ranjan at TCD Class of L’École de design Nantes Atlantique (India Studio)

I also remember his excitement when I mentioned that I was a student of Erik Stolterman, Professor at Indiana University, whose book The Design Way was in his list of must read books in Design Theory. During one of the conversations over lunch, one thing that he did talk about is that Design in India has been there for a long time, if you look at the history of Indian crafts and the rich cultural heritage we have. Only recently it has become a profession. I have used this example a lot of times in my talks and interactions at conferences, as it conveys a lot about Design in India.

Professor Ranjan is a legend that will live on for generations, whenever design in India is spoken about. Such was his passion for Design in India, that over the past few years he became very vocal about opinions on Design. When governments refused to think Design (Thinking) could change things, he was there fighting it alone to let Design in India get its due importance. It was his vision for Design Thinking that led me to believe that it could help in running organisations. This is something that has even formed the basis of running my non-profit venture Happy Horizons Trust.

A few things that inspired me to the core, was his passion to share knowledge. Be it his articles, research papers, research methodologies, everything was accessible to all. Today, there would be thousands of students of his and researchers who would have his website bookmarked, as the information was too valuable. His postings on Social Media was followed religiously as well.

As A Balasubramaniam writes in his blog post, Onus is on us, I do reflect back on the things that I have got to doing after I started following Professor Ranjan’s Blog more.

I started teaching more. The more I taught Design (school kids to college students to industry professionals to company CEOs), the more i learnt. I started to share more. I started to engage more in discussions and realise the importance of theory to back up your claims. These are somethings that i can truly owe it to Prof Ranjan.

My brief interactions was Professor Ranjan was rewarding and something that I will cherish lifelong and only aspire to follow his footsteps towards evangelising Design in India.

Of redesigns and UX

I have been an active user of the website IBN Live . I still remember the days when I was in the US, the one site I used to open almost daily with this, to catch up on News about India. Just recently the site has undergone an overhaul with a new design. Being a UX critic, I found just so many User Experience flaws here, that I started to vent out my disappointment on Twitter. I do realise that there could have been some business decisions behind this, but in today’s age where good User Experience is the differentiator, it is so easy to lose customers if you have not paid sufficient attention to it.

I do often mention that Making things look Beautiful is not the entire UX. It is a part of UX. User Experience is something larger than simply assessing the Visual Design. It is also about going into the details of Usability, Navigation, Information Architecture, visual design, Content. On many of these fronts, I felt that the design does not do justice to its audience.

Let me highlight just some of the UX issues on this site, that should definitely be improved. (Note: These are in no particular order of highlighted issues)

Visual Design Issues :
Excessive usage of fonts : If you look closely, the website has used so many different fonts. This is problematic, as it distracts the user and does not set the impression in mind that a certain font of a certain type can be  used for a certain thing.

There seems to be this overdose of yellow and orange. To the extent that even the sections have yellow backgrounds. The entire Visual Design theme seems so old school now. It would have been worthwhile to check out the latest trends in Visual Design, when going for an overhaul.

Being a B2C website, it is important that the goals of the website are clearly defined. Current there is a lot going on and the result of this is the unsatisfied end user.

IBN live

There are sections with numbering, which is kind of difficult to understand.

Screenshot 2015-05-25 22.13.24

 

Floating buttons are not recommended as it tends to break the symmetry in the layouts, and add in lots of extra white spaces.

Then if you look at the Top Videos section, the thumbnails highlighted does not seem right. Even the right/left arrow for the scrolling looks weird. It to me looks like a work in progress.

 

Screenshot 2015-05-25 22.25.25

 

On the good side of things, I do like the way the information is being structured, but I figured it out after some time. Currently the website collates all news related to the popular topic of the day and presents it in one section. Now this is a change in the way information is presented in news sites.

The rise of Product Design(ers)

When I graduated from the Department of Design at IIT Guwahati, back in 2005, the graduates were given a Bachelors in Design degree with a specialisation in either Communication Design (CD) or Product Design (PD). At the end of the first semester, the students had to chose either one of them.

I graduated from Communication Design, as I had an interest towards Graphics, film, photography. It is an interesting story how I ended up choosing CD. My fascination for typography, and the dislike for Mechanics (a subject that Product Designers had to study), made the choice very clear.

When we graduated almost everyone in the batch had a job. But the interesting thing was that for many it was not in the discipline of design. A few of us had what was called User Interface Designer, Usability Engineer, or Some of my batchmates went on to study management, some into finance and some went on to take up positions and eventually a career track change to Software development. Design jobs were tough to find, and being a Product Designer, the one that made physical products were tougher.

Years have gone by and the term ‘Product Design’ and ‘Product Designer’ is something that I see appearing in resumes more frequently now. Our understanding of the product has evolved. From what was earlier seen only as physical objects, we now talk about products in relation to Software products. In the Tech industry, where I have had the most experience of working in, the term Product Design is used widely today. This could also be due to the rise of startups and entrepreneurs trying to build solutions.

Students in a workshop
Image from a recent workshop on User Experience @ Product Innovation Academy

As design educators, we also need to think about whether what we teach about Product design, have to be changed, or the fundamentals and philosophies of design will continue to remain and it is just a question of adapting your learning to what’s contemporary and the need of the industry.

When User Experience as a career choice became more popular you had people from varied backgrounds sign up. There were product designers, graphic designers, artists, content writers, philosophy majors, psychology majors, human factors specialists all vying for the position. The umbrella of User Experience was (is) so vast that it does end up taking a wide range of professionals.

In the days where Internet of things is going to become a more integral part of our lives, and omni-channel experience is what people are going to be looking for, the role of the product designer will be all the more critical. These augurs well for the discipline of User Experience.

We will eventually see it going one step ahead with not just thinking about products but also about the system in which the product is placed and delivers the experience.

The trends that are evident, point to the fact that the economy will be experience driven. The experiences will be provided through products. Product Designers will be higher in demand and will be expected to work closely with the Product managers and people from a wide range of capabilities and expertise, all in order to ensure he success of their products.

These are indeed exciting times in the field of UX.

Creating products we love

As we get into a more connected world, we are flooded with products all around. The challenge for us User Experience Designers, is to ensure that the products we design are loved by a wider audience for better acceptance. After all good User Experience is what will differentiate the good from the bad.

One of the simple exercises I do almost daily is to spend a few minutes observing the products, systems and services around us. There are somethings that we just love and do mind using it again and again. On the other hand there are a lot of products that require an extra effort to be used. The ones that we love are easy to use, have low learnability and is very intuitive in nature.

The other thing I also do is to not just look at UX in the context of web applications, websites or mobile applications. I try to look deeper into UX in things like public transportation, service delivery, children play areas, shopping malls etc.

Recently I gave a talk at the UI UX conference on the same.

I also mentor at an online learning community called SlideRule, and one of the questions I was asked by a participant was, whether one should keep separate things in mind when designing for learning systems as compare to that of mobile applications. My reply was that, while the context and application could change, the fundamental principles of User Experience  remain valid and of utmost importance throughout.

Creating the Learning Revolution

As a part of my work, I have got more involved with education than never before. I truly feel connected with it. It seems to be the calling. I also have got a more closer chance to be working with education across the system at different levels. Right from the primary schools to the high schools to college education and the after college training to create skilled professionals. The stakes on education are high. As we pride on a nation that has the highest youth population in the world, we also hold the dubious distinction of having a huge number of unemployable graduates.

You may wonder, where does the problem lie? Is it in the colleges that often end up teaching only theory and not have their students work on projects; or is the problem elsewhere.? Why do companies have to spend a fortune in training their newly joined employees? Can this be taken care of at the college level itself.

Once you start analysing in a bit more detail, you realise that the problem is not just at the college level, but in the whole system, and problem can trickle down all the way up to Primary school education. There is a requirements for a complete overhaul in the way Primary Education is delivered in India. Through different channels, I have been exploring how this can be done. From getting associated with schools as an Advisor, to also conducting workshops and seminars;  I am trying it all.

Image from Happy Horizons Trust
Image from Happy Horizons Trust

But there is a need for more people to get into education. From the creation of the content to the delivery. When you get into the system you also realise that the problems are aplenty with a lot of the stakeholders. The notion of good teachers is reduced considerably. What was once considered a profession to be proud of, is today often looked down upon. In my opinion, if there is one profession that truly deserves the respect its due, it is education.

Watch this insightful talk by one of my favourite Sir Ken Robinson, on why we need to create a Learning Revolution.

Housing gets a new brand identity

It has been over a week since the new identity of Housing.com was unveiled and it has generated quite an interest. From people calling the whole thing as a big PR Marketing exercise in which a lot of the raised capital was used, there is also the case of copyright infringement with another iPhone App that was existing from before and had the same name.

My viewpoints are more from a whole branding exercise point of view. For Housing.com , I do not think they are going to rebrand/rename themselves as Lookup. For me Lookup to them is more like a philosophy, which in their case has a different connotative meaning (aspiration), than the previous LookUp application (more of a search thing there) .

Just last week in my house hunt in Delhi, I was going through their site, and had wished that they would get a better brand identity and improve on the site UX. Thankfully they have done that now. It’s one of india’s fastest growing startup with 5 rounds of funding! They have always had good Algorithms and features to differentiate, but I have felt that good UX was missing. Need to spend more time on the new design to write up on the UX, but on the brand value, this new design totally scores well. Since they have invested so much time (and money) by engaging an international Design agency (Moving Brands), they have to ensure that a good PR is done around it.

From a branding exercise point of view, here are some Key takeaways:

1. The Design partner got on board in March 2014. That’s a year long exercise! And here we have so many clients wanting a 10 week project done in 2 weeks.

2. The creation of the Design Language is important. it was NOT just about the logo, or the visiting cards. The Design Language was applied across.

3. Story telling is a key skill that reflects the effort put into the whole exercise.

4. The timing of your launch is so important. They consciously set a target to launch it during the Holi Festival. Even though the design agency is an international one, they do understand the cultural significance of Holi and the festival of Colors. The new identity is a lot about colors, and it reflects.

5. Images take your story to a whole new level. The effort put into the taking of the photographs show a lot about the belief in the power of visual media. The fact that it was driven top down, is important for everyone in the team to believe. Similar approach was taken by AirBnB as well.

6. Think Big. Have a larger impact. The vision of Housing is simple, yet so powerful. Look at the scale at which they wish to operate, Housing plans to map 24 lakh houses in all metro cities and bring properties to 10,000 towns and villages.

7. Good identity is simple, powerful, unique and creates a long lasting impression and you connect with it at different levels. Sometimes it is so obvious and in your face, that we end up neglecting it. We need to reflect upon this and also acknowledge the power of a strong symbol and story.

8. They drive towards spreading positivity and optimism is reflected in the identity. Connecting with users on the level where they are making a life changing decision (buying a house) is important. Understanding that empathy is important.

Here is their promo video in case you have still not seen it.

The Goa Project 2015 talk

Over the past few years, nothing has driven me more than to be working in the field of Design Education. Whenever I get an opportunity, I try to talk about it and share my viewpoints and love to hear thoughts both from educationists and industry practitioners on how it can improve/change.

Here are the slides from my talk today at The Goa Project 2015.

I spoke on Design Education in India and shared my viewpoints on what are the things that design education needs to do. It was an interesting experiences sharing the views and engaging in discussions with people over the talk and the break thereafter.

A quick summary of the presentation are with these points :

  1. Design education in India is going through a transition
  2. There’s a huge supply -demand gap number of graduates and industry requirements
  3. There are more people ‘designing’ stuff than ever before
  4. The role of designer in organisation and society is changing
  5. We need to equip the designer with skills relevant to succeed in the 21st century
  6. We live in a more connected and complex world

You can view the entire presentation below..

Would love to hear your viewpoints and engage in more discussions on the same.

Design in the School Classrooms : ICoRD 2015 paper presentation

This is the paper that I presented at the International Conference on Research in Design 2015, held at IISc, Bangalore, January 7-9th. The paper deals with my experiences with Design Thinking and how we are using that in the work at the Happy Horizons Trust, to improve the quality of education through various activities and projects.

The paper was co-authored by one of my student Jean Haag, a final year Transcultural Design student at L’école de design Nantes Atlantique, India Studio. 

Paper Abstract :
For Design to change from its elitist image, there is a need to implant the value of design from a young age, because design is not just elite. The impression of Design to be a tool for Problem Solving (in its analytical, rational and intuitive thinking) is of most importance.  There can be no better place to inculcate the values of Design than in the schools. Fundamentals of Design, when integrated with the pedagogy, can result in better forms of learning and a shift from the traditional forms of rote learning. Tools like Visual minutes, understanding typography, design thinking patterns, critical analysis, gamification, etc can result in a better way of problem solving and hence learning. We applied these through different activities held in schools across India and across different demography and take inspiration from the findings of these to present in this paper. In the end the paper proposes tools from the world of design that can and should be adapted to the activities done in the schools, in order to present a better learning environment and quality.

Drop me a note, if you would like to read the complete paper, and I shall mail it across.

Notes from InspirED 2014

Over the last weekend, on chilly Winter mornings at the St Stephen’s College in Delhi, I had the chance to attend the inspirED 2014, the education conference organised by  Teach for India . This was my first time attending this conference was very curious to find about the happenings in the field of education. There were individual presentations, educators talking about their initiatives, talks about the work at TFI, the performances by students, the panel discussions etc.

The opening keynote was given by Arvind Kejriwal, who spoke on the need to improve the quality of government schools and that the government has the money, but needs individuals who can take up this challenge.

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The goal should be that over the next 5 years, we should all come together to build quality in the government schools, so that even the officials are proud of sending their kids to these schools. Key points emphasised by him.

  • Teachers should only Teach and not be involved in other administrative and government and clerical duties.
  • Teachers should not be put on contract, and should be paid well.
  • The notion of Guru Samman needs to be emphasised upon.
  • The school infrastructures need to be improved.
  • There should be autonomy in the functioning of the school and not be at the disposal of the visiting education officers.
  • The principals should be the boss of the schools and the parents should have a say in the functioning of the school
  • Empowering the local community is important
  • Indians are born entrepreneurs, so one needs to make our youth to be Job givers rather than Job seekers. Promote entrepreneurship early in the education.
  • Education Systems should be designed to be built as Incubation Centres of ideas.

There was also a panel discussion that debated the initiatives being taken towards improving the quality of education. This was chaired by Rahul Kanwal of Headlines Today, that had the leaders from three major parties in Delhi, Nalin Kohli (BJP), Manish Tewari (Congress), Yogendra Yadav (AAP). Here is the link to the panel discussion on The Education Vision 2030 (What will improve primary education in India?). Though the discourse here went political at times, it nevertheless made for an interesting session.

An important thing I have often spoken about in the past is that Teachers have to be trained as Leaders. Tiffany Chang from the Dignitas Project (Kenya) facilitated an excellent session on Transforming Schools through Leadership. The Dignitas Project in Kenya works with urban communities and schools in urban slums in the Mathare Valley in Kenya (60,000 kids). So far they have trained 475 teachers with their leadership program with an outreach to around 17000 students. Some projects are community projects (like working to clean schools, create better learning environments) and some projects that focus on the individual and their needs (like shoes, dress etc) Their motto is simple. Dignity through Education – one community at a time. Create Small change that can have a Huge Impact. The work is really commendable and can definitely be applied to the work around different contexts in India too. The work with existing schools for a few years, and then move out by handing it over to other NGOs who want to continue their work. They do not build the schools, but work with what is available. During their period of involvement with a school, they work towards improving the conditions and creating effective leadership. The schools thus become fertile ground for other organisations to work. She spoke at length on her 3 week long transformation module that takes the teachers from being teachers to leaders. Here are some key takeaways from her session:

  • The key components of the transformation program are recruiting, training and coaching.
  • School and Community mapping is an important factor to find out the community they want to work on and the teachers they want to work with.
  • Have proper assessments for students (English/ Maths) before deciding on working with them.
  • Reflect the data back to the community through town hall meetings and focus group discussions and through it introduce the programs and vision of the organisation.
  • Build upon the existing assets in the community based schools.
  • Respond to school leaders’ needs, priorities and their aspirations.
  • Shift and create a culture of high expectations for both the NGOs and schools.
  • At the Dignitas Project, the 3 weeks of training comprise of the following :
    • Week 1 –Leadership
      • Modules of leadership, Emotional Intelligence, Ethical Leadership, Power and Influence, Entrepreneurship, Team building for problem solving
    • Week 2 – Strengthening Schools
      • Improving Practice, Effective family engagement, Supporting students with special needs, Guidance/counselling, Developmental Psychology, ensuring Psychological safety in schools, understanding own education biography
    • Week 3 – Improving Teaching and Learning
      • Gender responsive pedagogy, purposeful planning, lesson plan execution, Aligning Assessment Activities, Effective Teaching practices, Building a Reflective Practice
    • Coaching is an essential part of the growth of the individual into a leader and will result in reflective practitioners.
    • Through Coaching one has to look to transformation through three different levels : Behaviours, Beliefs and the Being.
    • When it comes to coaching there is often 5 gaps that one needs to consider. They are the will gap, skill gap, capacity gap, knowledge gap, and above all the emotional intelligence gap.
    • Objectives of Coaching should include the following
      • Holding the space and listening well, shrink the change, recognise growth and success, develop autonomous leaders.
    • Have a robust mechanism to Measure your impact.
    • Plan successful exits from the schools

Tiffany is also working closely with the Indian School Leadership Institute (ISLI) and one hopes that their program becomes something that can truly transform teachers to be leaders.

Another session that I attended was the panel discussion on Inclusive Education. This was a very important discussion in the context of the the rule in the Right to Education that requires all private schools to have some seats for children of the economically backward classes of the society. One major point discussed in this session was that Academic inclusion is a mean to Social Inclusion. The role of the teacher in a class where there are children from different strata of the society therefore becomes critical. Not just to overlook the academic advancements of the child, but also other psychological issues that the child goes through. Things like extra classes, private tuitions that form an integral part of the private school education are often not accessible to the children who come from the not to financially strong backgrounds. This creates the social disparity within the classrooms. School need to avoid being Academic Crazy and emphasise on marks as the only criteria for testing student intelligence. At the very basic, the students need to be happy. Schools should foster the environment that will ensure that tstudents are happy. Only then can proper learning happen. Schools that are doing Social Inclusion based education well need to be highlighted and stories be told. An interesting point that Sister Crysl made was that in her school, there is a norm that the Private Tuitions are for the Mentally challenged students and that a teacher giving private tuition is a slap on the school not being able to give proper education within the classrooms.

The community needs to be educated on what education is. Moreover the criteria for Social Inclusion will differ from State to state, as with the diversity, cultural backgrounds and the state’s GDP.

The session by Pankaj Jain of Gyanshala.org, that re-looks and rethinks the role and responsibility of the teachers was interesting. He also mentioned that the state of education (infrastructure, government programs) in India as compared to many other countries is actually better. A basic premise that the design of the curriculum to be delivered in the classrooms should not be left to the teachers, but a separate team does it. The teacher should teach and focus on the delivery, impart knowledge and hold interactions with the children . There is a need to differentiate the learning from the teaching. Knowing the context is important. What makes the model of work at Gyanshala really interesting is that takes people from the community who are high school pass to get trained to teach students upto grade 3. A lot of the things mentioned by Pankaj validated the work being by my team at the Happy Horizons Trust in Bihar too.

  • A good support system should have effective human interactions
  • Someone having the grade 10 pass certificate are good to teach grade 3 syllabus. Gyanshala uses this considerably.
  • Holding only the teacher accountable is not the right thing to do. The parents also need to get involved.
  • Teachers as a support system needs to be built and is a need of the hour.

The session by Sid Talwar of the Lightbox Venture Capital firm, was interesting to attend to. The key to their investments being that they invest in education companies that use technology for their work. A few points focused by him are:

  • Technology should not be a replacement for the teacher. It should encourage and assist them.
  • Free Ideas and tools that can be used in an interesting manner for improving education in schools include the usage if WiFi, Tablets (promoting the idea of Bring your Own Device), WhatsApp (though its group feature to make announcements and share information), Infographics (to represent content in a more pleasing manner, SMS, Twitter, Facebook.
  • Insist students and teachers to write up blogs and share information that are often expression of opinions.
  • Data should be more objective.
  • Constructive and Actionable feedback should be given to all stakeholders within the system (parents, teachers, students)
  • Teacher empowerment programs should be taken up at a larger scale.

Amongst the other interesting initiatives the I came across was the Ashoka Changemaker Schools Network. The idea is to connect schools that are empathy driven and show a dedicated effort towards bringing a change to the education system in the way it delivers the education and impacts the society.

The panel discussion on RTE amendments was nice too, but I missed out on most of it due to an urgent work that came up.  20141220_164423

My takeaways from the conference
At the end I was happy to have attended the conference, but I expected more. It was wonderful to meet up passionate people and some friends.  One of the things with many conferences these days is that there are many sessions running in parallel and you are bound to miss out on some great sessions and end up attending some not-so great ones. I do have some clear takeaways from it.

  • There is a lot of work to be done and we are barely getting started.
  • Teacher training is important and needs to be fixed.
  • Collaboration has to happen amongst different people and organisations working in the field.
  • The work in Bihar that the Happy Horizons Trust is doing, needs to have a better execution when it comes to the training of the champions.
  • Technology is a great tool to scale the outreach and impact of your work, but building a strong local ground is important.
  • Children and students require Support Systems. This can come on the form of well trained and passionate teachers.
  • Parents need to play an important role in the education of the child too.

Changing Education Paradigms – talk by Ken Robinson

With my interests in education increasing day by day, talks by Sir Ken Robinson are a must watch.
I watch it from time to time. Here’s one that questions the very fundamentals of education.

With so many questions being raised about the quality of education and the way it is delivered in India, it is a matter of serious concern. The purpose of education is different today than what it used to be.

Do watch this fascinating talk.