Notes from the India HCI 2015 Conference

IIT Guwahati is one of the most beautiful college campuses in India. That is a well known fact by all now. I have had the good fortune of having studied here. I am truly grateful for it. So when the next edition of the IndiaHCI conference, India’s premier conference on Human Computer Interaction was scheduled at this beautiful campus, it was certain that I had to attend. The campus at this time of the year is really beautiful.

The theme of the conference was ‘Design for Bridging’, and it was wonderful to hear different speakers present their views. It is a wonderful theme to understand the different India’s that co-exist today.  

So what does it mean to Design for Bridging? And who or what are we bridging? I was invited by Xerox Research (India) to present my work on Design for Social Impact and how we at the Happy Horizons Trust have been looking at improving the quality of education. It is a very small attempt at Bridging the gap that exists in the country in the domain of education. In my talk addressing the theme of the conference, I highlighted the different challenges we face on the ground when working with the government schools. Two main takeaways from my talk were the emphasis on a systemic approach to problem solving when we are dealing with wicked problems like education and the secondly the notion of truly understanding all the stakeholders in the system and designing for the secondary users as well. We often tend to ignore the secondary users, because we do not consider them valuable. Especially in the notion of designing for resource constraint environments that we work in, it becomes imperative to talk about these two at length. Another notion I emphasised on is the need for us to go on the ground and truly spend time in a more ethnographic manner to understand the realities better. 

I was also a part of a panel discussion on the state of Design and design processes across companies in India, chaired by Atul Manohar, Director of UX at Informatica. I shared my insights from my years of working and consulting with entrepreneurs, teaching at Exec MBA programs comprising mostly of Product Managers and Product owners. Amongst the points I highlighted included the challenges faced by designers in dealing with Business owners and vice versa. I posed a simple question, as to how many in the room could confidently give an answer to the question, What is Design? This is important for many in the industry still need to get an understanding on the true value of Design. So to me this is yet another bridge we need to design for.  

On being asked, what has changed in the industry in the past 10 years, when it comes to the role of Design, I mentioned that we have gone to a larger acceptance of Design now. We have gone from ‘No Design’ to ‘Know Design’. The next few years would be spent in ‘Embracing Design’ and as a result make a collaborative effort towards innovation and creating wonderful products that solve a need towards bridging the gaps.

Pick up any area of social welfare. Be it education or healthcare or agriculture or sustainability, there is an immense need for us to contribute towards bridging the gap. 

In this regard I thought the selection of keynotes delivered by the invited speakers were wonderful. The opening keynote by Professor Shendeng Zhao from National University of Singapore, was a great one to start the conference. The talk focused on the different research work being done by his lab. The lab’s emphasis on understanding what part of the Human Computer Interaction can be automated, what can be done by the computer and what still needs the human intervention was truly inspiring. Dr Phillippe from Toulouse in his entertaining talk spoke about the need for the HCI community to build more reliable systems. In my opinion, this holds immense value as we start to look towards building solutions for an audience who perhaps are not very tech savvy yet. One of the most inspiring talks I attended in this meet was the one by Dr Sanjay Tripathi, who presented an eye opening account of the healthcare facility in India and how much we are lagging behind when it comes to providing quality healthcare to the masses in India. Technology has to be of help here.

Pramod Khambete’s (teaches at IDC IIT Bombay) talk on understanding Design Patters in Service design was wonderful too. The conference also had a few presentations on Gestural interactions and the work done by the TAUCHI lab in Tampere University, Finland was interesting too. The best full paper award went to a paper by a team from IDC IIT Bombay, which shared results and findings from a research on the text entry for Indian Languages in Virtual Keyboards. Discussions with Mr Manish Gupta (Vice President at Xerox Corporation and Director Xerox India) was truly insightful and something I would cherish for a long time.

During the stay at IIT Guwahati this time, I clicked three wonderful photographs of the campus. (I like to think so, going by the number of likes it received on social media). I never get tired of clicking images on the campus. Only that this time I was doing it all with my mobile phone (which I have been doing so for the past 3 years now)

The first morning of the conference we woke up to the campus engulfed in a beautiful fog. One was that of a cormorant drying itself on the water pipe. Just when I was about to click the image, it flew. To me this was a constant reminder of the opportunities that go away if we do not act upon it. 

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The second day while on the way to the conference venue, I clicked this shot of a juxtaposition of the barren trees with leaves laden trees forming a canopy over the pathway. To me the barren branches of the trees, reminded me of the different pathways that people take after graduating. Some get lost in the mess of convoluting pathways, and some still manage to keep sight of the goal that they want to achieve.

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The third that that of a migratory bird taking flight, against the backdrop of the boys hostels at IIT Guwahati. To me the campus is a place where many dreams take flight.  

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I come back from this conference with a lot of insights on the developments on the Technology front and hope to work more with it in my work on Design for Social Impact.  

Notes from Industry-Academia Panel Discussion at UX India 2015

A few weeks ago (last month to be precise) I was a part of a panel discussion at the UX India 2015 conference called Industry-Academia Fusion. The panelists were people from the Industry and Academia. There were a lot of discussions, deliberations and talking about the situation as it stands. It was a very interesting discussion, that brought upon many points that were critical to Design Education in India.  As someone who has spent quite a few years in the industry and then moved to the academia, I have been able to understand both perspectives and am often voicing my opinions from different sides.

A common concern amongst many people who hire designers, is that the quality of students graduating is not adept, or the industry has to train them on certain skills before they could get onto a project. Why is this so?  Is it even a justified demand from the industry? 

If we look at the early days of UX in India, there was always a certain amount of time given to fresh graduates to adapt the needs of the industry. A lot of the managerial people in the UX would not come from formal studies in UX, for the field did not exist then. It is only over the past 10 years that the discipline has seen more graduate programs being offered. The demand side has risen considerably too. 

Industry lead academia or academia led industry

A question that I am often found discussing with my peers is whether industry has become impatient or has the academia started to just fulfil the ‘demand’ of the industry? So the classic question then follows : Should the Industry lead the academics or should the academics lead the industry? You could be a proponent of either of the thought, but it is something that is currently at the helm of how design is taught at the institutes today.  

If you look at business schools they follow the former, whereas traditionally design schools have followed the later. 

But with the rise in “live projects”, internships, industry projects, placements driven curriculum, it is almost as if the notion of Design education is getting limited to precisely what the industry wants. 

A good example given by panelist was that of the US where a lot of the Academic research was used by industry to progress. Which meant that it was the academia leading the industry. It was here that the industry would set up research centres in colleges to new technology, research, innovation etc and then use that research to come up with industry ready products. 

In India, however the notion of research itself is not very prominent. Design schools are hardly encouraged to work on research. The culture of research is non-existent. Very few research papers get written. One way of changing that should be to encourage all faculty to write papers, articles and get involved in research. That is the true value quotient of any school. 

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It is well known and should be clear that design education cannot adopt the same ways of working as an engineering or management education.  So it can therefore never be the about the numbers and having too many students at a point of time. Design education is different because one has to pay special attention to the individual learning capacities. Someone could be a fast learner, someone could learn slowly. Courses need to be ‘designed’ in a manner that it encourages the learning. 

Speaking of learning, schools and colleges today need to rebuild themselves as centres of learning and not as training centres. While training is a short term thing, learning is a life-long process.

Academia and Industry should be different but work together
Even though there exists some difference in both, it is important that the academia and industry work together on certain aspects. Design education has multiple aspects to it. 

It is important to understand on what parameters are the graduates evaluated when they are interviewing for jobs or pitching for projects. As a good design school, it should be imperative that there is ample focus on these to prepare someone better for the industry.  One is the skill building (which is often evaluated by the portfolios of designers), second is the creativity quotient (which is evaluated by how innovative the designs are) and third is the critical thinking (which is hardly given importance during recruitment). 

How does the Industry engage with academia

A common misconception with the people from industry is that the only way someone can get associated with the academia is to teach by giving up your job. Well, if they were doing that, then the role of the academics would be lost. There are other ways in which one can engage with the academia. I am mentioning a few of them. 

  1. Intensive workshops on topics that are contemporary and relevant (Demand full attention of students by not having classes parallely)
  2. Float Long projects that the students can work on with the faculty at the Design School. (Make sure you pay the school for their efforts on this. Make your intentions clear when it comes to what you are going to do with the final results? Will the student and school also have any role to play in the IP that is created through the project ? Who owns the IP?
  3. Take guest lectures highlighting the work at the companies and its success by design
  4. Float short term projects (always engage in short-term projects first before a long project
  5. Hire students as interns (make it a compulsory part of your company)
  6. Find time to give back to Design colleges by mentoring students and making them aware about Design professionalism.

I would love to hear more from you on how you can encourage the industry and academia to create better learning experiences for the students.

Teaching the Smartphone Generation

I have been involved in teaching for quite some time now across people of different age group. There are a lot of challenges in this. Some which I had expected, some which I had not. Over the past few weeks, I have been making notes about what my observations are and the challenges that we are facing.

Almost every student in class 11-12 or college these days have a smartphone. The ones who think that attending classes are not necessary because eventually the faculty will give the presentation and that they could just learn by going through it. Or worse still, you can find everything on the Internet so why bother. While the availability of information is something I can agree upon, the role of the teacher is something that the students do not value. [It’s a different matter that the teachers also have to change their style of teaching often.] 

This audience is very difficult to motivate.  

Here are some of the things I have done for making the classes interesting. I would love to hear more from people adopting interesting methods to engage with students better.  

  1. Non-dependency on powerpoints
    I remove the one thing on which they have become dependent on. I stopped using powerpoints, unless extremely necessary. Got back to the whiteboard / Blackboard. This has resulted in students being better engaged in discussions. While using ppts, even the faculty end up seeing / reading from the slides, and your attention on the student is also lost. The challenge on this is that the faculty has to be engaging enough.

  2. Adopting a flipped classroom approach to encourage discussions
    I adopted the flipped classroom approach by providing readings and references before the class and use the classrooms as a discussion platform. I am yet to get all the students to read often, but I think pre-readings are a good way for the class to be prepared on what to expect.
  3. Creating Sketchnotes
    During the classes, I use the board to create sketch-notes of the class. I insist the class not to take notes but participate in the discussions. Encourage the students to express their views, and then ask the other people in the class to agree or disagree with someone’s viewpoint. At times, I am just playing moderator. I guess the experience with panel discussions helps in this. The students need to be able to provide their viewpoints.
  4. Sharing information on common platform that they use
    The sketch-notes and other interesting links, references are then shared regularly on a common platform that is used for the students to discuss the happenings in the school. Currently, we use a Closed Facebook group. Often asking the students to access a new Learning Management System does not work, for it is considered a burdensome task. This often leads to all the discussion points and concepts discussed and people learning through better engagement.
  5. Encouraging students to write
    Students are required to write reflective pieces on the readings they do, the places they visit, the movies they see, the guest lectures they attend. This is easier said than done. Since our education system does not encourage writing regularly, it is often a challenge to ask students to write. I encourage students to write more to help them in restructuring their thoughts.
Design Research class
Board notes from a Design Research class

Here is a screenshot from our collaborative class blog. Do check out the writings done by the students. Design @ TDV. 

From the class blog
From the class blog

I would love to hear from you on how you are working to #MakeTeachingAwesome #MakeLearningAwesome !

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.

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

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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.

 

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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.