Writing on Design

At the UX Now conference last week, I was speaking to fellow designers and academicians on the dearth of good literature coming out of the Indian design fraternity. So while, we live in interesting times, where people have a lot of devices and avenues to read on, there is lesser original content that is being published to read. When it comes to writing, we in India flair pretty badly at it.  As a result, we continue to rely upon literature that from other contexts, which are more likely from the west.

“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I speak a lot at conferences and do multiple workshops on Design, Design Thinking, User Experience and when it comes to giving materials as pre-readings for my workshops, it all boils down to finding articles from a totally different context. I truly feel that we need more writings from here. We need to have more good literature on Design from India. Design in India is heavily influenced by culture and the ways we respond to it. Our business ethics are different and our structure of the economy is different too. So it makes sense to read more about it. For long, Design in India has been ‘inspired’ by the west, and it is time to change that.

As a part of a class I am teaching this semester, I am seeking the students how to write. I am a firm believer that designers today need to be better at writing and conveying their thoughts. Needless to say, it has been challenging. I strive to get at least one paper out of the class. My only goal for the class is to ensure that students learn how to write well.

Why is it difficult to write?
We struggle to write, because people spend lesser time reading lengthy articles. In the age of instant gratification, reduced attention span, the plethora of information available at fingertips, and information in shorts, it is difficult to expect someone to devote a lot of time to read an article. Even though the average time spent reading has gone up, it is more with multiple short articles or information bits in that of 140 characters and smaller news notifications. Building arguments in short articles is tough and if your piece does not have the sufficient interest from paragraph to paragraph, one has  lost the reader.

Coming out of the writers block
This is more challenging that I thought it to be. For people who were accustomed to writing (like me), getting back to doing it regularly after a considerable amount of time (few weeks to months), is immensely challenging. The mind is too fickle to concentrate on the writing part, and gets easily distracted. It is important to make writing a habit. Only then will one come out of this block. Pledge to write at least a minimum number of words every alternate day, if not everyday.  I remember the days when I wrote long articles. I need to get back  to doing so.

Writing in the Flow
I am striving to get into the flow of writing more often. Bring in discipline is important. It has to be done. I am now looking at at least 1 if not 2 articles / post on my website every week. There is so much to write about. From politics, to environment to education to wicked problems to governance. Design in India is seeing a resurgence, with its value being felt across disciplines. Therefore its the best time to write on design. 

If you have any particular thoughts on how to write better, I would appreciate some in the comments too.

The advent of 4G and telecom wars

Every-time there is a disruption in the telecom market, there is a flurry of wars that come out of it. It happened when Reliance had its CDMA phones, it happened when Tata-Docomo was launched and there will be now when Reliance JIO is launched. These are healthy wars from the end customer point of view.

Telecommunications in India is a good case study. It gives many interesting insights about consumer behaviour, about how markets are driven and how companies bring their strategies to execute to win.

Telecom IndiaA few months ago, I was in Bihar, where Reliance Jio was already launched as a part of their pilot study (or early market capture if you want to call it). The new markets to be captured are there. (Bihar, UP and Bengal are amongst the most populous states in India). I was pleasantly surprised to see that people had these amazing phones with good configuration and decent design. I was further surprised to find many of my friends catching up on serials on Colors, Sony etc, on their JIO connection phones without buffering. Now this is a location in Bihar, that had good 3G and now has 4G. Not many places around the country has the same. So when Reliance mentions that they are looking to make 4G accessible to at least 90% of areas in the country, it is definitely worth taking notice.

There is a whole new generation of users who are going straight onto mobiles without ever having used a laptop/desktop and also now on 4G directly. This is an interesting thing in the context of designing and developing solutions for this market. New rules would have to be written for this interesting demographic.

There are different plans launched for the consumers, and I think the Rs 499 one is a good price bracket to capture the masses. The unlimited usage at night is a good offering. Mobile data has always been the more expensive thing, left for the elite few. For this audience that I am talking about, the notions of small recharges, 100MB data over a slow 2G connections have been normal. So 4G and this really attractive pricing changes all of that. The behemoth that Reliance is, it can take this step to not (or low) charge customers upto December, till they get their critical mass of audience.

In a way this is also a signal to other service providers to get in the game and play. Some service providers have already announced the reduction of the rates of their existing plans. I am sure the likes of Airtel and Vodafone and Idea have been following the developments on the 4G front with keen eyes. We wait to see what comes of it. Airtel has been trying to get the maximum of this 4G game for some time, with advertisements specifically focusing on 4G and the free distribution of  (or upgrade to) 4G sims.

While Reliance could have done this to play to the masses, it is important to see how the experience is. Quality will suffer and the challenge is to see whether the technology and telecommunications network is able to live up that expectations. Loyalty of customers to a certain brand, was nullified with the ability to port the number to other network. As a result the only way that remains is the customer experience and value added services that come along with it. I am hoping that the end customers will benefit immensely from this.

On the equipment front, Reliance had done this game changer move with bundling up with Nokia and other phones for their CDMA technology service. Currently it is doing the same with LYF phones and its range of affordable yet good smart phones. The vision is that the phones will become a top selling phone, for there will be no other way to get JIO.  Which also really brings to the point worth pondering over. Just how much extra do we end up paying for our Phones presently!

Today Innovation happens in an Ecosystem and not in isolation. JIO is also relying heavily on VoLTE as a key offering through the JIO eco-system. Eventually the plan could be to build this Eco-system.

These are all interesting times for the designers and innovators. We will be forced to come up with new rules and ways of working to ensure that the products and services that are designed for this audience who perhaps do not care about loyalty, and is still highly experience driven.

Design is not ‘cosmetic’ work

Good things come with a price. Good Design is one of them. How well do you know what good design is? Do you even understand what Design is ?  These are some questions that keep me up a lot these days. An integral part of my work these days is Design Evangelism through workshops at corporates and colleges.

The good part of things, as it stands today is that owing to the popularity of ‘design learning centres’, there are a lot of ‘designers’. The bad part is that there are very few ‘good designers’. The worst part is that there are a lot of people out there who hire people who are not designers and get them to do design work, for their understanding on design itself skewed and limited.

There are lot who still view Design as an add on-thing. Something that comes later. Historically, the goal of design as an act was to make things look beautiful. This means that the impact of design stopped at the Visceral level. More often than not, this ‘beautification’ would come at the end of projects. In software engineering parlance, Visual Design or the final appearance is a Last-in-First-Out (LIFO) thing. Designers add the visual (cosmetic) component to the designs only after the development has been done.

It is important to let clients know that there is a lot that goes on to make things look (simple and) beautiful. Unfortunately there are many who don’t believe so still. Recently, I got this email from a client, whom I have been chasing to do some balance payment. They shamelessly put it as, we will not pay because the logo design you did was just ‘cosmetic’ work. They go on to further say that for these small change requests we have, on the designs you delivered for the android application screens; we will not pay anything. That is also ‘cosmetic’ work, and we are not in a position to pay. And that we will continue to ask for changes.

In my previous avatar of not being able to say no to clients, and being the good-exploited-designer, I would go ahead and agree and do the work. This time I did not. I reminded about the balance payment and refused to do the work till past payments was cleared.

There are numerous designers out there who do not refuse what the client wants, or question the clients and later complain of being exploited by clients.

Design has moved beyond just the aesthetics. It has even reached the boardroom! It’s time clients accepted that fact. It’s time designers speak more about this.

The client often does not know the terms of engagement with the designers. Is it the designer’s task to inform the client about what design is and what the deliverables would be like? Now this is important because often we as designers ourselves are not sure of what our deliverables are.

Once, I had to convince a client that as a consultant to their product, one of my deliverables would be a critique ‘document’. The client was of course shocked to hear this, because they were expecting fancy screens. It is important to let the client know that even this is work, for we spend the time and energy in doing the exercises. There are many instances where I have delivered only paper prototypes as a part of the final deliverables too. Sometimes they are just wireframes that explain the entire product.

Design is NOT just cosmetic work.

There are ample resources out there to tell you that there are so many more components to design. The sooner you understand this, the better are your chances of a high success to the designer.

If you are a designer in the true sense, either by virtue of training, I sincerely request you to spend some time of yours in purely Design evangelism activities and letting the people know the difference between a the role of a designer and a software operator. Until that happens, we would be forced to pay high amount to people just trained in softwares and assuming they know design well.

#design #startups #teamwork

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The post will form the crux of Chapter 3, from upcoming book ‘Make-it-look beautiful’.
Notes from my teaching and consulting work in Design over the past 12 years.

You can read the previous chapter Do me a favor, kill the term UI/UX .

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.

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.

On Teaching Design

One of the things I have been doing lately is teaching more and more. There are two aspects to it. One is the love for teaching, and the other is more of a duty to be a design evangelist and in a way increase the popularity and acceptance of design profession.

Teaching to me is a very difficult thing to do and in a way the most challenging. It is also a world wide notion that the way Design Education is imparted is not up-to mark with the current trends and that it needs to change.

I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to get associated with different avenues to see this dream fulfilled through the different avenues I am associated with.

As I head the operations of the design school, it allows me to get a more holistic point of view on design, in terms of what goes into designing a comprehensive program with proper learning outcomes.

At another design initiative I teach at we look at teaching Design to senior technology Professionals, who are just being introduced to design. This is challenging, since the participants already have a lot of experience.

Talking about design
Talking about design

One of my research areas has been to see how the principles of design can be used in the improvement of quality of education at the primary school level too.

I am excited over these initiatives, and I look forward to writing more about this in the days to come!

On Design & Business

Of late, I have been having lot of discussions with Entrepreneurs who speak the language of the business, and often I am trying to convince them on the value of design.

Also in the Business School that I teach Design, it is always to hear the impressions of the participants on the design aspects.

I came across this interesting video that talks about the times we are in today and the value that Design has for businesses. It’s a must watch.

Design the New Business – English subtitles from dthenewb on Vimeo.

Designing with Intent

What's your intent
What’s your intent

In today’s class we discuss the notion of Designing with Intent. It is a simple concept (well, no concept as such), but serves as a good guiding tool when looking at the design from the human centric approach.

I see this as a corollary from the User Centered Design process and the emphasis on the intent part.

The usage of the word intent of-course makes it appear a bit stronger.

I made the students of my class do this simple exercise of mapping their diploma projects to this intent. The discussions that followed were interesting.

As is the case with a lot of my classes, I often showcase Videos in the class. As designers,  getting to listen to these thought leaders is often interesting and gives a point of view that is then discussed. I use these videos to encourage the art of Design Criticism which is something I want all my students to become good at.

For this class we saw the TED video by John Hockenberry, where he claims that we are all designers and that the only thing that we should focus on is the Designing for Intent.

Why User Experience Matters – talk at Honeywell

Last week I was invited to the company Honeywell Technology Solutions, to give a talk on User Experience. I chose to touch upon the fact that User Experience is important and how every company should get a team for UX, engage with UX designers or atleast have the entire company believe in UX.

The topic for my talk thus was “Why User Experience Matters”. I loved the discussions that followed after the talk and was a great joy to see the participants enjoy the section on the Arial Vs Helvetica quiz. At the end of the day, everyone agreed that UX is important and how even small things like Fonts and Typography play a huge role in the UX process.

Here is the slide deck from the talk.

 

Design Day #8, Bangalore 18th May

I have been a huge proponent of the Design community in Bangalore coming together regularly and interact with each other. Often this happens only over projects, but the need to just come together more informally as well. Bangalore really needs a Design event that happens on a regular basis. There are two things that I am a part of and facilitate.

One is the movie+design nights that I host at my place from time to time, and the other is the Design Day event organized by Aashish Solanki and his team.

For those not familiar with the event, here is more about it.

Design Day is held on the third Saturday of every month, and a theme of Design is selected. There are two talks followed by a JAM session for an hour. The whole thing starts around 9:30 am and goes on till around 1:30 pm. The talks and JAM sessions are related to the theme.

The event is open to Designers and non-designers who share a passion on design and perhaps want to learn something about design.

The upcoming event is on the 18th of May and the theme this time is typography, something that I really enjoy!

Design Day Poster
Design Day Poster

You can register for the event here
It is FREE, though registration is must for arranging the logistics and arranging for passes to the Microsoft Accelerator office where it is held!

I spoke on the theme of Design Education at the last edition of Design Day. You can view my presentation from the same in this earlier blog post .

See you on the 18th!