Total and Marginal Experience

Understanding Economics for Design
I have always been a strong proponent of the fact that designers need to constantly keep an eye on other disciplines of study. It contributes to the holistic learnings for the designer. So, it disappoints me when the students in a lot of design schools today do not read. I have made reading compulsory in the classes I am teaching this semester. One of the things I always enjoy reading about is Economics.

I recently have enrolled in this class on Public Policy, and Economics is one of the core courses in this. I have always been interested in Economics, and have often considered learning more about it. This became even more evident, when I found myself constantly referencing different aspects of Economics while discussing how human behaviour has changed over the years in India, since the liberalisation of the 1990s. Whether it be education, transport, healthcare, retail or entertainment, our lives in India was never the same after the then PV Narasimha Rao government open up the doors to more foreign investments in the country.

The more I read about the circumstances in which things happened and the decisions that were take to ‘save’ the country, the more intrigued I get about it. I get into a series of nostalgia, trying to recollect the India from my school days from 1991 onwards.

On Rational Behaviour and Design
At the core of economics is the notion of rationality and that all decisions made by the end beneficiary is based on perfectly sensical rational behaviour. One of the key notions we face, is how do we design for rational behaviour?

Policies are created to make people act with rational behaviour, which is the act that they do in their best personal self interest. This brings us to the notion of subjectivity, that we rely so much heavily on in design.

When we think of design, we want our users (customers) to go with this rational behaviour. We often mention that the users should feel completely natural in performing an action.

There are few fundamental aspects of economics that are important for designers to understand.

The concept of utility is amongst the most important of them all.

In economics, utility is a measure of preferences over some set of goods and services. The concept is an important underpinning of rational choice theory in economics and game theory, because it represents satisfaction experienced by the consumer of a good. A good is something that satisfies human wants.

This is further divided into two kinds. Total utility and Marginal Utility.

Total utility is the total satisfaction received from consuming a given total quantity of a good or service, while marginal utility is the satisfaction gained from consuming another quantity of a good or service. Sometimes, economists like to subdivide utility into individual units that they call utils.

Total and Marginal Utility
Fig courtesy :

As you can note, as we increase the consumption, the Total Utility (TU) increases and our Marginal Capacity decreases.

This understanding of utility can be an important thing when thinking about experiences as well. What is the just the amount of experience you could provide to the users could be termed as the total experiences. What if the user did that extra task that convinced them to do one thing more. This is the marginal experience that he/she has gained by doing that extra task.

When these extra tasks end up becoming higher in number, we lose out on the total experience gained in the first place and the marginal experience is not that substantial to add any value to the earlier felt experiences.

Many times in the desire to do more, we end up adding a lot of features to product interfaces. This is a classic example of us trying to give more to the user than he has an appetite for.

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


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 .

The Designer’s Angst

We have built this product, and are looking for a UX designer who can ‘Make it Look Beautiful’.

This would be the content of I do not know how many mails I have received in the past from Product Owners, Entrepreneurs, Cool Startup Guys, Project (Product) Managers at large companies, etc. I have had no problems with that, except when it started getting repetitive and, as a result frustrating at times. More often than not, I would reply back with the question whether you are looking for a Visual designer or a UX Designer. The reply would always be UX Designer, but in reality, I knew that they wanted a purely Visual Designer. Needless to say, I would often end up refusing to work with that client because more often than not the UX suggestions would be discarded.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 18.50.10

Over the past few years, I ended up teaching at an Exec MBA program, mentoring students taking courses in design both online and offline, taking workshops at corporates and speaking about Design at various conferences and events. My interactions with lots of Product Leaders, Product Owners, Product Managers and people who want to start their own Product Companies gave some very interesting insights. From being clueless about UX to the classic misunderstanding that UX is UI, to not understanding the value of research, to being driven by beautiful things! I also attended numerous startup events, spoke to numerous investors, visited a couple of accelerators to understand where the problem is.

I come to the conclusion, that in India (and to some extent perhaps around the world), we face a huge supply-demand gap. There are few (good) designers, and the demand has suddenly risen; for design is cool and the buzz word in the industry today. The role of the designer in the industry itself has changed over the years. However, the notion of what constitutes a good UX is still missing widely.

It is for sure that almost every Product Leader now at least knows that design is ‘important’ and should not be ignored. But not everyone is sure about when to invest in it and how to go about it. These are perhaps the greatest challenge that a Product Leader faces.

For some this engagement with a designer comes from the inception, while some get them too late. How do these things impact the team? With the introduction of new processes that teams follows, how does the Designer with a penchant for the waterfall way of working adapt and fit into it.

With the plethora of resources available, picking up the skills and knowledge is not that difficult. So why does the UX designer still demand a high value?

Make it Look Beautiful! is a handbook for Product Leaders and Designers to collaborate better to create amazing products. Over the course of the different chapters in this book, I would write about my discussions on various aspects of design, product management, innovation and research.

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.

Housing gets a new brand identity

It has been over a week since the new identity of 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 , 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.

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.


On Embracing Failure

Designers are one lot on the planet who are often subjected to face failure. Many of them however do not take it in the right spirit. Call it the ego that drives us, or the question to our subjective viewpoints, either ways it is something that is not right and needs to be taken with a light heart. It is something that when seen as a constructive criticism thing, can do wonders for the growth of the designer.

I remember when I was in my final year of my design education at IITG, in the seventh semester, I failed miserably at a course that was worth 24 credits. That was perhaps the largest setback that I got. But that was just academically. There are numerous incidents that one comes across as a professional designer that exposes you to failure. It could be a result of a client interaction or a misalignment with the views of the team you are working with.

Every incident made me realize the value of embracing failure in its true spirit. I started to talk more about it in my talks and lectures that I gave to varied audiences across India.

On Failure
On Failure

I am of the firm belief that Design education today needs to build this aspect of Embracing failure in the school itself. I often talk to my students about this and in the last Final Diploma project class, we had a nice discussion around this.

At the end of it, we fail because we are Humans, and Designers by virtue of designing everything that is Human Centered, it is but natural that we would be exposed to failure. The sooner we learn to embrace it, the better it is.

Also I feel that, this spans not only to designers, but to a wider audience as well. In my personal opinion, we Indians are very bad at accepting failure. This is reflected in the amount of catching up the startup ecosystem has to do with the Silicon Valley or other places. The whole idea of appreciating someone because they tried, is not common and people often see a failure as a end-of-life scenario.

The T shaped UX professional

Recently a friend shared an article on how the term UX killed Usability. The article per se was (in my opinion) a personal opinion, with a lot of pointers signifying the same,  from a person who is passionate about Usability, but the article also raised a very valid point that I often try to drive across in my workshops.

From the article “Usability as a term is pretty much dead and has been replaced (not very well) by UX, meaning user experience.”

This statement reminded me of the numerous discussions I have around this. Here I put down a few reasons on why I think the above is happening.

I think this is a classic debate that has been going on for quite some time now. I have often addressed this point in a lot of my workshops and insist that now it all comes under the umbrella of UX. I have often proposed that we address ourselves as UX professionals more than anything else.

While earlier you could be an Information Architect, or Usability “Engineer”, or Graphic Designer, or User Interface Designer separately, these days its more about knowing (and excelling at one or couple) a gamut of skills.

I think the UX professionals are the most T shaped professionals (as outlined by the McKinsey & Co) . Though the arms of the T these days are too wide! Spanning from Design to Business to Technology!

This UX driven approach is also evident when I did a lot of recruitment for companies. While you want the candidate to be strong at one aspect, either Usability or Interaction Design or Graphic Design, you do intend to look if they have other skills. And that recruitment drives have often led to a lot of professionals present themselves as UX professionals.

I think going for a specific skill is more driven through larger companies, but for small and mid size companies the T shaped designers are more sought after. Having said that, we need to be thankful that at-least designers are being sought after, and its a basic human tendency to get more for less. So why not get a UX person (which I would like to be a T professional) rather than a specialist.

The challenge with the T is however to be sure that you really know the stuff around that vertical axis you project yourself on. So you could still be a Usability (or IA or Graphic Des or IxD) and still be presenting yourself as a UX professional.

If you still insist on being recruited as only a specialist (the Usability guy) then perhaps the larger companies are your target.