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.

Do me a favor. Kill the term UI/UX!

As an advisor to many startups, I get to speak to a lot of entrepreneurs, product managers, developers and hiring managers. One thing that remains consistent is that they face a lot of challenges in getting the ‘right’ designer on board. This of course is after they have decided that they do need one and that the designer or the creative guy is also an integral part of the team and equally responsible for the success of the product.

Getting this ‘fit’, is challenging because the designer has to understand the product well and often be forced to think from the business perspective, and for the product manager it is challenging because with design being a subjective thing, the designers’ bias always come into the picture.

To make matters worse, product owners are often asking for something that is confusing. You cannot ask for UI/UX person and have the same expectations from them? They are two different breed of people and come with different skill sets.

Every time you use the term UI/UX, a pretty bird dies somewhere!

This is a serious problem, and one that is doing a lot of damage to the product and design industry both.  We have to understand why we got into using this term and where we messed it up. In my opinion, there are multiple factors to this. One is a clear case of a problem of supply and demand. With the dearth of good UX designers, people often have no choice but end up taking a UI person. If you have studied design, you would know that they are different. Second is the fact that you do not have a clear understanding of whether you need a UI or a UX person. Third is that a lot of the job descriptions for design positions are written by people who have no or little background in Design.

When you put up a requirement stating that you are seeking UI/UX guy, you are literally saying that you are okay with hiring either a UI person OR a UX person for the same set of requirements that you may have. This is NOT right. This is further not right because you have underestimated the potential of engaging a good UX person and more likely assumed that the designer (UI person) could come to make that interface of yours look beautiful.  I understand that you are in a crisis and need to hire the person soon, to get the designs out. But you should be aware on what to expect, when you hire a particular profile.

Expectations from a good UI designer ?
He ends up studying a lot of the design Trends, rules and theories behind good Interface design, become good at softwares and tools. Dribbble and Pinterest are perhaps his best friends.

Expectations from a good UX designer ?
He ends up studying a lot of design from different aspects. You get to understand market trends on innovation, data, business and the disruptions happening in the industry. He understands design process well. He speaks from the user’s point of view all the time.

It’s evident that these are clearly two different set of skills and profiles of people that we are dealing with.

If you still don’t believe me, take a look at the numerous job postings out there. Majority of them seek a ‘UI/UX’ person.

As a designer I get a clear understanding about the culture of the company or the people I will be interacting with, just by looking at this job posting. It reflects a lack of clarity in the product owner’s vision and engaging with people.

We need to bring a corrective measure to this. 

Let’s start by doing me a favour. Kill this term UIslashUX aka UI/UX. I cringe with frustration, every time someone uses that term. If you need a UI person, ask for one. If you need a UX person, be prepared to engage them in matters beyond the UI and give them that space, resources, time and budget to fulfil that need. As product owners, you need to have this clarity. It would ensure that your engagement with the designers would be a much better experience.

In my opinion, as product managers, your goal should be to get a UX guy. Someone who is proficient with the different things under the UX umbrella and is really rock solid good at either one or two disciplines within UX.

Be clear in your requirements and your expectations when you are hiring the designer. For many product owners the realisation that you need a designer on board comes early in the process and they engage the designer at the right time. It is often seen that for the ones that realise early, they are seeking the User Experience Designers . For the ones that realise late, they end up hiring more User Interface designers.

How do you know whether a person is a UI person or a UX Person? Here are some pointers. 

  • UI person talks in interfaces. UX person talks in experiences.
  • UI person talks more about the layout and trends on interfaces. UX person talks about the overall experience from product sales and marketing to product usage to customer support.
  • UI person will talk more about the tools. UX person will talk more about the processes and design rationales.
  • UI person is more screens and Visual Design driven. UX person is more system and strategy driven.

A word of advice to a lot of junior designers is to move up to being more of a UX Designer and not be limited to only a UI Designer. I started my career as a UI person. We were called User Interface Designers then. Except the once in a while call with the Business Analysts who would sit onsite and assume to know everything about a product, there was hardly any insight into the business side of the project. Even talking to the developers used to happen only once in a while. Over the years where I evolved into a User Experience person, I enjoy my conversations with the developers on a regular basis as well as the challenges that the business is facing. Often, I am discussing with the marketing team on how the USP of the product, which has a great UX needs to be highlighted and marketed well.

We are evolving into a product-driven industry, constantly trying to create amazing products. Design plays a substantial role in the creation of these products.  As companies adopt the Agile and the Lean way of working, the need for collaboration amongst the three, viz the Designer, Developer and the Product Owner (Manager) is the way forward. UX needs to be emphasised as a company culture element. Something that is fundamentally evident in everything you do.

Finding the right designer for your product is tough. Seek and you shall find. Just make sure you ask the right question.

——

This post was first published on Linked In.
This post is Chapter 2 of a series of posts on Product Management, UX and Design, from Make it Look Beautiful. A compilation of essays and tips from my years of Design Consulting practice and teaching at Design schools and Management schools.

Here is the Chapter 1.

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.

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.

I am a Designer. I DESIGN.

One of the interesting discussions I remember we had was in Erik Stolterman’s class on the word ‘design’. Basically, Design can be a noun (when used to define a quality of a product). Design can be a activity (I design things.) Design is a profession. Come to think of it, Design also happens to be perhaps the oldest living profession, when you think that every must have been designed in a particular manner before it was invented.

When a designer opens a Design firm, it is a highly challenging situation. And in my opinion, I think it’s more challenging than any other tech startup. Well you may ask why?

To start of with, as an entrepreneur you are constantly doing everything else but Design! Yes, sad but true. So one day you are doing Marketing and Sales and the other day you are writing up proposals. Things you had thought was the job of Managers only. And not to forget what technical writers are meant for, you end up doing that as well. You grow your networking and improve your networking and people skills. You attend gatherings of other entrepreneurs, inspire each other and then find the next gathering and its location.

In the hustle- bustle of all this, Design as an Activity takes back stage. You tend to think that since you are in the Design Profession, you will end up doing good Design (a noun here) any day, no matter how long you do not do it. However, i think that is not true. Design is a process that has to be practiced. One needs to keep doing it from time to time. This can be in the form of simple doodles, sketches, diagrams etc to full fledged design solutions.

Therefore any Designer in a situation like me, should make it a point to realize that they are a Designer first. Design as an activity, thus has to be their forte and the person need to Design things. The biggest advantage of this is that the designer remains creative, is full with fresh creative juices, and only then can he/she lay the pillars for a “Design” firm.