August 06, 2011

"Entrepreneurship By Design" - Article by Sanjay Anandaram

I recently had to renew my passport and learnt that “everything could be done online”. I then went to the web-site (passport.gov.in) and learnt that for a resident of Bangalore (and some other cities) one had to “refer” to the home page of the Bangalore passport office (rpobangalore.gov.in) and there was no way to get to this from the home page. Anyway. Filling in the application form is certainly a test of patience requiring intuition, guess work, luck and prayer. And to think that India’s largest IT services company designed this!

Anyone who has filled in forms (and there are more than plenty of those to fill in our great land) will certainly, more often than not have had experience in micro-calligraphy since the space allotted for entering names and addresses is miniscule, while that for entering say a 6 digit number will be an inch wide.

How many times have we stood in a queue not knowing information might be sought by the clerk on the other side, many times not knowing if one is indeed in the right queue!

There are many thousands of such examples where lack of thinking gets demonstrated from web site designs to application forms to chairs and pens to buildings and cities. Thinking that relates to the context, the ease of use, the need, the clarity and cost. And perhaps it isn’t surprising. In a nascent developing market economy, basic utility and functionality is the dominant requirement as even a small obvious change (such as say, offering the ability to fill an application online) is actually enormous given the starting point. As awareness, aspirations, affordability and expectation of consumers and citizens change, the demand for well designed, affordable products and services will naturally increase.

But is that the way it should be? Shouldn’t there be any effort on the part of suppliers to provide a great experience to their customers – right from the point of interest to the purchase and post purchase service? By not putting in the effort to create new better designed products and services, aren’t suppliers at grave risk of being outflanked by nimbler, customer friendly entrepreneurs? Better design doesn’t mean higher costs. It could mean higher prices though - because customers will always pay for a better overall experience.

That hardy symbol of post independent India’s automobile engineering prowess, the Ambassador, is a case in point.

World class companies spend enormous amounts of time and effort to get their “user-experience” right. They employ experts in human behaviour, design, sociologists, technologists, man-machine interface, time-motion studies, scientists, and the like to observe, study, document, measure, take feedback, and prototype as part of the process of designing products and services. How many Indian companies can make that claim?

Design is still a hugely under-appreciated discipline in India. It shows in the way our cities are designed, our buildings are architected, the way everyday goods and services are created and offered. Either they’re crude and terrible copies of designs from the West which are out of place given the differences in usage and context in our country. A look at the glass and steel monstrosities dotting our cities as part of “modern” India is a case in point. Unfortunately, designs have come to mean designer – usually outrageously expensive and over the top - in India!

Given the appalling lack of design aesthetics, surely there’s a great opportunity for entrepreneurs who think in terms of design and user experiences. Who are demanding, innovative and willing to push the envelope.

Many years ago, a young entrepreneur in Silicon Valley decided to make “insanely great” products. He stuck to his core beliefs even as Steve Jobs is acknowledged today as the entrepreneur who’s redefined consumer experience with technology. To him, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. In most people's vocabularies, design means veneer. It's interior decorating. It's the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”

Surely, there are many equivalents of Steve Jobs all over India. Let us celebrate entrepreneurship by design!

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.