Designing for people: Lessons learnt

A few lessons learnt from my lighting project design and other things happening now, both from a process and target perspective.

Document, document, document!

I’m sure most people reading this would remark – “Yeah, right!”. But learning it the hard way has made the lesson all the more invaluable. It are useful for the following reasons:

  • Forcing yourself to put ideas into words makes it concrete.
  • Writing down fundamental assumptions in your design will give hints as to why the design failed or performed well in a given situation.
  • It makes it easily replicable.
  • Translating a well documented design into the real thing is extremely easy.
  • Testing your work against a detailed design as a benchmark will be always good.

That being said, it is not necessary to mention implementation level details, which will ruin clarity of presentation. Make it modular, use subsections and sub-subsections frequently.

Have a clear idea of the end product

This should have been the first in the list! As far as it is practically possible, you should be clear of the function your product should perform. People have a good idea as to what they want, it makes sense to listen to them. Unless you can say what your product does in 25 words, you are in trouble!

It is never as easy as it sounds!

Only the most trivial things like say, painting a new color onto a pinhead are as easy as they sound (on second thoughts, even this is quite an issue ): The translation from the space of  ideas to silicon or code or metal is limited by a large number of things, not excluding human stupidity. Like someone once said, “[I]f you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it”.

You are not God…

… and therefore, you cannot know nor forsee everything. Talk to people, pick multiple brains for multiple viewpoints and use the expertise of as many people as possible before, during and after product design. Everyone, from the person who wipes the floor to your boss can have something to offer. This of course means that you will have to swallow your own ego and bear a few unbearable ones, but is a good strategic initiative.

Test what you create

Not everyone will be as stupid as you, and therefore cannot understand the magnitude of your mistakes. Test in all weather, habitations, altitudes, attitudes. This business of “testing teams” is only for large corporations with plenty of money to employ bored people to miss your errors.

Can you do with easily available materials

Ideally, all my designs try to use stuff available on SP road (or KT street in Mysore) or something that any workshop can fabricate. Using off-the-shelf stuff makes it all the more easier to replicate (or as the big boys put it, pirate) and maintain even by local electricians/mechanics with minimal training. The more replicable it is, the more competitive the market can theoretically be, with the beneficiary being the end user (Economics 101!). This is also one of the only ways to beat economies of scale concerns.

High tech is not always best

This complements my previous statement. Most people’s needs can be satisfied by things which are already available, usually in their own village or town. It definitely needs more creativity to make things simple, which is why we have so many complicated gadgets in the market. Simpler usually implies cheaper which, for people living at the margin, usually implies better.

Do not downgrade modern tech, but upgrade traditional tech

Unless you are introducing something which was not part of traditional life (like solid state lighting!), you should look for ways to improve over existing things than making cheaper and smaller copies of things available in the city. I’m extremely cynical about selling toothpaste in sachets when you can make do with the neem tree on your street. The reason why people in rural areas can live on a smaller income is that nature subsidises many of their acitivities. Trying to change that just to sell your product – which was meant for a society that gets no such subsidy and also earn higher incomes – is a trap.

Try and make a significant change in people’s lives

If this is answered with a no – after thinking as objectively as possible – then you are in it for the money. It is definitely possible for products to bring about a huge change in lives, but finding such an application requires networking with people who speak your language and the people’s language (not in the sense of Kannada and Marathi, but in terms of context), or better learn to speak their language.


2 thoughts on “Designing for people: Lessons learnt”

  1. Well, a quesion outside your article and somewhat relevant also(probably to last para). Today while interacting with some of the children some obvious question came up(which I think I was able to learn hard way !!). You can’t make every one to “reflect on Everything” right? What they need is a job? And how do you create jobs? Perhaps I have less knowledge economics so how can you put it for common man?Evenbefore they start studying they want to make sure that possibility of getting a job is more in that course.(that is what all of us did some years back).

  2. The whole point of calling certain courses ‘professional’ is that they are supposed to teach you a profession to earn your bread, so no arguments with that ;) The fact that they teach you only to do, well, nothing is my problem.

    Everyone cannot (maybe, should not!) think about everything. But being sensitive to the needs of the people around your cubicle, if not elsewhere atleast is in order.

    Creating jobs means starting companies. Communist experiments have failed, so individual initiative is what matters. That is why I admire businessmen. They may arm-twist their way into money, maybe, but they are also providing livelihood to many others.

    All you can provide is an opportunity for self-development. Anything beyond that, you’ll start acting like a parent ;)

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