Telephony; What else does it bring with itself?

May be things aren’t the way I observed but nonetheless I must tell what is making me to even write so. I am seeing a lot of people around me spending hours entertaining  calls. Either they are answering calls or many a times are making calls to all different sort of people. And with an oxygenated penetration of mobile telephony, people aren’t simply making calls to all different sort of people; they are making calls from all different sort of locations as well. Finding people with earplugs and talking to gods and demons while they walk on road or virtually at any place, no matter how bizarre the place itself is, isn’t such a spectacle any more. No doubt we are connected better than ever before perhaps in the history of human race but what about the clarity of communication. What is it that drives these conversations? Does it compose of statements followed by further set of statements or by an endless clarification of the anything being spoken of? Does it include more of confusion or clarity? Although I have no access to what people talk about on their phones but with some inquiry and with couple of persons who shared their experiences of talking at length, few interesting things seem to be emerging.

It is off course subjective to an extent to see a connection between clarity of communication and the communication medium i.e. mobile telephony in our case. However the agencies, the people who are talking, which drive communication do have an effect on the clarity of communication. Whether one is able to communicate to the other, does depend on one’s ability to articulate his thoughts. No doubt about this but the case doesn’t simply rest here. What about the loss of signals during a mobile conversation or a sudden disappearance of battery power? What about the continuous noise that disrupts our talk sometimes? And what about an accidental push on the ‘red button’ when you are trying to switch between your ears? All of these and similar others random factors do affect our perception of the caller or of the subject being talked of. I have come across people testifying how they have been mistaken for someone who is arrogant or egoistic when for reasons, similar to the ones mentioned above, a call broke at some critical point in the conversation. And even when they resumed the call back, how hard they had a time clarifying their stand or explaining the reason for the ‘break’ in communication. This might happen between two people fixing a deal on phone, or between duos who are on the verge of resolving a crisis. And this might be worse between a couple.

Apparently none other than script writers or storytellers have made a note of any such behavior, truly spontaneous and random, but many a times critical. We can accept this! We can term these as ‘misunderstandings’  and can assume that these have ever existed between people, and can conclude that communication technology can’t really handle it. However I do feel somewhere that technology isn’t simply mean to enable communication between peers but rather it is there to sustain it in an intended form; in a form which humans decide.

Choosing one of ‘design research’ and ‘design’!!

A few days back I was asked an interesting question. Although personal but I believe that the answer to the question is worth sharing. Somebody asked,

“Why did you decide to get into design research and leave designing?”.

One can see that it is not just one single question. While in the first half of the question one is asking for my reasons to pursue design research. Fair enough! I have written a short essay on why one should do design research. It talks about the value proposition which design research brings into the larger picture of designing communication, products and services. I would encourage you to go through this post as well.

But in the second half of the question one is assuming that either I have left designing to pursue design research or design and design research are two mutually exclusive activities. Let me assure you that it is neither of these two cases. Neither I have quit designing after deciding to carry design research nor do I think that design research and design are mutually exclusive. Even after getting involved with design research I am actively pursuing design. There are short projects that I try to handle and accomplish. Well I know you could simply discard my answer stating that it is too personal to be taken seriously. Let me then question the assumption that if one pursues design research he/she could no longer perform as a designer. I believe this is inherently an overstated and exaggerated imagination. The whole idea that research is a scientific process, based on articulation, objectivity and measurements while design is an intuitive process, fused with creativity, doodling, and life changing thoughts, is utter bogus. In fact Creativity, Objectivity, Articulation and Understanding can exist independent of disciplines and fields. And these qualities cut across the boundaries. They are as crucial for one discipline as they are for another. Also look into the areas where design has an access to. They are also evolving. May be gone were the days when a designer would be limiting his performance to print media or to graphic arts and identity design. One could claim that design was an statement on its own, capable of transforming perceptions and identities. But listen to the contemporary voices and one can realize that design has a much larger audience, and a larger reach now. Today’s design of products, communication and services rests on extensive user’s feedback. Fields like ethnography, material science, information and computer science are crucial for imagining anything ‘next’ or extending the obvious line of thinking. Thus it seems that the design research and design are complementary activities and not mutually exclusive. And, they do so by not simply supporting each other but by chasing each other.  And off course one can do both if he/ she could manage 🙂

What did a polar explorer say?

Recently in a talk session at IIT Bombay, we got to hear Sir Robert Swan. He is a polar explorer, an environmental leader and the first person ever to have walked to the North and South poles. He gave an interesting talk, although almost close to a performance on stage, on his experiences as a member of a polar exploration team.

Many a times people do a lot of things in their life, mostly in a sense that they achieve these things and feel satisfied. However it is often the case that they forget their childhood dreams. Something which they have thought to accomplish in their life as a child fades in a chase to achieve other things in life. Perhaps one can just do the opposite i.e. remember ones childhood dreams and make plans to realize those.

Secondly it is important to find good friends and constitute a good team. Often a team where individuals disagree performs better than the one where individuals agree. Well this seems quite something like a management mantra but to an extent it seems reasonable to say so. People could have common goals but they may have different methodologies to realize these goals. It is important to acknowledge this plurality in individual opinions and use this to best suit the purpose.

Managing a research group vs. a product group

Today we got an opportunity to listen to Dr. Richard (Rick) Rashid who came to deliver a talk at IIT Bombay. He has an acclaimed career first as an academician at CMU and then as Senior VP Research at Microsoft Research Worldwide. He deliberated on relevance of basic research and its values. Reacting to one of the questions at the end of his talk, he said something quite interesting. He pointed out the difference between managing a research group and a product group. From a stakeholder’s perspective, it is more productive for a research group to be adventurous in spirits and to be able to take higher intellectual risks. But this demands that they should be given a highly stable platform. On the other hand a product group operates by aligning itself to well defined deadlines and deliverable at different stages. They work by committing themselves to established process charts and guidelines. They often run into dangers of being redundant in the changing market environments. It is seen to be important many a times to reshuffle the composition of a product group to account for changes in market requirements.

One can thus say that a research groups relies on stability to produce varying (unstable) results while a product group suffers from instability its composition owing to its commitment to produce stable results. Insightful, isn’t it?

Why should one do design research?

The following is one amongst the top 10 essays read at International Conference on Research into Design’ 2011

Lets rephrase this question to read as “What is the value of carrying out an activity like design research?” Possibly one can then find an answer to “Why should one do design research?” For a large part of research history, research as a field seems to be dominated by natural sciences. A surge for specialization in the earlier quarter of the 20th century with the advent of industrialization also reinforced the notion of research as an activity integral and central to natural sciences. This perspective clearly demarcates a stark distinction between sciences and other human activities viz. design, art. It was believed that science and other disciplines (creative, arty or designerly) could never share a common dictionary and thus there could be no communication possible amongst them. But in the recent past, especially post 1970; there have been attempts to bridge this gap. Talking alone of design, it is realized that there could be forms of knowledge peculiar to this discipline.
As evidences to above claim, Nigel Cross (Cross, 1999) records a growth of research based journals in design over the last 10 to 15 years like Design Studies in 1979, Design Issues in 1984 and Journal of Design History in 1988. He quotes Bruce Archer’s definition of research from Design: Science: Method conference of Design Research Society in 1980, as “a systematic inquiry; the goal of which is knowledge”. While the former part of the definition might be contestable on grounds of choice of methods of performing a systematic inquiry; it is probably in the later part of this definition that we look for clues to find relevance of doing design research. We lay our emphasis on design as a discipline which can contribute a rich body of knowledge. It has always been seen as an act of creation- deliberate and conscious which asks of a designer (or anyone who gets in to an activity like designing) to think of contexts in great detail before proposing a possible solution to the problem at hand. It is thus more the process of design with all its complexity and variables than the designer or the designed solution, which is relevant. We acknowledge that we could possibly say this only in the light of design activities which cater to day-to-day shaping of human experiences and environments but not for “elite high designs” by few professionals.
We can now state reasons for doing design research. We believe that design research has the potential of establishing a conversation between different disciplines. Although still at its nascent stage but it is doing this by attempting to draw on methods and tools in use by natural sciences and other disciplines like psychology, social sciences to devise research methods of its own. This is synonymous to the discussion of “breaking the disciplinary matrix” by Kuhn; something which he regards as essential to bring a paradigm shift. May be utopian but as design researchers, we believe that interdisciplinary learning is essential for the growth of knowledge and design research can do this. On the other hand we also see a great value of design research to the development of design itself. Design, in the form of design research is learning to subject itself to a wider criticism and review and to a practice of acknowledging different sources of influence and origins. This brings a wider understanding of the context along with an ability to filter out any totalitarian or relativistic solution. We look forward to bring more insights into future discussions based on these notions of design research and its implications.
Cross, N. (1999). Design Research: A disciplined conversation. Design Issues , 5-10.

The story of a humble cobbler and a pair of rude shoes

Once upon a time there was a cobbler… Oops!! This story just can not have a beginning like this. Though I concede that we live in an ever changing world but there are times when you suddenly find yourself in the midst of a plot. The situation becomes worse when you realize that you are one amongst many causing troubles to the protagonist.  But it seems that it is best to just tell this story with no presumptions.

It was yesterday when I was walking down the road to my office, I noticed that the lower sole of my Reebok shoes was coming out.  I fairly liked the design of these shoes- the look of being sporty and contemporary- with lower sole extending a little ahead in the front of the shoes- and happily paid Reebok a sum of more than Rs. 2000 some 15 months back. And now here I am with my shoes sounding “chap chap” with each forward step.

I decided to get my shoes repaired by a cobbler instead of throwing these in some dustbin so early in their life. Near my office under a tree sits a cobbler with his anvil and other tools,  wearing a white kurta- dhoti and a turban on his head. He seemed pretty archaic from his looks and fits no where in the concept of “ever changing times”.  Probably that might be the reason why I dared to start the story initially with a phrase like  “Once upon a time” but anyways the climax has yet to be told, so I better stay focused :).

The cobbler welcomed me as the first customer of the day. Both of us obviously did not know what we were getting into. I explained him the case with my Reebok shoes with few extra instructions from my side. He picked up my shoes and first tried to apply adhesive between the lower sole and the rubber cushioning but it didn’t work. He tried this again with a little more adhesive but the sole would not even come closer to the rubber cushioning. I could see his labor as he tried hard to press the two surfaces against each other while sitting in an awkward posture as for the Reebok shoes, they could not sit on his anvil. After a little while he decided to stitch the sole as an extra measure to keep it firmly supported on the rubber cushioning. He started with good faith in his idea only to discover a little later that the nature of the material used was too different and at the ends where he had to fasten a knot, he could not get his fingers inside the shoes close enough to do so. Somehow at last, he fastened the knot but I could clearly see that there was no finish.

There is of course a happy end to this story (often questionable though) too. I paid him what he asked for as his fees, Rs 20 (1 % of the original cost of the shoes) and left the place.

I was wondering whose story actually had a happy ending – a Cobbler’s one who is accustomed to be a part of a cyclic- self sustaining system or a Reebok’s one – companies which follow a highly linear process of production with no share for anyone in the system? In my mind, I carefully skipped the question of who is responsible as it risks involving myself as a consumer too.

User Centered Design v/s API Centered Design

Today I came across few iPhone applications. The task was to simplify one developed by the firm I am working for. They wanted to simplify their existing application by carrying few User- Centered evaluation cycles.

The application at hand was quite in a bad shape (there you are! yeah,  for the users as everything else was flawless).  So the obvious question was “why is it so”? When everyone from the development front wants to improve the performance of their application then why suddenly the end product is still so alien? Thanks to the open market; it is when the companies couldn’t see any such application making in to buying list, a few of them try to look back and investigate for the reasons.

I realize that companies these days are lured by the open source stuff. They want to learn what all is offered in the plate. In a discussion, a close colleague of mine told me that questions like “How the APIs work and how can be these be put to the best of their economic advantage?” score highest in a company’s quest. Thus this approach is most often centered around picking up an API and developing an application around it. Something which I would now love to call “API Centered Design” 🙂