Wednesday, November 7, 2007

World Usability Day at Bangalore: Lecture on Social Equity and Design

Towards an Accessible World: Opportunities for Designers was the title for my lecture. This image is part of the model prepared by my students who as part of the Data Visualisation course at Gandhinagar Campus visited one village called Sahpur in Gandhinagar to look at design opportunities in a typical Indian Village. Looking at the particular as part of usability was my focus in my lecture. rather than talking about the Target Audience we need to look at the needs and aspirations of Meena and Mohan in the Indian context.

The World Usabality Day is a concept driven by volunteers across the world and by industry visionaries who have found value in supporting the event with corporate sponsorship. This year I was invited to speak at the mini conference at the National Institiute of Advanced Science (NIAS) auditorium which is located at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. From 3.00 pm to 7.30 pm on a Monday evening when Bangalore is hard at work dealing with the worlds information technology opportunities about 200 or more IT professionals from some of the leading national and multinational companies managed to get away to look at usability and design in critical areas of our lives. Braving the traffic and driving all the way across Bangalore they stayed till the end of the show only to spend the next hour or two to get back home after an eventful evening. The lectures were stimulating and informative and the crash workshop in envisioning usable new services and product concepts in three areas of need that was on the minds of the organizers, all volunteer IT professionals working in the usability space.

The enthusiasm and commitment that they brought to the workshop session was quite amazing. After some lead lectures by Dr. Girish Prabhu, a case study of a new internet access computer developed by Intel, Prof M P Ranjan speaking on design opportunities that can bring social equity to Indian villages and the lead organizer Sarit Arora of Human Factors, Bangalore sharing a usability test on the new Indian Railways ticket booking site the conference broke up into assigned teams to explore the design challenges. Three broad areas included services for the elderly, a low cost cell phone and a health information system for Indian villages. Each challenge zone had three teams and the format for innovation was intense and got all the creative juices flowing for a few action filled minutes of discussion, ideation and modeling. The half hour extended to another quarter and the five jury members went around reviewing one group at a time, each in a two minute show and tell format, very exciting.

This exciting interlude was followed by two more lectures and case presentations. One by Dr Reynold Washington and his IT colleague H Gururaj on the health care information system that he had helped develop for sex workers in Karnataka and Maharashtra and the insights that were gleaned from this pilot study which is now being rolled out in an improved format. The second was by Sean Olin Blagsvedt from sharing the prototype services that they had developed for converting the informal networks that all of us use to get domestic assistances and their efforts to design and build it as a viable business proposition. The challenges in these two case studies revealed the huge opportunity that existed in India at the non industrial sectors for IT services and value added web services that could address latent needs that have remained outside the ambit of organized business at the bottom of the pyramid.

Dr Prabhu reflected on why the Intel efforts had failed in India although they had used the best of class problem solving techniques in developing the product and the technology for the village based internet kiosk project. I saw that they had focused on the technology. Battery backup, heat tolerance and dust resistant casing and all the other front end and back end systems that should make the system work, but it failed, why? The focus seemed to be on making a robust and low cost solution but I did not hear what the village folks were supposed to do with the whole offering and it seems to me that this may have been the key to the failure of the whole effort, focus on technology and economy and missing the user and their particular condition in the location. The effort to evolve a general solution may have led to the local opportunity being missed and the product failed. There may be other reasons which we will only know if we look deeply It is ironic that the case was presented at a conference on usability when the core reason for the failure was caused by a lack of it.

Sarit Arora presented the Indian Railway ticket booking system and the tests showed a series of gross failures in addressing usability issues in the web based system and the interface. The home page had no picture of a train as one would expect and the user testing protocols showed a whole lot of missed opportunities and missed cues to help users move forward to achieve their objective of booking a ticket. My own assessment was that the case showed a stark failure of design from first principles which cannot be set right by usability testing. However most administrators and corporations would invest in usability testing of a poor solution rather than invest in a good design solution in the first place, a common problem that we see all the time in India. With huge investments being made in product testing and standardization and very poor investment in innovation and design across all fields of application.

The healthcare case by Dr Reynold Washington and Gururaj too was another example of a great challenge of a problem located in a complex context which was dealt with a huge commitment by the use of dedication and use of technology however in spite of all the data that was shared about the stated success of the efforts in containing the spread of HIV and Aids there seemed to be a complete lack of the use of design, once again the promise of technology and administrative diligence are held out as dependable and justifiable and measurable answers while we can envision that by using design at the macro micro level as a system the impact and effectiveness would be different. The use of the integrating force of design is missed here in their presentation which I do believe will make a significant change, if only they tried. Once again a missed opportunity for the use of the multiplier effect of design in a truly wicked problem.

Sean Olin Blagsvedt made an exhilarating presentation on their efforts to build a startup internet service called and explained the business model of the social networking site which was also a business with clients, agents, mentors and applicants. The task is complex and it holds promise of delivering some real felt needs at an affordable price. A lot will depend on the quality of decisions that they take at both the strategic levels as well as at the level of detail, both will need to be addressed adequately if the offering is to be sustainable and valuable at the same time.

My own presentation dealt with design opportunities that could usher in social equity particularly in the rapidly changing rural landscape across India as well as in the numerous sectors of need across the thematic sectors such as Nature, Life, Work, Health and Play. These categories were used to get our students in the Design Concepts and Concerns course to explore and inform the range of possibilities and these explorations can be seen on our education blog here. The call for moving our focus from the general to the particular was characterized by the need to shift our attention from talking about a target audience at the general level to thinking and looking at “Meena and Mohan” as they live and work in their own situations and context in an immersive manner if we are to ensure a proper fit and result in bringing empowerment and social equity to all their transactions with business and society in general. The electronic voting machine and a study of a particular village are offered as case studies for the proposed design approach. The presentation 1 MB pdf file can be downloaded here.

The conference organizers here in Bangalore, the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) and the CHI Bangalore have proposed to place the video recordings of the lectures on YouTube and when they do I will provide a link here. You can see more about the World Usability Day, Bangalore conference at this link here.

PDF file of 1 MB size of my lecture can be downloaded from this link here. Towards an Accessible World: Opportunities for Designers

No comments:

Post a Comment

I reserve the right to edit comments. Please keep it simple and to the subject.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.