Saturday, November 27, 2010

On corporate and product semiotics in India

Semantics, in the field of branding is not new to Indian businesses. The science of ‘meaning’ has been around for quite some time as ad agencies, corporate communication departments and brand strategists across the world have pored over this subject. To a certain extent, even ‘services’ have been under the knife in implementing brand semantics. However, thinking of semantics for ‘products’ is a new phenomenon.

What makes an Apple product so distinctly Apple? What is the ‘Volvo-ness’ in Volvo vehicles? What is the common thread running through Tommy Hilfiger fashion-line and the accessories? One does encounter these questions every now and then in the design space. The good news is that more and more large Indian businesses are becoming aware of the implications of semantics first and then semiotics.

Semiotics is the broader umbrella in studying the science of meanings/indications/symbols within the products firstly as category signifiers and also as brand signifiers. If we look at the Raga series of watches from Titan - there is a women’s watch ‘category shape/symbol/code’ in the watch while there should also be a ‘Titan’ brand shape/symbol/code/visual elements present in the watch. I am saying ‘should be’ because most of the companies currently do not have a consistent thought on these subjects. In the tumultuous growth of the last decade, Indian companies never had the time to sit back and take notice of this ‘identity’ language for their products. As opportunities opened up, managers were busy cashing-in on them, year after year, chasing top-line strategies.

Thinking of brand semiotics is a matter of the restful mind, taking a keen look at things around like a diligent and caring grandmother weaving children’s woollens. At the turn of the first decade of the twenty-first century, we are at the threshold of ‘semiotics’ revolution in the country. Several home grown auto giants, consumer durables companies, lifestyle and accessory companies who Onio has worked with or has been in touch with, are looking for semiotic structuring.

They have seen their product portfolios growing into humongous proportions year after year, catering to different market segments, price points and several platforms too have fallen in place, but none communicating the ‘characteristic’ feel of that brand or company. Indian design is searching for an identity, for a change outside the academia now. Onio’s design research division OnioNxt works on semiotics under what we call the ‘design structuring paradigm’ which encompasses brand architecture as well.

Whilst thinkers are many, implementers somehow are rare. As usual, they hunt for a costly but ‘safe’ (as they put it), foreign consultant (who may or may not understand what India and Indian consumers are all about). These clients pay through their noses to get the top level ‘expert’ on to the company premises, who will do ‘the strategic consulting’ for the company at 33,000 feet and fly back at the same height!

It is left to the company’s managers to interpret the words of wisdom on to real situations. We were recently a part of one such meeting where we were called in to interpret the semiotic guidelines left behind by one such consultant. Company brand stands for optimism and legacy. Products, the company makes are worth a rainbow.

The meeting started close to one and half hour later although it was planned 3 weeks in advance. Meanwhile the junior, who was our contact point, explained to us how grand and spectacular the work has been done by the foreign consultant and Indian companies are nowhere close to it.
Chief of the division came in with a laptop open, and apologised for the delay but also added that he would have liked the junior to start off this session anyway. Other team members (who were mentioned in the email sent to us) were absent from the meeting (‘they are busy’, we were told). One gentleman who walked in - sleepy eyed - refused to share his visiting card, and after a lot of apparent discomfort rattled out his name. He slumped into the chair and dozed off in a few minutes.

We continued our presentation to the chief who was working on the laptop simultaneously and only occasionally lifted his eyes to look at the presentation and making some comments which were more out of his own experiences rather than commenting on what is really being presented. Sometime generic remarks on ‘how agencies work’ were sprinkled in the conversation (if at all). The meeting somehow ended with the slamming down of my laptop, as the ‘semiotics’ of that meeting were becoming unbearable for us.

We thanked them for inviting us for their time and invitation. Semiotics has started taking shape in India. So near, yet so far!

Thursday, October 21, 2010


A friend of mine, working for an MNC asked for some help in preparing a presentation on marketing strategy for Asia. He knows that at Onio we have been working on Innovation & Brand strategy consulting for many international companies entering India currently. He just happened to ask for this friendly help, sitting in his office in Singapore. His initial thought, which he sent to me were sketchy and mostly clichéd i.e. Asian’s like ‘foreign brands’, ‘foreign technology’ but ‘local messaging’, and ‘local customisation’ etc. etc.

This set me thinking, on how can I capture a succinct reply to this question from Onio’s stand point, driving into several thousands of interactions we have done in past with consumers and business leaders over last few years.

Here is my view-

3Ds of success in Asia : DESIGN & DISTRIBUTION & DIALOGING.
When the market is just about opening up for a category, distribution is a key. Without visibility of the sales and service counters nearby, no consumer puts any value to huge hoardings installed for him, nor does he care for any star endorsements in the million dollar ads. FIAT’s success in India started with correcting this D, through tie-up with Tatas. Tommy Hilfiger is riding on Titan watches. Nissan is riding on Mahindra’s network. Hyundayi is surely a pioneer for replicating Maruti’s network strength all on its own.

Other D is for good design. Good design takes care of not only the right aesthetics, as commonly understood, but also the right ergonomics, usage of right materials keeping in mind the local sensitivities, right surface finishes and graphics, right amount of technology (need not be latest) right packaging, right interactions with consumers etc. etc. When we say, localization- It is important to understand that what elements actually need to be localized and what should be left as it is, because consumers today, are almost becoming global consumers. Their aspirations are more and more global aspirations. Hence there is always a danger of OVER-INTERPRETATION’ of what local sensibilities mean. Conducting a DESIGN RESEARCH or ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH apart from conventional statistical research is a step in this direction. Understanding INSIGHTS beyond DATA and converting those, into a right PRODUCT is a game lesser understood that people would like to believe.

Third D is about dialoguing with consumers. No brand arrogance, no premium tag, no amount of ‘holier than thou’ attitude actually works in the middle stratas of the consumers. Brands like Mercedes also had to tweak their marketing strategies in India, in favour of the local dynamics. In spite of being in India for more than a decade when it came to launching the luxury buses, Mercedes realized that they will have to proactively persuade, facilitate loans, educate the buyers on ROI and take care of training to their employees. No one walks into a Mercedes showroom with a bag full of notes, just because it is what it is. Thus a dialogue with the prospective consumers/stakeholders is an important part which has to happen, top-down within the organisation.

Dialoguing is a bigger phenomenon than a few consumer interactions. It is a continuous engagement process. It has bigger cultural connotation within the organisation than only externally oriented mandate of listening to customers. For a multi-cultural organisation trying to make a dent in Asian market, it is important that there is a heavier emphasis on building a culture of learning to respect mutual cultural backgrounds. Every employee is a potential marketer for the company. Positive energy created by the employees goes a long way in enhancing the top line in not-so-visible ways. So apart from market focused 3Ds of success in Asia, a check on internal 3Ds is equally important.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Driving an Ambassador

Amidst the growing aspirations for speed, fun and style I got to drive an Ambassador car yesterday. This was one of the top end models the company is producing. To tell you frankly, till two months back, I wasn’t aware that company is producing mind-boggling number of cars (1000 a month to be precise) still. I thought they had long closed the shop.

The ‘white elephant’, the first thought that came to my mind when I opened the door lock of the brand new car standing in our garage. The overall height was almost matching my own and the generous curvature of the roof dome enhanced the feeling its large presence. Door opens on pulling the handle towards you, rather than the nudge which most of the cars need (some don’t even need that).

Roof is solid iron. My current car is not even half as solid. If I thump it on top, I am sure my current car (Ford) is likely to get a dent. But here, this solid one piece deep-forged roof is tough enough to bear a few rolls of the car without blinking. I had heard people saying that Ambassador is solid but never got to to check that fact.

For most of the people in India, collapsible parts in the car or crush-zones or airbags have no or little meaning. They think that all these things are meant for the western countries where you drive at 80-100 km an hour on the city roads. Here in India, where traffic literally crawls, Ambassador’s solid construction inspires a better ‘sense of safety’ as no car can afford to harm it.

Anyways, when I took it out on road, I felt that I am sitting much higher than many other car drivers. Higher seating gives a sense of command and poise bordering road arrogance which only costly SUVs exude. Streamlined, foreign built, ground kissing cars which cost a fortune actually appear fragile and ‘char din ka chand’ to an Indian eye. I did manage to get some curious glances at the car. In city of Pune, where this car is almost extinct, a normal guy driving a brand new Ambassador is bit of an oddity.

I had imagined that since the shape has not changed for last 50 years, the pick-up and the rev of the car would be ancient at best. But, to my surprise, engine is powerful and pick-up was not something I should complain about, though the accelerator pedal seems to have issues. It almost behaved like the one on the truck.

Taking U-turn on the road was likely to be a test for the maneuverability of the car. And while doing that, I was thinking of my parking space at home, which requires me to slot the car in a tight spot in reverse. However, to my surprise both the tasks did not pose any greater challenge that my current car.

High head-room did give a feeling of great comfort. Anything that provides more breathing space and extra air-buffer is welcome in these polluted cities. While small car or no car does strike some chord in my head, yet come to think of it who wants to deny a luxury of little more space?
One of the thing strikes me is that for driving a larger vehicle don’t we expect certain heavier action anyways? Some things should rather be slower and not try to compete with the suave and nifty new age cars. Ford is known for its power steering which gives a realistic and not super-natural feel. Hyundai on the other hand, does vice-versa. I would rather expect something on the Ford side for this car. Race today is not towards the fastest, but towards to the most elegant as well. For this mid-aged elegance, I am sure there would be more younger suitors than I can imagine!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Trends in Retail: A Home coming Ahead

Retailing in India has reached the pleatau of its first surge. In 2005 when the mall revolution had just begun, going to a mall was like a celebration. Cool air conditioned spaces provided a great respite to heat-weary consumers, who would take to mall with all their fmaily and friends as if going to a market on Diwali. Lots of song and dance, tasty treats and eyeful of foreign brands in aluminium clad malls was enough to keep them glued to the malls, whether they shopped or not. Big-Bazaar helped cracking the mall-code for the average middle-class as well. People thronged for the ’Sabse sasta din’ kind of innovative campaigns. Reliance and Big-Bazaar gang made the consumers habitual to seeing the end-tally discount on their bills. Luxury malls are trickling in, though slowed down a bit in the recent years.

Wall Mart, Carrefour are sitting on the fence and one never knows how big and wide would they open thier carpet. The question now lingers on is for the local retail chains who are trying to stand on their own feet despiten the heat from the biggies. Is there a redemption for them? Can the turn the tables on the biggies in innovative expeirennce, regionalised palettes, lower cost of operations and more personalised shopping? Can they prove to be more agile in responding to ever changing consumer of India, and keep pace with mega-trends? Here are some of my thoughts on these. They may or may not reflect Onio Design’s point of view on emerging retail scenario in India.

Let’s look at some of the mega-trends touching the retail sector:

EASY MY LIFE: Hectic pace of life and complex web of everyday activities tire the mind and body. Consumer are looking for guiding principle, humanised technology and pauses in the everyday paradigm. What was a USP once upon a time- more choices- is leading to a problem- choice fatigue today. Go to CENTRAL (of Future Group) and one can see how brands after brands are packed together in a claustrophobic space with little or no distance for yourself. If a consumer is looking a decent quality of shirt and not brand savvy, then rummaging through the ’brand stands’ could be quite a task. Even if he/she picked up a shirt from a certain brand stand, looking for a matching trouser in the other brands could be quite a fatigue, especially if it is a weekend and you happened to be there in the evening. Most of the stores and malls take references from the western designs who actually have no clue of what a crowd could be in one store in India.

So passive consumer guidance is the new direction. Studies have shown that Asian consumers don’t like the overactive salesmen. They just want the help ’around the corner’, not over the neck. How can the Indian origin departmental stores and malls, provide a consumption guide to the dazzled consumer? Can there be a sitting space for the tired consumer somewhere in the store?

HOME COMING: In the first wave of modernisation, Hotels were the trend setters. More and more people who traveled abroad, brought back the memories of the hotels and airport lounges they stayed in. Offices were set-up picking up elements of hotels and restaurants. As the youth, coming from middle class backgrounds, entered these hotel-offices, they carried the images to recreate the homes they lived in. And lo behold- homes look like offices or hotels. Malls and departmental store, built in this first wave resembled the airport shops/malls, with highly industrialized look and cold feel. Now there is a vaccuum of one feeling- HOME. FabIndia is read it well. Warm, woody, rich feel of comfort reminds us of a natural comfort and provides a good visual break from industrial kitsch. For departmental stores and malls, the next move could be a ’home coming’ with high standards of ergonomics and design. Expect more regional palettes to come at play with conjunction with security, lighting and other technologies.

FLUID BOUNDARIES: Ikea uses an interesting phenomenon in its stores. By the time a consumer has finished looking at kitchen products and moved to bedroom, there would be some bin or some rack in the bedroom product area which again brings some of the kitchen elements. Reason is simple. Human mind records the visuals but cannot take the buying decision immediately. Hence if a reminder is gently pushed in front of it, mind precipitates the descision. More so, Indian mind is like a mosaic compared to the western mind, which rather reacts like a canvass and one picture. In the mosaic, the Indian consumer is able to fit divergent ideas and images at a time. Visiting a store with strongly partitioned categories is actually an underutilisation of the Indian consumers’ decision capacities. On the trend side, we see the borders between different disciplines crashing. Probably there is some new mix of product categories, which is yet to be explored and a detailed ethnographic research can throw the answers in favor of smaller retailers, as they can manage the supply-chain and display more effectively.

PERSONALISATION: A megatrend, still not hit its peak, is a sure direction in retail. High end personal shoppers is not no more a freak phenomenon in India. It is time to make this accessible to all those who can afford a bit of luxury for some extra money spend. Long queues for billing is not so uncommon during the rush hours. Repeat purchases of the a particualr brand again is not very difficult to track when most stores have loyalty card programme in place. There is a lot of room for some extra consideration and guidance which costs literally nothing and provides much richer consumer experience.

SENSORIAL ENGAGEMENT: Speaking newspaper was a hit when recently Volkaswagen carried a one pager ad with a speaking chip built into it. Rsearch on Asian consumers has proved that ’experience’ is a puller from India to Indonesia. Consumers are not looking at ’brands’ alone. They are looking at the ’experience’ brand provides within a store. There is much more to a store than just aggregating the brand-stands and earning by square feet. The game is tilting towards discretionery consumer and not towards ’variety horders’. Sensorial engagement of the consumer is likely to be an important key int he hands of the next league of retailers.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

It rains in July

It is a scorching sun in April and May. Even though the corporate budgets are usually sanctioned by March every year, they start spending them only by the rainy season. Every year we look forward to the monsoon in Pune as it changes the entire landscape to a lush green countryside. People start talking of treks and outings. Amidst heavy traffic, messy roads, absence of the sun and a lot of work at hand, we forget which day of the week is it. Occasional walks out of the office for a hot vada-pav (Very Indian potato filled counterpart of hamburger), and a hot masala tea is usually rejuvenating, just like calls from old clients and contacts who suddenly start resurfacing around this time. Every year we run into a dilemma of increasing our manpower muscle for this period or rather stay lean for the drier times of the year.
This year appears to be special. There is a lot of positive design news around the corner. India has got a ‘designed’ symbol for the rupee. It is a sign of India’s emerging status in the world economy. It is a great sign too that the symbol has been designed within the country and not farmed out to a fancy firm in UK or USA. Though personally I think this symbol may need revision soon. The usual ornamental/curvy nature of Indian aesthetics is missing from the current symbol along with visual solidity that I would like to imagine in a currency symbol. This entire exercise has brought Indian design and specially FONT design for Indian language in focus for sure. My friend Hashim P M (owner of Design Difference), a trained computer engineer-turned-communication designer-turned font designer would look forward to this new focus on the Indian economy.

Onio completed 13 years on the 14th of July. I got married to Onio and to Sonali the same day. What is thirteen years for an upcoming company in an upcoming profession in an upcoming country? Sometimes it takes several generations to make a dent that the world can notice. No, I know of exceptions like Infosys. But that is an exception. In thirteen years we have seen two deep slowdowns and survived. We undertook several tangent steps in these years that creative services company would rather not take. One of them was of taking in an active partner along with taking in strategic investments and successfully managing the share buy-back after three years. An immense amount of personal and organisational learning happened which has really prepared us for bigger leaps in future.

Another one was successfully running a KPO in design visualisation services, which is usually scorned upon in the design community. However, Onio has learnt better structured and process oriented delivery apart from a lot of learning on communication management. Creative services and structured delivery normally don’t see eye-to-eye.

My efforts in breaching the logjam of ‘design being something that ‘designers’ do in design studio and strategic decisions are taken by managers’ seem to be bearing fruit. Trend Research was something that caught my fancy a few years ago as one of the tools to attract the corporate mind. Scenarios for future, was anyway a passion for me. However, futurology per se was something that corporate clients were not ready to pay for in these years. Hence trends were something more tangible, immediate and strategic visualisation that went ahead with has paid dividends. Our recent assignments with super large consumer product companies in strategic trend research, across Indian shores, have been an exhilarating experience for Onio team. With these assignments we seem to be entering a new phase of Design practice which is in some ways a pioneering step for us as a country.

Last week the mainstream business newspaper, The Economic Times carried a special feature article on Onio (, as a leading company using Design Thinking for corporate business strategy. Our work on Secure Meters’ Brand Integration strategy, using Corporate Ethnography was celebrated on the masthead of the newspaper. This was surely a happy moment for me personally and for Onio. But beyond this, it was also a proud moment for the entire design community seeking recognition in the business circuit worldwide. Core77, the international design portal immediately snapped up this news and put this on their front page. Although, these are still tiny specs in recognition of the universe of creative thinking that a nation may need, yet my brand strategy mind says that more ‘touch points’ would always help take the cause ahead.

A large manufacturing led consumer product Indian brand is trying to adopt Design as a differentiator. Conversations with the senior management, after they sat through our research methodology presentations were quite revealing. They constantly kept talking about Colour, Material and Finish rather than the product innovation overall. “Changing product has serious implications on our assembly line, our vendor base readiness and the commoditised pricing in this market”. This made me wonder on what could be the driver for their sudden love for CMF, when they claimed to be number one in market already?

“It is the brand at number five, market share wise; they have much brighter and attractive colour options compared to us. They are not at the top in market share but number one in mind share and we better worry about that”. Design, has to make a beginning somewhere.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Brand Crafting: How does a design strategy company fare better than a marketing/brand consultant

My blog posts seem to emanate from some questions, to which I did not have an immediate answers. I found it better to think for a while and pen them down. This one is another chip in the same block. Yesterday, a leading newspaper approached us on elaborating the work we did for Secure Meters - Brand Transition Research and Re-branding. Onio has been working with Secure Meters for quite some time now, not on product design but rather on brand strategy.

Secure Meters is one of the leading home grown energy metering companies which has acquired companies across the world and is developing cutting-edge technologies on the energy metering front. Each of the acquired companies, though working in the same domain, had a different brand name and geographical reach. This posed a big challenge for brand-architecture and messaging over time.

Secure chose to work with Onio on brand integration thus showing remarkable corporate maturity and the ability to work with new methodologies in this area. With assistance from Onio, the group finally prepared a brand transition plan towards a single corporate brand across the globe. Onio used corporate ethnography as a tool and interviewed close to 40 stakeholders (including board members, senior management, workers, distributors & suppliers) across three countries in five locations worldwide.

So the first question this correspondent from the newspaper asked me was, “Why did Secure come to you and not go through the conventional model of involving a market research company / marketing consultant / ad agency in this work?

Onio had conducted brand strategy and research assignments earlier but not on this scale. I would try and articulate what I think Onio brought to the table for this work -

1. Focus on Empathic User Research: Gone are the days when a brand strategist would spin a word-web and spice it up with glossy graphics to create a brand definition. Today's brands whether corporate or consumer product brands; are deeply entrenched in the user space i.e. how does the user/stakeholder interact with the brand? And mind you, this stakeholder of today is tremendously aware and rational. So the ability of empathising with people across the hierarchy and the value-chain, to extract the concerns and projections, comes naturally to a design company. Use of ethnography and visual tools to enhance the interaction with the respondents and observational research are some anthropological practices which design companies like Onio have adopted early on.

2. NEED at the centre of brand innovation: Design companies are trained to think with the NEED first. Contextual inquiry into the NEED can be quite an entangling task. A simple word like 'need' has multiple dimensions in the mind of such a researcher. Matching the corporate needs to employee needs, market needs to social needs, aspirations to capabilities and verbal to understated… there is a long journey where the researcher needs to remain connected to the ground realities. This multi-dimensional facet in the need universe is a skill taught in design schools.

3. Textual to Visual World: Complex modelling of the brand universe of an emerging organisation can be a daunting task. Gives and takes between different companies, product brands, technologies, geographical reaches, operating divisions and possible directions of evolutions can become a maze of words that may only confuse the managing team. A clear visual illustration helps the team in a big way to see the emerging patterns.

4. Meta-crafting Abilities: This one particularly is my passion and forte. Brand Research and Strategy is a game of 'fact-finding' and 'meta-crafting'. Design companies are used to the detailed information collection and extraction of meta-facts out of it. Though meta-crafting for product innovation assignments could be very different from a brand design assignment, the skill set is similar.

5. Ability to be a gentle sounding board: This one is something not so straight forward. It is more of human quality than a corporate skill. Onio discovered it long back that mid-sized, owner-driven enterprises look for a consultant who can be a good sounding board rather than a 'holier-than-thou' domain expert. Many of these enterprises have been built on individual insights, business acumen and years of sustained hard work. Hence articulation of even the pain areas needs to be done with care, because it may nudge some of the stakeholders the wrong way. It is a tact combined with clarity of insight and articulation.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Customer Needs v/s Industry Needs v/s Country Needs

 Interview with Shri Dashrath Patel published in a Gujarati daily 'Sandesh' on June 25th 2010. Translated into
English by NID alumnus Mookesh Patel.

NID has failed in realizing its established goal. Students focus on 'styling' at design institutions.

"National Institute of Design (NID) is in the process of celebrating 50 years of its establishment in the field of design education.
While numerous events are being planned for this purpose, institute founding member and Padma Shree Shree Dashrath Patel saddened by the progress and direction of the advancement of the Institution believes that the intention for the establishment of NID has not been realized and that there is a need for an earnest review of its structure and system on the eve of 50th year celebration.

Dashrath Patel in his special interview with 'Sandesh' regarding the aim for establishment and the current status of NID said: â€
The Government of India decided to found this exceptional premier design educational institution in country based on Germany renowned 'Bauhaus' and 'Ulm' design schools that emphasized the principal of need for any design object. The intention for such decision was to provide the Indian population with design services that realized extremely useful tools and objects during the early years of progress and development of independent India. Understanding the context of  'need' within our country during the process of design was the basic expectation of all educated and trained designers at this institution. From 1963 until 1972, institute focused and worked on conceptual development and implementation that addressed country urgent needs such as school furniture, smokeless Chulah, public toilets, hospital trolleys, etc. However, since then the NID direction has altered. NID has missed the opportunity to realize its initial goal.

In reply to the question 'What is the importance of design?'
he said: In most design process, the emphasis is on public 'need', public economic status, increased and effective deliverance, reasonable price, infrastructural sustenance, adoptive production methods, etc. The design and production of products that follow this design process helps the growth and development of the country and its people. However, we have failed to understand its importance. Due to the open market strategy since 1991, India experienced an incredible effect of globalization and the design arena degraded. Fresh design graduates misplaced their priorities and emphasized 'product styling'and the 'look' and
the trend still continues."

My comments follow, explaining the situation on ground as a practicing design thinker.

Dasharath Bhai is right in his observation that designer coming out of design institute today are more inclined and probably 'sold' to the idea of scintillating styling jobs. Number of jobs being offered today in the design school campuses are far too lucrative for newbie designer to even think of starting independent practice or much less to start an enterprise with his/her own idea. Industry, on the other side is in a transition phase as of now. 15 years back when I started my career in design, 'collaboration' with foreign partner was the name of the game for Indian industry. From technology to new product ideas to brand definition, everything came in a packet from the collaborator, which the local partner had to just 'run' it for them. Many are still doing it. There was no need for a designer that time. I felt as if I am joining a redundant profession. Many of my seniors form design school, working for the industry had found themselves growing in the allied streams (i.e. marketing, or product planning etc.) rather than as a designer  within the company. Graphic design was still an evergreen field, with a stiff competition from ad-industry. Interaction or digital design was not born that time. Retail Design was absent too.

But when I look at a scenario that started evolving in last 5 years, I can see that there is a growing need for local design talent. Surprisingly, that need is stronger not from the local industry, but from the local design centers of the foreign companies, who have realized that local insights ARE going to play a role in future.  Local industry is still keen on foreign label/designers rather than experimenting with home grown talent. Now what are these foreign company owned local design centers up to? They are focusing on 'customisation' of the global product platform and not necessarily building a product from ground up for local market (exceptions are always there..we are working with one such large global company on evolving a local platform for BoP refrigerator). So the focus is on styling and a bit on local usability. That probably explains the 'pull' from the industry what Dasharth Bhai was alluding to.

There is another link in the chain- the consumer. What is happening to the Indian consumer?

Over the last decade, one can see that India is going up on the consumerism curve where the west is already on the maturity and saturation mode. They are talking of 'sustainability' and 'conscious consumption'. While the Indian consumer is just about learning to walk the corridors of 'choice'. 'New wrapper and old wine', is still an enticer for the consumer here which does not hold water any more in the western world. Foreign labels are still a sign of quality and value. We were in for a surprise when in a recent design research at Onio, some of the car owners who were attracted to buy a 'German' car model recently launched in India, even justified the slow-pick as an engineering feature of a 'solidly built car'. While consumer is slowly maturing to understand that 'real value' behind the glossy styling and offers, there is a long way to go. Some SMEs and home grown companies have caught on to this mature consumer and shown the bravdo of working with local design companies and creating a world class product that stand above the category. Onio's work with Amara Raja group for Tribal Italia home inverter is one such example.

Now the last angle- What is NID or any design institute doing in such a flux of scenario in industry, consumer and design? Well and education institute providing a profession centric education is likely to have a rub-off from the market demands. Though the foundation and values of the institute would have to be carefully guarded, but they can not avoid the ripple effect from the industry. I think this transition period is likely to last for  5 years more before a stronger voice of 'what's the Indian content in it' becomes a resonating voice form consumers, Industry and hence the design education institutes alike.



Friday, June 25, 2010

Aligning Engineering Industry to Customer’s voice

Got a call from an ex-colleague (currently heading an engineering service provider company), that they are looking for someone for QFD training. Quality function deployment of QFD as it is popularly called, is a method of capturing voice-of-customer in a structured manner which I learnt almost 16 years back. After that first learning seminar, I actually never heard this being mentioned in any forum or company I interacted with. After I quit the engineering company, I studied Industrial design and founded Onio. In the product design paradigm, for the last 13 years (since Onio came into being), none ever mentioned QFD to me. I really don’t know if there are evolved methods that have come up after that to ‘structure’ the customers’ voice.

Anyways, first I reacted in surprise that someone is asking for this training. Then I recalled how Onio has travelled through the journey of product innovation and actually built a complete new practice OnioNxt on the newer methods of capturing customers’ voice. Ethnography, bodystorming, trend research etc. are some of the methods Onio has been using with very complex innovation assignments. Somehow, the engineering world is totally unaware of this entire gamut. Spoken needs, are a passé now. And there are more greys in the unspoken needs of the customer, which no single method can detect.

In one of assignments where we were helping an auto-major with trend research in India, there were two more companies involved along with us. One of them specialized in ethnography, who were doing ‘ride-alongs’ in the country while the other company provided the unavoidable market data. Our role was to present the trends in the country and take the client team to witness those trends in different parts of the country (called Trend Tours). This was the first time (five years back) we realized that there is a confluence of market research, ethnography and trend research to evolve a bigger picture of what customer wants. A customer who knows that due to the continuous sitting, his back hurts and hence he wants a better car seat, will never verbalise that the upholstery that he wants is actually more organic and ‘feel light’ in experience. Office and the everyday stress of living is forcing ‘feel light’ mood and interiors in cars but this is an observation that can only happen through ethnography as a tool. No customer will be able to verbalise, the connect. Once we know the overall ‘mood direction’ for the interior, it is easy to design control panel, storage units, dash-board and the upholstery to enhance the ‘feel light’ mood. While these anthropology techniques of studying man-product interaction have already gained ground in FMCG companies, it is yet to get a foot in the door of engineering/manufacturing oriented organizations. Not to talk of how Onio is using ethnography for corporate brand research……

One of the reason why these methods have not been able to cut ice with many organizations is due to lack of quantifiable output; Which in any case is the very nature of the method (qualitative). If a researcher mentions an insight, which may be result of a deep research or through a deep meditation, the longer and more tortuous journey is to convince other people/management, that the insight is valid. I was talking to a young marketing manager in a large consumer durable company while talking about communication in retail stores. They were facing a problem of ineffectiveness of the current store/product graphics. Only quantifiable route to this problem was ‘eye-ball tracking’ which was a costly method. While we know that many such issues can be tackled by simple Heuristics Analysis (by first principle of good graphic design/ or through laws of visual clustering like Gestalt Laws) i.e. any visual content on the right hand upper corner of a product would have first visual priority. Now this gentleman says “prove it”…. This proving business knows know end. It does require certain amount of organizational maturity into the science of insights to even start respecting the insights as a method of study.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What is India to me?

What is India to me?
Was the question from the research team from a global major in sports goods, while they are evaluating India. “Please answer in 2-3 words or sentences, as spontaneously as you can…”. I had nothing to say that moment. How can you ask a fish, what is water? Being in the profession of Design Research, constantly articulating India, the diverse culture, historical influences, modern influences, meaning and impact of this diversity on product innovation, brand positioning and messaging, understanding the rich-poor, urban-rural, caste-cosmo divide for so many years…actually caught me unawares and I had too much to say which cannot be three words or three sentences….

They gave me an example what others have said…”Home”….such an ‘un-insightful’ remark…But this does become insightful if you compare with some comments from a country like Columbia; because of the internal strife, many people actually rather not be born in that country (some of my friends from Columbia, living in Europe, don’t want to ever go back..).

Yes, India is home. Is that all encompassing experience for me? Or there are more dimensions?

I am reminded of one of the quotes- ”India surprises you with its size, density and diversity - but if you enjoy delving into new cultures and thrive on sensual overload, then it is one of the most intricate and rewarding dramas unfolding on earth.” That probably would be second sentence that would come from me, after ‘home’.

‘Rising’ is the rather clichéd but I would like to use this word, as a wordsmith. Rising from the ashes..rising from the slumber of several centuries….rising from the colonial past…rising on the front of liberal economy…rising on the self-confidence of average citizen…For me RISING is a multi-dimensional verb and not the noun of adjective connected to India. It shows work-in-progress towards better future. And this is what I am going through and going to see in near future.

Three done….three million more to go….

Monday, March 29, 2010

Design think on South East Asia -1

How to get a native Indonesian design who could work with us on the design research project was the task ahead of me. I tried my Google skills sitting in Pune but did not succeed. Hardly any results with ‘Industrial Design’ or ‘Design college’. All I ended up was ‘Jakarta Design Center’ but it proved out to be more of a mall-architectural display. I did post a note on a Indian online design network and lo behold! In three days I started getting several replies/portfolios. However, to my surprise these portfolios were of the Indonesians, currently living or studying in Netherlands. Later I found out that several Indonesians like studying in Netherlands (probably at least some advantage of being a colony of the Netherlands). I met one of the local designers who in turn got to know about my posting through a Dutch friend of his. He mentioned candidly that is it difficult to survive in Indonesia as a product designer. One of his classmate is thinking of joining work as a cop. Companies want a lot of work and pay close to nothing. As it is Indonesia has a fertile land with 400 volcanoes on 1700 islands that make up the country. But in the name of industrial export they largely have Japanese companies that have set up factories here and exporting them from here. Furniture industry also emanates from wood being in abundance. However, the growth has been modest 6-8% in last few years compared to 11% in India. Service industry, as in software seems to be non-existent. Though tourism is one of the great revenue earner, with Bali being an international destination.

With this background, I could immediately connect to the young designer in front of me when he said that being a product designer is tough in Indonesia. There was a sense of déjà vu almost as something that we as a design company have passed through. Way back in 1997 till recently (till 2005) it was really difficult for us to maintain a design office purely through product design revenues. While I see the trend, changing and more and more Indian companies getting ready to explore design and innovation avenues along with Indian designers. Companies would pay to designers, if they see the returns. As the Indian consumer gets choosy after tasting the western goods delivered to him/her for several years now, there is a question mark now on the new direction in the market. This lead to emergence of a new practice or rather a deliverance for a company like us in terms of ‘design research’ and ‘trend research’. From Microsoft to Volkswagen, Samsung, LG and a few more, enriched us through new methods of design research and we brought them well-studied cross-domain, cross-cultural Indian insights. Our articulation of India and its culture, from an outsider’s point of view was highly appreciated in many forums. My personal interest in ‘Cultural Anthropology’ came handy in preparing proposals, evolving new ways of presenting Indian insights and bringing together diverse ways of representations into a single understandable formats. Clients loved the way we simplified India for them yet take the project to a level where market research companies can’t take- visual concepts- period.

So I actually narrated our small journey to the young design in front of me and told him that probably te Indonesian market is 5 years behind India. If he connected with us on this international project then, it won’t be very long when more companies would line-up in front of him with similar design research request. I also reminded him that the fluent English he speaks is such a relief to us and would sure be an asset in any international project he plans to take up. While I was saying this, the several visuals of Indonesian culture flashed across my mind that I saw in the National Museam. Several different ethnic tribes with distinct identity, rituals, traditions dating back to thousands of years and then several hundred years of dark colonial rule that sapped out the sense of identity from the locals. Currently, Indonesia is struggling to gain the sense of identity pretty much the same way as India is. But the current state is of ‘catch-up’ with the ‘hunger’ of several centuries. Design is a higher realm and society would take time to come to question the sense of identity in design. Suddenly it also occurred to me that how much more energy we, as a design company has to spend in getting each project and educating the clients on what we can deliver and how will he benefit. Probably, had we taken a bolder step and set-up an office in one of the developed countries, 10 years back, we would have been way more efficient for several reasons.

More to come...

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Software - hard learning

I have always believed that software industry is few miles ahead of other sizable service industries in terms of structuring and delivery. They have another advantage- of being at the forefront of the technology as well. Everytime I interact with a software company as a client, I get things to learn. The eternal student inside me feels happy taking up strategy assignments with these companies. Here are the leanings from a recent one-

There was a time where being married to Microsoft or Oracle or similar ones, would make you a specialist. Over a period companies have realized that everyone has options and it makes sense to support them.

2. SAS- Software as a service is the next game
Products don’t exist any more; there are only services. In physical realm, it is increasingly becoming true and software industry sure is leading the way.

Concept of optimization of resources through virtual structuring and leveraging the power of distributed intelligence is another learning for other domains, what this industry is able to do with the concept of cloud computing.

4. NLP – Natural Language Processing
It was mentioned to me in a strange example. How ‘Soccer Mom and Soccer Dad’ in USA need to plan their schedule better using intelligence of NLP-programmes which pick-up sentences off the emails like ‘take Jack to the class same time next week’, and automatically update the calendar with appointment, after understanding the meaning of ‘next week, same time’.

‘Let me hand it over to my manager’- this could be possibly the machine-speak. Single person manages 4-5 calls at a given point of time in a high-tech call center, by intelligently responding
to the inquiries through pre-drafted ‘voice snippets’. Wow, there is more space between ‘human’ and ‘digital’.

6. iPod apps is passé, Facebook apps is in vogue
When it comes to eye-balls, new levers are emerging. Social networking sites, offer multitudes of avenues to engage the onlookers into a meaningful sale.

Chopping the large deliverables into smaller concurrent pieces make the programme handlable in smaller team lots. Linear ‘waterfall’ models are outdated now. Manufacturing industry had a name for it ‘concurrent engineering’.
Email based promotions have reached a new level of understanding as far as automated mailers is concerned. Drip irrigation is closest I can think of, in capturing the essence.

Well, this is something which was my learning with one client in one hour. This is a common place knowledge for an ‘techy’. For me, these are nuggets of knowledge paradigms, which when applied to other domains, can bring transformations. I am at my job…watch out!!