Tuesday, December 20, 2011


As another year yields to a new one, the race to grab the attention (and wallets) of emerging Indian consumers, heats up even more. Amidst the cynicism of double dip and optimism of robust Indian economy that is beating all projections to emerge as the third largest market in the world, the Indian consumer is at an inflexion point of consumerism.

The ‘optimist’ Indian consumer who was ‘celebrating’ in 2006 with mega-malls, buying super big homes, bigger bikes and watching cinema in style is sort of gasping for breath at the moment. It is time for the Indian consumer to pause and reset the direction before the next race commences.

(INSET: Mini-Vending on 2Wheels: India Needs More Platforms: Photo: Manoj Kothari)

In the year that  saw ‘Jasmine’ in full bloom from the Middle East to India, mobile phone customer base that rose to 800 million and Internet connections to 12 million, consumer awareness and articulation has touched new highs. Sensex has been flirting around the 16000 mark and the government is routinely getting cornered on the issue of corruption. These developments have caught the public fancy. Single brand FDI is now allowed 100% even as 60% of malls in India lie vacant leading to fears of a supply-side glut in the orgainsed retail sector. This in turn has sparked fears of a retail bubble with profitability mirage thrown in for good measure. Car launches in the country are about to touch the figure of 50 a year, as a direct indicator of what this market means for the global carmakers. Legendary innovations that are being discussed as case studies in many colleges abroad like Tata Nano, the ultra low cost (ULC) car and chhotu-cool refrigerator of Godrej are not selling as they should have been. Maruti is still the king with several lakhs of Swift cars being booked well in advance with a huge waiting period, while India centric innovation by Toyota (Etios) is yet to catch consumer fancy. These signals are mixed. But I clearly see the Indian market entering its Phase-3 of the post-liberalisation consumption. Here are the phases-

PHASE-1: LINK & LEAP: After the Western companies discovered the size and hunger for new consumption post liberalisation, they rushed to dump their ready inventory into the Indian market, leveraging existing network of local companies and distributors. Several collaborations took shape of which very few survive today. Indian companies learnt the game of scale, while their foreign counterparts learnt the tricks of handling complexity of Indian market and they parted ways. FIAT & TATA JV  survives till date but may not be for long!

PHASE-2: BAZAAR-AZAR: Second phase saw the rise of home-grown consumer companies that took advantage of increasing consumption and scaled up their operations in the times of less competition. King of Indian retail, Future Group led the trend leaving the early movers like Shopper Stop far behind. Some touch of Indian habits like open-grain retailing within air-conditioned Bazaar were some touches of localisation of the new formats. Launch of Tata Nano car falls in the same category. This phase made use of Western best-practices but most of the output in this phase resembled prototypes rather than finished products. Late entrants in online retail like Flipkart is one such example as well. It will be a while before Nano as an innovation, or Tata as a brand, catches the fancy of Indian consumers as Maruti did years ago. Several layers of operational perfection are long overdue. Mind you, it is not the lack of INNOVATION, but diligent attention to details thereof.

 PHASE-3: BRAND BOULEVARD: After the BazaarIT phase, the next one is about springing up of small chains which will fill in the gaping holes, in the quality of delivery left by larger companies in BazaarIT phase. Innovation would be still at similar levels as in the previous phase but greater seamlessness would be evident in the consumer experience. More personalisation and a touch of more tolerant Indian hospitality will be visible across products and brands in this phase. One can already see that FabIndia as a brand is creating visual fatigue in its loyal customer base. Malls selling the same brands all over at the same price are now left with only location or food court  as advantages. Brand Boulevard will open up opportunities and vistas for smaller, better-integrated and better-designed brands in such a scenario, either to collaborate with bigger ones or to establish independently. I anticipate this phase from now till the end of 2015.

PHASE-4: PERMA-NATION: Real power of Indian innovation will unfold only in the period 2015-2020. In this period, the biggies would have optimised their operational glitches and smaller players would have chalked out the expansion path. In both the cases, a mature Indian consumer would have driven home the point about judicious choices. Disruptive, frugal or just adjacent innovation; the consumer wouldn’t care less. What would matter is innovation which makes him/her more efficient, buoyant about life and provides a sense of permanence. More clues on Innovation for India which will blossom during this phase are in my TEDx talk- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUuIu2KvNCE

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What is the future of Kirana Store or C-store or independent retail in India?

There was this discussion that ensued after a short lecture by three professors from University of Delft, including Prof. Rodney Fitch (of Fitch Design fame, though he does not have anything to do with that company now). It was interesting to note his observations on how organised retail is taking shape in India, is maturing in assortment, presentation and in-store communication. He also presented some pictures of independent retailers in India, fast aligning to the best practices of organised retail. People present were practising designers, innovation strategists, retail consultants and some academicians.

First, Prof. Fitch accepted that the first impression of India is that of ‘chaos’ to an outsider. While a very dynamic business environment and young population hold a lot of promise, the infrastructure gap remains a big deterrent. He was also critical of the government controlling FDI in retail. He said that in the West, whenever governments interfered with the free economy, it had always been counter productive. The big guys would always find their way around if they wish to, but the small enterprises suffer.

While several people spoke on the possibilities, the mood and tone were very defensive. Participants almost took to jingoistic tones that kirana stores or small shop keeper shave survived hundreds of years and would go on for another hundred.
Suggestions like small stores will offer more value-added services, will take on more technology, will have regional language advantage, will have better product mix for higher RoI etc. were tabled. However, I think many of these are likely to be natural responses of <500 sq ft store owners to the large and organised retail. An entrepreneur is equipped with basic ‘fend off’ skills to survive.
However, an interesting point in the discussion would be what will be the inflexion point at which the per square foot earnings of a small store will not match the aspirational living cost of these owners? A cup of tea by the roadside costs Rs 5 today. The same cup of tea, at Café Coffee Day costs Rs. 75. But I haven’t seen a cup of tea being sold for Rs. 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45,50, 55etc. Currently there is a huge range of price points available for expansion for differentiated positioning of the retail business.
Earlier one could only fly full service airlines like JetAirways or a low fare airline like SpiceJet, if one had to look for economy class flying. Today, even SpiceJet has multiple price points and categories within the low-fare category. JetAirways has expanded into Jet Airways Konnect, JetLite, Jet Airways Konnect Premium etc. We need to realise that our economy which is in transition, is yet to reach thepeak of consumerism, which the West is done with. With rising spending in India we have many more greys in retail between to be or not to be questions on independent stores.

I was somewhat disappointed at the overall discussion hovering around the current situation and people not being able to project strong influences that will tweak the trends. Meta-abstracting was missing from the discussion. Formalism that builds models and helps in articulating the complex topics like this were missing from the speaker as well as the audience.
One important point Prof. Fitch made in the end, was about the emergence of small store chains. While he predicted this, we can already see how a Marwari Kirana owner or a sweetmeat owner multiplies his stores in a city. How he sources his manpower from his native village, gives them a semi-hostel like accommodation to keep costs low and slowly anoints one of them as the store manager is a study in itself. Many of these stores have already taken to modern packaging, acceptance of credit cards, glass and steel counters, more interactive ambiences and usage of loyalty programmes.

I have always wondered at the business of the quintessential mochi or the cobbler on Indian streets. To be or not to be? A slight stretch of logic can give the answer...but not on the blogJ.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


Last week I attended a lecture by Prof. James Wodhuysen, who is Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. Apart from other things, he spoke of how SOCIOLOGY has become a very important subject to study for connecting ‘FUTURE’ and ‘INNOVATION’. He also discussed about the need to focus on TECHNOLOGY and ENGINEERING, which has become a bit out of fashion today amongst designers.

We at Onio started engaging with SOCIOLOGY probably around 2005, when out of my own passion for futurology, Trend Research became a practice and we started working with a German automotive major, to help them structure their India entry strategy. Slowly, SOCIOLOGY, CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, ETHNOGRAPHY, MEGATRENDS kind of words started dotting Onio’s terminology. While this was on, another team at Onio headed by Prakash, co-founder of Onio, remained focused on TECHNOLOGY application, core product design and design engineering. What made this holistic approach to innovation, gain ground? It was surely a combination of rich ingredients in the roots which made our minds open to receiving wider realms, that add up to new age of innovation. On teacher’s day , I thought of a few great influences that touched me, coloured me or sometimes changed my entire trajectory for good. Here is a fond remembrance-
Remembering Immanuel Suresh, my teacher at NID, an extraordinary observer of nature, human behaviour and more importantly an extraordinary human being, gave me the understanding to connect the seemingly unconnected. Prof. B. D. Mishra who taught me at IIT Mumbai (the multifaceted talented man who represented India in Asiad in athletics, trekked with Tenzing Norgay to Mount Everest and represented India in UN on Population and Development) who exposed me to a whole new world of Futurology. I still remember the book reading sessions discussing Future Shock, Small is Beautiful and One Straw Revolution at Nescafe Stall at IIT Mumbai during the course. Together these two gentlemen fired the spark in me of diligent inquiry into the future. Current practice of Trends, Design Research and Strategy at Onio actually emanated here.

I also feel grateful to my first Alma Mater, IIT Mumbai for exposing me to wider learning through humanities courses during the study. Indian Philosophy, Psychology, English Literature and Futurology were some of my favourite courses. I felt enriched. I gained more from these and the side learning of guitar classes, reading books on grandmasters of art and science in the giant library, and by conversing with talented peers, than what I learnt in the structured courses of mechanical engineering.

I must remember Professor Ram Jaiswal at Ajmer, who was generous enough to give me water-colour and portrait painting training with no obligation. It was truly a wonder to see a master at work. I still remember the pleasure of pencil gliding and seeing the face of the person sitting in front appearing on the paper. Sketching is meditation. Sketching is a renaissance art that I cherish. While I was never a good student of Engineering Drawing at IIT, I think I was a good student at NID when it came to perspective sketching.

Prof. J. A. Panchal, who taught simple things at NID- model-making- “If you know three things perfectly- How to cut, How to join and How to distort- you can make anything”- were his famous words, stuck in my mind. He is a perfectionist and taught me to be diligent.

NID, my second Alma Mater, taught me to respect the work I do. Every piece of paper I scribble on, every sketchy drawing I make, every word I say is ‘mine’ and it is no less than a ‘piece of art’. By building love and care in our own work, we slowly move towards perfection.
My schoolmate Chaman Singh Verma had beautiful handwriting. I always ended up trying to copy his way of handling the pen and did manage to move up a few notches.

Some teachers are so busy in everyday teaching that they have no time to reflect that they have transformed the lives of hundreds of students and students are indebted to them. Mr. A.K. Rehman, my maths teacher at St. Paul’s School at Ajmer, was one such man. In those times when IIT was not even heard of, in smaller towns like Ajmer, he was one man who prodded us to think of making IIT as a career goal. Once I was at IIT(Mumbai), my life and perspective changed forever.

Valentin Manolov, a physicist from Moscow University, whom I met in a train from Ajmer to Mumbai, transformed the way I looked at spirituality. Super qualified ISKCON volunteers (some of them were PhDs in various areas) who were a regular feature at IIT that time, discussing teachings of Gita, did fuel the fire that Valentin Manolov started. Osho, whose writings articulated some more hidden areas of human life and para-knowledge, in contemporary terms. I still read the anecdotes, poems and stories spread across the Osho literature.

Renaissance master, Leonardo Da Vinci, whose sketchbook, I copied end-to-end a few times. Michael Angelo, whose biography –‘The Agony and Ecstasy’ taught me that you don’t need to live an ‘extraordinary life’ to be the man that he was.

Sunil Handa, professor at IIM-A and erstwhile MD of Core Emballage when I interned at his company, was a real hard task-master and stickler for details. He did teach me that how a person who works passionately at the task at hand, ‘never falls ill’. Famous words –“50 percent of the time of your life must be spent in arranging it carefully, so that rest of the 50 percent can be enjoyed”.

Arup Dutta and Deepak Kamath, my wing-mates at Hostel-7 in IIT, were two walking encyclopaediae of knowledge from history to movies. From correcting my English accent to telling me the story plot of ‘The Good, The Bad, The Ugly’, these two gentlemen surely helped me evolve as I am today.Vinayak Kini, my ‘weirdo’ classmate at IIT, who successfully runs a big business in USA today, who could write much better poems than I did, who freaked out ten times more than I did and still managed better marks than I did.

Genevieve Flaven, my collaborator on Trends Research and head of Style Vision, France- a magnificent trend researcher and power thinker, I did learn a great deal from her- from trend thinking to event organisation.

Prakash, my business partner, who has been a good friend all this while,taught me to have more faith in people, to accommodate more ‘greys’ while dealing with tough situations and to have ‘leader leaves the last’ virtues.
My father- who still goes out for the morning walk at 5a.m. since the time I have come into this world. Be it any weather, guests at home or a return from a tiring journey- his morning walk has never stopped. I have never seen a more steadfast man than him. I have seen that how he retained the same persistence in publishing a journal ‘Economic Challenger’ for last ten years, despite several ‘challenging’ situations where it almost closed down.

Finally, Sonali, my wife, who helped me stretch my thinking from ‘timely’ to ‘perfect’ work and from ‘done’ to ‘the way it should be’.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Onio completed 14 years last week on 14th July 2011. In the fast evolving economy bubbling with increasingly aware consumers, India-centric innovation is just about taking shape. I remember the very first years of Onio where we were struggling to find product design assignments and were actually forced to take on graphic-design assignments for sheer survival. Later, we almost became a dotcom supporting portal design company.

 The beginning of design-led innovation renaissance in India started happening only in the last 5-6 years. It has happened not because home-grown companies developed a love for design and innovation but it is because the foreign companies started feeling the need to differentiate their products in the emerging economies. However, everyone is a winner in the scene that is unfolding now. Innovation frontiers are getting pushed for the better.
Keener and deeper understanding of emerging users is becoming a defacto method for new product development. Statistics, though being a backbone of any decision, has now found a competent partner in qualitative research methods. This rapidly changing scenario affected Onio in several ways.

ONE: Our team had to constantly remain under ‘hyper-learning mode’. I don’t understand how an established company in this field claim that they have a ‘process’ for innovation that is ‘tried and tested’ over decades. Knowledge gets obsolete faster than the computer chips! Our team had to struggle its way through the methods learnt at college which were antique at best, to grapple with emerging technologies, consumers, socio-cultural scenario, evolving clients, new tax regimes and often, far-off travel.
TWO: We realized that innovation is not a one-way process. It is not about hiring an agency, and ‘fill it, shut it, forget it’. It is about constantly working WITH the agency. Hence a good innovation project is about equally dependent capabilities of the ‘handler’ as much as the capabilities of the consulting team. Often we have seen mid-course corrections in the briefs. No word, even if coming from the head of the company, is sacrosanct, in a world dominated by consumer voice today. Working closely with all the stakeholders is the only reality.

THREE: There are no shortcuts on the hyper-busy route to innovation. Long experience, digital simulations, imported technology, media power, Chinese connections or an expat CEO- none can hasten the evolution of a winning idea. They can surely soften the impact of early failure but user insights, systems thinking and constant prototyping are some time-tested methods which take their own time.
FOUR: All it takes is ONE primed and energised mind to lead the light in the innovation projects. It may sound contradictory to co-creation, team work, collaboration etc. but it is not. In times of information hyper-flux, organised innovation is still a single-lead challenge only to be supported by other stakeholders. In order to cut the multiple options at a given point of time in the innovations process, real synthesis can only be precipitated by this one mind.

FIVE: Real innovation is only complete with beautiful looks. India, a country obsessed with ‘functionality’ and ‘value for money’ is often misread as a market that does not pay for ‘good looks’. Several failures of products like Renault’s Logan car and insights from several of our own researches prove that the Indian market gets over the initial flush of low price and decent functionality much faster than businesses think. Infact, ‘decent functionality with dashing looks’ (or DFDL) is my understanding for guiding the future innovations for ‘emerging markets’.
FINALLY: Fourteen years is all about a ‘new teenager in town’. In the world of modern design and innovation which has luminaries starting from Leonardo da Vinci, fourteen years are really nothing. Each day, new start-ups are being born out of new energy and confidence of emerging India. Everyday, new stories of ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’ are polishing new beautiful minds. Onio is a small flicker in the illumined new world of innovation. Innovation always makes some people live better lives, generates wealth for many and makes certain societies and countries stand up and be counted. Onio however, believes that it is time for a ‘balanced call now’. In the years to come, when the teenager takes a little walk around the town, hopefully he will mature into a fine human being who is compassionate, intelligent, courageous and forward looking.

(in pic: 14th Anniversary March of Onions)

Friday, July 01, 2011

Business design from the gut

This was not for entrepreneurs going from A to B, but rather from B2B. A to B to Babes- Rajiv Bajaj’s brand formula for revival of Bajaj did seem to be the overall theme of the event called ‘Young Turks Conclave’. (Rajiv confessed that he secretly coined the word B2B for lifting Bajaj’s sagging image that time, to a desirable brand).
CNBC TV18 was celebrating 10 years of the programme ‘Young Turks Transformers’ (one of them did feature yours truly and Onio Design). Out of roughly 1000 people who featured on this programme, 250 turned up. The event was also graced by a rather eclectic mix of luminaries- Shiv Nadar- promoter of HCL Technologies, Narayana Murthy, Chairman Emeritus of Infosys, Malvinder Mohan Singh- Chairman of Fortis and Religare, Anurag Kashyap- film maker, Virendra-the Olympic Academy head and Jyotiraditya Scindia- the young politician. Taking advantage of the gathering Maserati and Ducati showcased the best from their stables being launched in India.

Well, after a long time, I felt educated in such a gathering. Shiv Nadar did send home the message that empires are built on the zenith of salesmanship. After all, a services company needs to have salesmen at the top. Malvinder and Jyotiraditya Scindia spoke verbose generalities of any foreign educated ‘born-with a-silver-spoon’ kind of profile. However Rajiv Bajaj was unusually pleasant. He started management-funda bashing and brought up a few key words which kept him oriented during the difficult times at Bajaj Auto and helped him prove his mettle. Presented below are some of the things which I picked up from Narayana Murthy’s and Rajiv Bajaj’s insightful discussions-

1.    Adaptation: Darwin had already declared that it is not the most intelligent nor the strongest, but the species that is the most ADAPTABLE that survives. One of the most important learnings he shared behind this age-old axiom is that in order to remain adaptable, one needs to keep a modular back-up team. Rigid structures kill adaptability.

2.    Alignment: ‘Brands manage themselves if defined clear and sharp’. It is easy to decipher the non-aligned energies if the brand focus is sharp.

 3.      Specialise & Sacrifice: This probably is the problem of all organically grown businesses. One day, they need to sit and take a call on what to retain and what to let go. Specialisation brings retention value, at the same time it also kills some part of the business which could have come your way. I can sense, why Rajiv is not keen on scooters. However, one should read between the lines that Bajaj may not remain the motorcycle brand but Pulsar may emerge as the motorcycle brand.

 4.    Respect: ‘Respect’ as the core value or the core goal of an enterprise can only emanate from the kinds of Mr. Narayana Murthy. He said, turnover and capitalisation based goals should give way to a goal like ‘respect’. If a company generates more wealth, employees get more wealth and get respect from the people around; they respect their seniors. If a company is seen doing something significant in the social responsibility domain then it generates respect in the society. Higher market capitalisation earns your respect in competitors and the government.

5.    Courage: Mr. Murthy was talking of how he took a decision of setting up the office complex at ElectronicsCity, far away from Bangalore way back when the company’s turnover was Rs. 33crore and 20 crores were spent on this. He said, everyone, including the HR team was against the decision to go so far. His idea was simple- people get 8 hours of fresh air, better food, more space and hence better productivity. According to him it is NOW called a visionary step, but all it took was to have COURAGE to follow the instincts in the face of adverse opinions.

 6.    Simplify: ‘You must be able to speak the value offering in one simple sentence.’ If it takes too many lines and too many complex words to say, then you are really not focused. You brand message is fuzzy and soon you will be a commodity. Narayana Murthy’s advice on simplification of value offering was bang in line with Rajiv Bajaj’s advice on specialisation. Different wrappers, same chocolate...one coming from products company, other coming from a services company.

 7.      Will at a time: This one is what AnuragKashayp shared. How his fixation with CONTENT and not STAR POWER got him laurels, young fans, big offers but NO money. He shared how financers withdrew at the last moment from projects, putting unacceptable demands but he carried on using some borrowings from friends on day-to-day basis. Anurag was humble and spoke from the gut. He said, “After DevD’s success, I am being offered money to do DevD2 and DevD3, but that’s not I believe in.” Kudos to the strong beliefs and will power in the kinds of Anurag and Shekhar Kapurs of the world. They show us the way on how will power can transcend the establishment.

 Lastly a confession from Narayana Murthy- it really feels scary sometimes, to give away a giant like Infosys into the next cadre’s hands, as Mr. Murthy confessed. He said that it was natural. Despite having seen success from so close and building up a structure that could take care of close to a lakh people working across the glo

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Accessibility Deja-Vu

“When you come near Hotel Mahableshwar, a large tilted building you would see on your right...a little ahead...”.  I was interrupted “Manoj, we both are visually impaired, let me give the phone to our auto-rickshaw driver”. For the first time in my life, I realised that simple instruction to reach our office could have special needs.

Dr Homiyar walked in after some time, and the guard took him right up the staircase where I welcomed him and his companion into the conference room. Dr. Homiyar is a practicing physiotherapist at Ahmadabad and ACCESSIBILITY AND ACCESS TECHNOLOGY CONSULTANT at The Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged, Mumbai. Once settled Dr. Homiyar started talking of how digitalisation of gadgets is a bit inconsiderate for visually changed. Microwaves and Washing Machines don’t have features that can guide the visually challenged. Earlier, the specific knob shapes on the gadgets could give information on the job status, but since the invent of the touch screens, loaded with ‘fuzzy logic’ and multiple functionality, visually challenged are left with difficult situation. Only recently some gadgets did incorporate ‘speak’ options.

He did mention about the XVCRC (www.xvcrc.org) and the pioneering work it is doing in using technology to help visually challenged people lead a normal life. One of the things which we noticed was that neither him nor his companion was using the white stick, we usually see the blind men using. He happened to mention that there were people like him who are partially blind. His companion could see us somewhat but cannot put together the face in the brain. Partial blindness makes them look like normal people and they can go about doing things with little help. India alone has largest number of visually challenged people in the world, estimated to be nearly 2 Crore (20 million).
They also mentioned how ‘signs of pity’ and not ‘help’ upsets them. On an airport, they are offered ‘wheel-chair’ while they can perfectly walk up the staircase or escalator with little guidance.

Discussing about website: They said our website www.oniodesign.com is somewhat more ‘accessible’ than many others. How? He opened his laptop to show us the website. We started hearing different operation commands being spoken out by the software. Once the website opened, the software started speaking out different things wherever tab went. We did name each image on the website properly (alt tag). I was surprised to know that what is a good technique for Google search optimisation is also a good design thinking for accessibility. If the Image of the button ‘Contact Us’ has an alt-tag as ‘Contact-us’ then it will be SPOKEN by the speech software deployed on the machines, visually challenged people tends to use. But if the images are named as ‘button 23_c’, it garbles the entire website structure in their head.
I asked them if they faced any difficulty in walking up the two staircases while coming up. They said “ not much, though it would have been better if the railing could continue throughout, rather than pausing it at corners (architect probably saved some corner rounding of pipes in the railing). Also, if you could put a small rub-strip or matt-tile just before the stairs begin, we can sense the beginning of stairs.” That is an indication to the visually challenged that they must expect the staircase now. Change of tactile textures and shapes are such an important design element. But never did it occur to me in those deeper dimensions, till Dr. Homiyar articulated in the terms, designers and managers understand.

He talked of many other things, which I as a designer, was sensitized during studies at design school. However, things were left out in the hum-drum of ‘client briefs’. Now thinking back, forget about the Indian clients, even so called ‘mature economy’ clients also did really press on accessibility criterion at all; not even mentions. Constant mention from Dr. Homiyar was that visually challenged people just need a ‘little help’ from all, and especially from designers, who are creating products that hit the mass market. I was glad that I met him. I was sad that it had to take this long, and a personal visit by a visually challenged person himself, to open our eyes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Design v/s Innovation, the emerging reality

It has been simmering. But now, one can see the outward manifestation. While designers are promoting ‘design is about design thinking and visualising’, the business world is still not ready to comprehend the holistic nature of design thinking. Even those countries where the design profession has existed for a few generations are yet to take ‘design thinking’ to the board room, much less to talk of the emerging economies.
Fifteen years ago when Onio started as a garage start-up, we were understood as a company that will make things ‘look good’. Whether they would ‘work good’ also or not, was much of a concern for designers in those days. Making money would still be a call of the businessman and not of designer. So things were pretty simple and small. Briefs came from marketing, designers worked on it, took it to R&D for detailing and washed their handsoff the project.

 Then we started getting involved in manufacturing viability studies for many of the product concepts we designed. In fact, the first product we designed for Godrej was ‘Home Security Door’, where we studied the manufacturing capabilities of the factory first before suggesting them ribbed-door panels that would take in adornments of other materials and thereby make the ‘locker like’ steel door, more homely. This stretched our engagement to months, bringing down the profits (being fixed cost model). But it did help propping up Onio as a company which could make things happen in real, against the backdrop of designers who just knew how to make things look good in computer renderings. Our engineering training was working to our advantage for a change.

However, this was not a lasting differentiator. Soon, there were many takers for this space. From engineering centred design companies like Tata Elxsi which were way  bigger than us to in-house engineering teams to the prototyping agencies, they all completed the picture in a way, but also competed against each other. At this time Onio’s foray into trend research (which later on expanded into a full-fledged design research division) gave Onio an edge. Our understanding of the cultural nuances of India and the ability to conduct ethnographic research on varied topics like e-learning (for Microsoft) to brand strategy research across continents (for Secure Meters) to consumer products like refrigerators and washing machines (for Korean manufacturers), we have seen it all.  
The practice today is well established and seamlessly gels with the industrial design team that takes the research ahead of insights to concepts and prototypes.Ethnography is now a done thing. Market research companies and other design companies today claim to conduct ethnographic research of some sorts. New trend of not restricting the research to one country and geography but thinking of global platforms for new products is now catching up.
Through it all, from design to design-research, I always felt a lack of vocabulary to explain the business world to what extent we could help them. People in the client teams also evolved in their profiles. From an R&D chief or design chief, to brand managers and category heads, the latest is product planning managers and innovation heads. Yes, ‘INNOVATION’ and not ‘DESIGN’ is the next vocabulary evolution.
From design industry’s standpoint, it is a non-move, but from industry standpoint it is a significant move. Tanishq, the Indian jewellery brand owned by Tatas has recently created a ‘Strategic Innovation’ department which is separate from the ‘design department’. DESIGN is now understood as being more about day-to-day new concepts which keep the yearly growth in place. ‘INNOVATION’ on the other hand is about looking ahead a few years and proposing alternative scenarios, insights and briefs which the design team can work upon.
Samsung is another global company to walk this route. They already have a design centre in India. But now a separate team looks into ‘innovation directions’. Most of the established auto companies have ‘advance design studios’ which work on concepts several years ahead of realisation. They conduct trend studies and look at emerging patterns of consumption. But now this ‘advance design’ thinking is coming to work for several other sectors who seem to have realised that there needs to be a semantic difference between day-to-day innovation and strategic innovation. Hence design has a sibling now - innovation. Purists are likely to laugh at it, but then there is ample business to be done.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Indian user's perspective on Tata Nano

While we have been up-close to Nano even before it was launched, we got to drive it only yesterday. Internally, Onio had elaborate plans around customisation of the Nano car in several themes. We at one point were on the verge of jumping into this game.

I have been following the stories around Nano for long. Entire innovation story of the scooter carrying a family, need for different thinking on the packaging, supply chain innovation etc. has been in focus for quite some time. There was curiosity on the ‘khushiyonkichabi’, the key to happiness.

We drove the top-end version that comes with AC, central locking and fog lamps. Since it has a rear engine, it does not need power-steering. It was smooth without the power steering also. Front seat contouring, I must say has one of the best ergonomics for city driving, compared to many other cars which cost 10 times more than this.

Seats are simple with integrated headrest (lot of cost saving there), reasonably stiff and full lumbar support with sufficient thigh rest. High seating position anyway makes the ingress and egress comfortable. Starting the car is noisy. Engine sounds almost like an auto-rikshaw. Throughout the test drive, the engine sound gets a bit screened because of the fan and the street noise, yet not quite. The car is severely underpowered for the AC and ends up almost dragging with the AC on.

Without the AC also it seems to manage with some extra pressure on the accelerator. High head room does make it stand out from the compact Japanese proportions, which were never meant for the Indians. Small nifty steering and great AC (yes it really works in the May heat, better than some Skoda products), make a great swing combo.

Interior finish is average. The kind of styling thought that has gone on the outer styling, is almost absent inside. Side flaps showing out, seat racks barely welded together and rug ends visible all over, are some of the ‘stitched-up’ engineering works. Probably the designers were not involved in some stages of the engineering.

Lighter car that Nano is, along with frugally powered engine, it ends up giving you more than 20 km to a litre of petrol. And now when the petrol prices are headed northwards, (Rs. 68 a litre i.e. a Euro a litre, we are paying in dollars and euros for petrol, while still earning in rupees), it makes a great city vehicle to commute to and from the office.

Overall the car feels like a zingy, air conditioned, upgraded auto-rickshaw. When we are living amidst solidly built cars from Fiat, Skoda and Volkswagen, the feel of solidity is missing as everything appears thin and compromised. 

External styling too, is meant to be ‘cute’ rather than ‘rugged and solid’ as an average Indian would like it. Too much inspiration from Smart Ka or Matiz or Zen Estilo or other contemporary metaphors, could be bad.

I won’tbe surprised if rural India is not impressed with the vehicle which appears to be more of a city entity.However, as a design thinker I am aware what it means to bring a breakthrough product. Tata Motors would have collected sufficient user feedback by now and must have already prepared the ver-2 of Nano. It does represent the enterprising and bubbling spirit of India that is raring to go global. I pray that the next version would deliver all that I mentioned beyond what regular auto columnists write and deliver a globetrotting product.


Friday, May 06, 2011


How do you generate ideas? A young engineer walked up to me today while working on one of the current assignments on LED luminaire design. Apparently, he got stuck after a few concepts. He was the one who had read many books on creativity including the Six Thinking Hats of Edwardde Bono. However, when I asked him, “didn’t this book teach you generating new ideas?” his answer was that reading the book was okay, but once it comes to application, it really is a different ball game.After listening to the tonality and earnestness in his plea, I articulated the following-

One of the problems we are facing in today’s generation is too much of ‘sensation info dumping’ i.e. too much of passive watching of TED talks, designer sites, YouTube videos filled with some gimmicks, reading too much of sensational news etc. It is like Coke which gives a tongue tingling sensation for a second and does no good to the body. Themind downloads tonnes of visual data that an average person goes through every day. But there is little time for churning and internalising.
Just reflect how many times we felt a pressing question inside, which made us look up the Internet or ask someone else. Most of the time it is either a direct work-related search or ‘sensation dumping’ as articulated earlier. After we watch a new promo online, which has exquisite shape or feature, how many of us actually discuss it, or write about it, or try connecting it to other knowledge bits that we have stored in our mind? Mostly when we ask our designers to update themselves with the latest trends and happenings, they take it as a license to browse all the sensational stuff, without really a scholastic internalisation. There is synthesis and hence no genuine urge to question and seek more. Thus the whole exercise of updating may end up in superfluous information dumping which is of no real use while ideating.

For generating new ideas, it is important to see the entire situation from several independent points of view and then connecting the dots. We should draw from several seemingly unconnected domains, experiences, memories, businesses, products and messages. My advice for this creative phase is to imagine ourselves in a palace with multiple rooms. Each room hides a specialist’s workshop. We must work with each of them quickly to synthesise a new idea and get out. Don’t forget to close the door.
For example, thinking of a new idea for a bottle, one can start thinking about a famous monument like the Taj Mahal. Then you are inside one of the rooms within, with the sculptor who made it. He is thinking of marble, elegance, whites, ornamentation, memories, Arabic calligraphy etc. Once you generate some ideas around it, close this door and let it not disturb your thought train once you enter the next room, which could be that of a ‘space shuttle’.

This room would be all techno, loaded with ceramic layers, compacted structures, aluminium composites, nutrients in tubes, floating exercises, shoes with grippers etc. These two rooms build two totally different inspirations. The two sets of ideas thus generated should look invariably different. Idea of closing the ‘doors’ is to prevent ‘cross breeding’ at this stage. Once all such ideas are sketched or put on paper, it is time to look at them in one glance and try cross-breeding for the next round.
If this structure is not followed, the result is that people fall in love with one or two of their ideas and keep chewing the cud over that. They infact become obsessed with it over time and lose the objectivity in the critical initial stages. It is worst if the idea was the boss’ own.

Thus a training of multi-door thinking and cross-connecting can make anyone a ‘creative’ individual in daily as well as professional lives. It really does not require a professional degree to ‘think creatively’ and yet follow it up with conviction.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Raising the Design Bar, on Cars

For the last few days, I have been clued on to entry level luxury cars. Trying to test drive the cars present in the Indian market has been an enriching experience. Some bare facts which are hard to ignore, come to the fore-

Marginal utility reduces after the entry level sedan. The basic features which are being packed in a Rs. 5 Lakh (USD 11000) car (Toyota Etios, Ford Ikon etc.) are great for a city ride. The extra real estate, safety features and comfort features which you get by paying thrice over or multiple times the price are really not worth it. As far as performance is concerned, do I really care, as an Indian consumer, in how many seconds the car will reach top speed? Speaking of safety features, all we get to hear is ABS and airbags. Thankfully, the base models in luxury segment have the air-con, power windows, music player, central locking and even ABS. But it comes to the upper model; one gets airbags, alloy wheels and fog lamps. One does not get air bags for all the seats. Only front passengers are protected. In a situation where usually a chauffeur is driving, imagine the 'safety money' being paid not for you, but for the chauffeur.

Sheet metal thickness does not really change for higher models. That changes only from manufacturer to manufacturer. Skoda uses thicker gauge sheet metal that Honda and Toyota (?). All said and done about the airbags, I think in the Indian situation, thicker sheet-metal for the cabin still has more utility and safety value.

Coming to ride quality, driving Skoda Laura or Superb does not really give you a smooth ride at the rear as Honda Civic can. I get to hear that German car makers believe in 'harder suspension' while Japanese believe in 'softer suspension'. Do I care what they believe in? I need a quality of ride that matches the thousands of dollars being spent over and above my current entry level sedan.

We worked with Volkswagen around five years ago on conducting ethnographic and trend research studies with respect to car users in India. I guess other companies were also conducting huge research on understanding Indian consumers at around the same time. However, it is sad to see that the rear seat features have not been designed for Indian users. Etios did turn both the air-con ducts in the centre to one side so that the rear seat gets better draft. Etios also introduced more leg-space for the rear seat users. However, such basic needs have not been met by any of the luxury car manufacturers, leave aside 'engaging the kids', 'food serving', laptop-station, car-health dash-board at the rear kind of features.

Let's look at another side of luxury evolution- While leather upholstery is sure shot 'luxury', what about 'seat belt height adjustment'. Is this luxury? This is a basic necessity. Why can't this be made mandatory? I really can’t understand if it takes a huge amount of product cost to provide extra compartment on the roof to keep goggles, bills etc. Extra glove space which Etios has managed to offer is really a luxury. The average Indian is not a business traveller. Average moneyed consumers in India travel with a lot of luggage, including food. More compartments are always welcome. Tata Aria has provided (I think) 6 overhead storage compartments. Great! Hopefully this need for more in-cabin storage will be understood by the luxury car segment, beyond the boot (which is empty 80% of the time).

Yesterday I happened to attend a guest lecture by Prof. Elmer Van Grondelle, head of advance automotive design, Delft University. Prof. Elmer's direct and insightful analysis of current auto-styling trends actually brought home the same point in styling as well. 'Poverty' of ideas and individual interpretation v/s best practices is what he talked about. He talked about the exchange of platforms, technologies, packaging between the car manufacturers which is leading to increasingly similar cars across segments and geographies. He also talked about 'stupid' inventions in luxury cars like 'rain sensor on the wind-shield', which starts the wiper automatically. Lines criss-crossing, unaware of the brand legacy, simplicity, optimisation of production process for the sake of earth...car design today is hitting blindly all around; something is not right in the way car design and planning is taking shape.

Another important point before leaving this discussion-

Interaction experience at dealerships: One of the dealers in Pune recently switched from Tata Motors to Volkswagen. I imagined a pleasant and efficient change in the people who earlier used to handle a local but powerful Tata brand. But surprisingly, it wasn’t to be! Car models are easier to change than the people's mind-set. By far, Toyota dealership presented the most comforting and personalized experience. India will catch-up fast in product design and brand promises, but design of service and living the promise in brand experience will be the harder task to deal with.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Innovation that India really needs- A Few Questions

The world cries sustainability. India has just begun. The world consumes 400 kg process iron per person per year and 40 kg plastic per person per year. India consumes just 10% of both of these. Even China is far ahead in consumption. The world over, design companies, marketing companies and consumer R& D departments are focussed on bringing the GREEN agenda to consumption. Should that be the sole focus of new products in India?

The world's leading companies operating in India or planning to enter India are looking for Indian nuances of innovation. India has gone through the phases of 'closed economy'- only Indian products (Ambassador) to 'residual economy'- (Dumping in the Indian market, whatever is out-dated elsewhere), to 'At par Economy' (launch new products in India simultaneously-like A-Star of Suzuki), to 'India first Economy' (Toyota Etios). More and more companies are pouring millions of dollars to figureout the real needs of Indian consumers, beyond the apparent glamour of 'foreign brands'. ‘Indian usability and Indian aesthetics’, though still REFUTED by our very own Indian companies, are the terms doing the rounds in the marketing strategies of foreign companies focussed on India.

A simple case is that of the water purifier- Aqua Guard is now a household name. Kent introduced the RO system to Indian consumers. Unilever joined the water purification bandwagon with cheaper 'Pureit'. Tata found an age old formula which costs nothing (ashes of rise husk) to kill the bacteria in water and made 'Swach'. While technologies have come full circle, the consumers' task flow' or how people actually drink water, is still an untouched area. Not to talk about traditional beliefs and science of using 'copper' and 'tulsi' as additives for building bettera immune system. Aesthetics of the products is a different story altogether. Modular kitchen is now almost invariably filled with consumer durables and gadgets. Is there a place for Indian aesthetics here?

Infrastructure too, is changing at a fast pace now. Bridges to roads, to hospitals to modern offices to malls- India is changing, though at a more sedate pace than the way China changed so far. Korea did it many years back. USA did it almost half a century back. 'BEST PRACTICES' is the formula being applied everywhere in this sector. Since the West has done all this already, we just copy the formula of specifications, project management, even team constitution and the resulting aesthetics. Everything is being replicated to the last detail. Large residential complexes in cities give you a sense of déjà vu .You could be located anywhere else in the world. An oddity in the scheme of things is probably a 'temple' in the residential complex, which is surely not a 'best practice' from the West. However, some details are omitted - universal design- for the elderly, disabled and children. It costs extra money to provide anti-slip tiles in bathrooms, to build ramps all over, provide hand rails for support in the walkways, provide clear signages, build dedicated lanes for pedestrians and build emergency response systems for the aged. A society racing to out-do the West is caught in the half-baked recipe of its current generation. Do we need to talk of Indian aesthetics still?

Outsiders consider India to be exotic, full of mysteries, diverse and colourful. However, our research recently showed that the average Indian is moving towards pastels in colour preferences. Rural India is imagined to be the one consuming the ‘cheapest', 'low- tech' and 'jugaad' products. However, research is showing something else. 'Cheap copies' of branded products that retail giants pass of under their so-called private labels, is a short-lived phenomenon. Indian consumers are coming back to the ‘around-the-corner’ shops again; they have certainly not died out. McDonald’s and vada-pavstill co-exist, and the market is still growing for both of them. 'Standardised' v/s customised is also co-existing. Local FM radio jockeys now speak in three languages at a time- Hindi, English and a regional language. Indian companies are acquiring companies abroad, changing the identities and bringing ex-pat CEOs.Their identities are being designed by foreign design studios, to be consumed by Indian consumers and yet, the responses on the call centres they run have the same apathetic, optimised for efficiency replies. Indian government is taking a progressive stance on RTE (Right to Education) and making sure that education becomes inclusive, while also hob-knobbing with idea of caste based reservation in higher education and private jobs.

There is an innovation delirium the country is passing through. Japan was just hit by an earthquake and a lot was lost due to the tsunami that followed. I reality though, much was actually saved due to the high preparedness levels of that society as a whole. It is not technology alone. A SYSTEMS THINKING approach along with die-hard attitude for perfection are two panaceas to emerge wiser and saner in this 'fuzzy front end'. Those with half-baked recipes referred from the west, past or the immediate are likely to go groggy soon.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Last Mile..

Three stories of missing last mile in India today...

Expectations started building up as the driver drove me to Terminal 3. Wide approach road, huge landscaped garden in between, beautifully done traffic island and a huge parking facility already announced that it is going to be a world class airport experience. Though Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad have already transformed themselves, this one is probably the best.

Check-in queue is long and the guy behind me always ends up knocking at my shoe. He seems to be in a hurry to go past, and this is not new in India. I had to turn around more than once to make him notice that there was an issue! Security check is not without arguments still. No strict rules prevail. There are negotiations and interpretations. In the West, no security officer really listens. India is warm. Modelling clay sample in my bag aroused suspicions. I had to return to the checking counter and get the handbag checked in.

Departure lounge is better than the one at Terminal 1, which also is quite state-of-the-art though. Treatment of islands is better. Passenger seating is now equipped with charging point on every cluster of seats. There are more clusters of individual working stations, where a single person can work on a laptop. Amidst the regular branded shops of pens, perfumes, cosmetics and electronics, what attracted my eyes was a Haldirams’ outlet, which resembles more of an accessory retail counter. I could literally see watches being sold there rather than sweets and humble namkeen. The Indian touch was present only on a poster at the entrance. Dilli chat arena was surely trying to speak a modern ‘Indian’ design language. Elements picked-up from images of the ubiquitous auto rickshaw to nukkad-lamppost and saturated colour palette with some informal font were trying to be as international as it was trying to be Indian.
I could not locate the GATES sign in the first glance. Once I spotted it, the large beige carpeted walkway did indicate a longish walk ahead to the aeroplane. There were indicators to ‘walkalator’. People did get confused on what it was meant to be. A large empty expanse of walking area without any visual break does remind me that I am probably in a European country where visual culture is all about visual stillness, empty grounds and a ‘little accent’. Inherently minimalist!

At gate 37B, I saw a man running and almost out of breath as the final call for boarding was already made. He was trying to explain the reason and the attendant was calmly swiping his boarding card as if telling him that this was nothing new for her! As the man was muttering something to include me in the conversation, he ran ahead of me into another long walk to the aerobridge. Half through the aerobridge and yet another security check; this man happily produced the boarding card. He was still gasping from his long run to this place. And lo and behold! He did not have a stamp on his hand-luggage card. He was sent back for scanning the luggage again…he argued… negotiated even.

In developed countries, once you clear the security check, there is no further check. The whole system has to be made so fool-proof that there is no need for repeating an activity. India has already built beautiful and international airports all around. However, certain flawed service flows prevail. I moved ahead for the final of the final check of my boarding card right at the gate. I could still hear the arguments at the other end of aerobridge.

Delhi is now splattered with flyovers and ‘metro-pillars’. Metro train service is something that was a jewel in the crown for Kolkata, no so long ago. Now this honour is with Delhi also. Metro pillars are now become the landmarks for providing directions to guests. Far flung areas like Rohini are now suddenly become liveable and costly at the same time. Malls are springing around the metro stations. There is now a ‘ladies only’ coach in each train. Mumbai had such segregations since a long time. However, it is something new in Delhi.

I also got to know of 'ladies only' autorickshaws operating in Delhi. Lady passengers and lady drivers as well; an interesting development for the capital city which is also infamous as India's crime capital and reports frequent women-centric crimes.
“Have you travelled by the Metro to the city, with kids…. I mean in ladies compartment?”

I asked my sister who lives in Rohini and whose extended family has really claimed to have benefitted from the Metro connecting Rohini to city.
“Actually no”; she said with a pause.
“First you have to go out of the housing complex and look for a cycle-rickshaw (there are no autos there), to reach the Metro station. Then, once you alight from the fast and efficient ride of the Metro at CP or any other station, you again have to haggle with other autos /rickshaw to travel to the actual point.”

So for simple shopping in Karol Bagh area, she would still prefer to use her car point-to-point. City gets the Metro, but last mile connectivity is still to be travelled.

Café-coffee-day is now a favourite meeting spot in cities. They are known to let you sit-in for hours together without really consuming anything significant. New age costly coffee and the happening ambience have seemingly made it a much sought-after café brand.
I entered the café on Janpath, which was suggested by the person I was meeting with. It is rather spacious with a huge ceiling. I settle in and greet the person who is waiting for me. I started talking and I realised that music is too loud to have a proper business conversation. I asked the staff to reduce the volume and they actually did it. However, there was a high pitch noise of the mixer from the kitchen counter and I really had nothing to say about it. I changed my seat. Next, I had to place an order. I could see the waiters conversing between themselves; giggling, and probably making some snide remarks about some other table, but none looking my side.
Finally we walked up to the counter and placed an order for a few things to eat in. We settled ourselves back at our table. Music was loud again. We were sort of helpless. Food arrived, but packed. It was meant to be consumed here, I protested in vain.
Well, everything about Café-coffee day is excellent, but for the last few steps to the consumer experience.

And India has 'miles to go before the leap’!