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.