I am a user experience designer with experience designing, developing and leading the creation of software products. I am seeking an opportunity to work with a team that is passionate about building great technology products.

What are conversational interfaces good for?

(Original post on Medium)

Many businesses today are looking to build human or bot chat interfaces as new channels to engage with their customers. A key question to ask here is what are chat interfaces really good for? I spent some thinking about this question. In this post, I want to talk about 3 areas where I think conversational interfaces can really be truly better than existing solutions.

Chat as a way to help users choose

I recently had a great experience chatting with an agent at the Adidas web store through their embedded Intercom messenger. I wanted a specific kind of shoe which is usually a bit hard to find so I thought I might ask an agent for some help. I was looking for a pair of casual shoes that I could wear to work with jeans and tees. Not as casual as sneakers but still comfortable enough to wear all day at and after work. I gave a rough description of this to the agent and within a couple of minutes he gave me 3 great suggestions, one of which I actually wanted to buy.

A few years ago, at school we did a project for Facets multimedia — a non profit movie rental store in Chicago that deals primarily in independent and foreign films. Almost every customer we spoke to, spoke about getting great recommendations from the folks at the store and about relying on the board of recommendations that the staff put together each week to find the next movie to watch. I contrast this with the number of hours of my time I have spent looking for something to watch on Netflix despite the millions they have spent on their recommendations engine.

Humans are really good at understanding rough descriptions, connecting the dots and making great recommendations. Algorithms, on the other hand are terrible at this. These can be especially useful in fields that require knowledge and judgement like buying wine online, buying clothes that go well together or picking a movie to watch etc.

Chat as a way to help users get stuff done faster

I tried the Shopspring bot on Facebook messenger recently and there is one thing I came away feeling quite sure of — any scenario which requires or benefits from the user being able to browse through various product options is a terrible use case for a stand alone conversational UI. The shop spring experience on the messenger feels very restrictive and I feel like I haven’t seen enough choices to make a purchase decision.

In the demo of Viv at Tech Crunch disrupt, Dag Kittlaus showed some scenarios that are great candidates for a conversational interface. Sending money to a friend, booking a hotel that you have previously stayed at, picking flowers to send someone. He goes on to show how quick and effortless these workflows are through Viv.

One of the key components here is that the platform, Viv in this case, stores your payment information, addresses, contacts etc. Every purchase then could be as simple as finding the product, clicking ‘Buy’.

Scenarios where the user knows exactly what he or she wants or has very few choices to make before making a purchase decision can be executed an order of magnitude better through conversational UIs than the experience any app or website delivers today.

Chat as a way to make the user experience more personal

I recently reached out to United Airlines on messenger and asked them about my frequent flier number. Since I was on Facebook, the agent could trust my identity and addressed me by name. He only needed to ask me my date of birth to give me my frequent flier number. The whole interaction took less than 5 minutes.

A couple of weeks later, I messaged United again ‘Hey! Can you tell me the points balance?’. As you can see below, from the context of our previous chat history, the agent was able to answer my question right away without any further back and forth.

Interacting with businesses like this feels a lot like interacting with a person. They know who you are and remember what you have previously spoken about. Furthermore, going back to a website and finding there a history of your interactions with the business or a new message that an agent left for you after your last interaction makes the experience of visiting the website feel more unique and personal.

These are early days in the evolution of chat as a channel and we are seeing a lot of experimentation in both human and bot powered chat experiences. As an experience designer, it is exciting to experiment with and learn about what this new medium should and should not be used for. What experiences can be automated through bot chat experiences and what scenarios benefit from human agents.

I look forward to engaging in and contributing to this conversation.

What might a watch interface be good for?

AppleWatchWhat
As a little design exercise, my wife and I (Yeah, I’m married now. It has been a long time since my last blog post) spent some time thinking about the question “What are scenarios in which a user’s computing needs can be served best on a watch interface?”
Here are a few types of scenarios that we came up with:

Times when you take out your phone to quickly check a small piece of information. Apple showed cases of checking the time, weather and stocks. You can see that extending to an app to check your bank balance or a utility bill. These could be served by apps or Apple’s ‘glances’ depending on how important the information is to the user.

Times when you are regularly going back to check some information like tracking the status of an order or a flight or the score of a sporting event. These could potentially be served by temporary widgets which live on the watch face or a swipe away while the information is needed.

Times when you take out your phone to take a quick action like identifying a song on Shazam, calling an Uber, flashing your boarding pass etc. In these cases, usage could shift almost entirely to the watch from the phone.

Dynamic and super-contextual information. Like Google Now on steroids. So when you are using public transport and you reach a bus stop, the watch can have easily accessible, information about when the next bus is expected. Citymapper has a mock for a similar use case. When you are walking off a flight, it can tell you which belt your baggage is expected at.

After thinking about a lot of these use cases, I think the watch should derive context based on what you are doing in the real world or on your other devices and make easily accessible, information that might be useful to you. This might mean that you wouldn’t need to invoke an app on the watch to see that information, it should just become available to you. You could possibly just give permission to an app to use the watch as a second screen like giving an app permission to send you push notifications.

An example of this could be say you are using public transport and using Citymapper on your phone to navigate. The watch interface showing you next bus timings should automatically become available on the watch a swipe away from the watch face without you necessarily invoking the Citymapper app on the watch.

In any case, I think these are exciting times as the design and development community experiments with various ways that this new device can bring value to users’ lives.

Knowing When to Prototype

In a conversation about my English learning project one Friday morning, Patrick Whitney said something that I want to keep reminding myself of as a designer.

“As designers, we often make an informed guess at what might be a much better solution than would otherwise exist . We don’t have to know all of the reasons why it is better, just that it is likely. If we kept trying to understand all the reasons, we would never get to prototyping. We are not looking for the single right answer; rather we seek the best of many possible solutions.”

A lot of times it is easy to get lost in trying to know everything or feeling like we know too little to move forward or that we need just a little more research before we can decide what the best way to go forward is. What I have learnt through many projects at ID is that, in dealing with complex problems, you will never know everything.That does not stop you from having a hunch about what a better solution might be. Patrick calls these guesses.

It is important as a designer to take that leap of faith, at this stage, and create a prototype. Depending on where you are in the project, it can help you think better about aspects of the solution you never considered, get user feedback on the rough solution and get an early sense of what works and what doesn’t and if nothing else, it is a way to externalize your thinking- to take the load off your head and onto something physical/digital which can then free up your mind to think about the finer details.

What’s important to remember as a designer, I think, is that we are not looking for the one right answer but we are looking for better choices that those that exist. Any solution we create to a problem will always have room for improvement but to get to that, we need to prototype first.

Wicked problems did you say?- A tour of ID whiteboards

I was walking through ID today and realized looking at the whiteboards that between all of us, we have pretty much all of the world’s problems covered. Education for the underprivileged, the role of government, unemployment, privacy, violence … you name it and someone at ID is working on it. 

Ofcourse these are learning projects and we probably won’t really solve anything but I love the fact that we take up these problems in our classes with so much passion and seriousness and really believe that we can solve them. It speaks to our ambition and maybe a bit to our ignorance that we believe we can solve these huge and messy problems.

I love this foolish ambition because as Sam Pitroda says, (and I’m paraphrasing here) “I work only with young people because when they are young, they are ignorant enough to believe that they can actually solve these problems” (and that belief leads them to sometimes actually solving them).

#LovinIT!

I respect Infosys. Here’s why…

Infosys has been getting a lot of bad press recently and sure there are probably a lot of things wrong with the company but there are also a lot of great things about it that don’t get spoken about enough. I want to talk, in this post, about some of the things about Infosys that make me respect the organization and happy that I worked there for 5 years. 

Respect for Internal Free Speech
An internal blog post by an HR manager in the company received over 2000 comments. Most of these comments expressed strong negative opinions about the company. It was great for me to see that even though there was no system of anonymous commenting and all comments were identifiable to the employees who wrote them, this did not deter people from being upfront and blunt about their opinions. They were sure that doing this would not harm them in any way. The way the company responded to the incident was also worthy of respect. It never took down the post or the comments. Even when I was quitting the company many months later, the post and comments could still be accessed on the Intranet. What was more; I was part of management council meetings where the issues that employees had raised were taken up with the seriousness that they deserved.

Respect for Youth
Infosys has a culture of respecting youth. As a young software engineer with barely 2-3 years of experience, I had opportunities to talk to and question the CEO and various board members of the company. These sessions were not in town halls but in a conference room with less than 30 people. These leaders took my question as seriously the questions from some of my very senior colleagues in the room. 

 In 2009, I managed to sit in on some meetings in the annual strategy and planning meet at Infosys. This is a meeting where the board members and a couple of hundred top leaders of the company discuss the strategy for the coming year. My being in the room along with these senior folks was not seen as anything out of the ordinary. In fact, the company invites into these meetings, a few Infoscions below the age of 30 every year. 

 Every unit now has an initiative that brings people below 30 into its management councils. My friends who sit on some of these management councils have vigorous debates with people many levels of hierarchy above them, on policy matters that affect entire units and even the organization.

Honouring initiative
At Infosys, there is a strong culture of ‘be the change you wish to see’. In my time there, I often reached out to leaders in the organization and spoke to them about things that I thought the organization should do. I was often told, sure, if you take it up, we will provide you all the support we can. I often did take these things up. This never went unrecognized; I was given more and more chances to participate in the organizational decision making.

Honouring commitments
In 2009 when the effects of the recession began to hit the IT industry, hiring slowed down. Many companies that had made offers to students graduating that year had to withdraw the offers because demand had taken a nose dive and utilization levels in all companies were falling. How did Infosys respond to this situation? Our senior management decided that we will honour every one of the 20 thousand+ offers we had made to graduating students. We would bear the additional cost that it represents now that they won’t be productive immediately in bringing revenue to the company. Not only that, the company extended the training program for new hires by 3 months. (Full pay). 

Leaders who give you the time
In my time there, I reached out to many senior leaders in the organization for help on projects or on initiatives that I was a part of in the organization. What still amazes me is the fact that these people, who had insanely busy schedules, took out the time to talk to me/ my team on very short notice. This was not the case with just one or two people; it was almost a cultural thing with people who had been in the organization for long enough.

Leaders who care for the country, not just the company and money
I feel proud of the fact that Nandan Nilekani went out and is today creating what to my mind is a revolutionary platform with Adhaar. It is something that will have a large and systemic impact on many of the issues we face as a country. I love that Mohandas Pai today works with SEBI and on other government of India projects. I love that Narayan Murthy wrote a book called ‘A Better India, A Better World’ and Nandan wrote ‘Imagining India’ where most corporate czars write books about their management styles or stories. These are people who worked not just for the good of the company but who are working towards a better India.

 Now I am sure the company has a lot of problems and I personally disagreed with many of the policies in place while I was there but I think there is a lot about the organization that deserves respect. 

 

 

Design Research in a Foreign Culture – Pointers from Anjali Kelkar

In our Transcultural Design class last night we had a Skype call with Anjali Kelkar who has a lot of experience doing design research in different cultures. A few of the things that really stood out for me from her talk were:
1. Multi-Stakeholder Interviews: She spoke about a good way to get a grounding in a field you know nothing about is talking to multiple stake holders in that field. She spoke about doing a project for an art auction house and the team knew nothing about art auctions. They started by interviewing the business owners, auctioneers from the business and competing businesses, art collectors, overseas art buyers etc. Understanding these different perspectives gave the team a great grounding in the space.
2. Remote research using hired non design researchers: Anjali spoke about a project she did with base of pyramid users in India while she was heading the research group at ID. Since there was no budget to fly to India and do the research or even access to design researchers in India, they got around this by getting research done by people from different professional backgrounds. They hired social workers, MBAs and Architects to get a holistic understanding of theirs users from a social, cultural, business and physical perspective.
3. The Assumption Breaker Exercise: This was another really interesting tool she discussed. While preparing the team to go into doing research in a foreign culture, she spoke about starting the project with an assumption breaker exercise. The idea is to bring out all the preconceived notions about the culture, assumptions, biases and judgments one might have about the culture before starting research so each individual and the team is aware of them.
It was a great talk and I'm quite excited now about my own project of trying to understand the meaning of success in the Mexican culture.

The Value of Uncertainty- Are we losing something as we make design collaborative and justifiable?

In my class with John Cain “Readings in Experience Modelling”, every week he assigns us readings that challenge what we believe about design. One of our readings for this week was a paperCultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty”.

 “The Probes simultaneously make the strange familiar and the familiar strange, creating a kind of intimate distance that can be a fruitful standpoint for new design ideas. They produce a dialectic between the volunteers and ourselves: On the one hand, the returns are inescapably the products of people different from us, constantly confronting us with other physical, conceptual, and emotional realities. On the other hand, the returns are layered with influence, ambiguity and indirection, demanding that we see the volunteers through ourselves to make any sense. This tension creates exactly the situation we believe is valuable for design, providing new perspectives that can constrain and open design ideas, while explicitly maintaining room for our own interests, understandings, and preferences.”

http://bit.ly/dsxNWJ

This paper made me think about the value we are losing as we try to get verifiable and justifiable research results. By working in teams and requiring an agreement on a lowest common denominator of interpretation of research results, are we losing the value of personal interpretation in design? 

The Advertising Bubble

I have been thinking about this for a while. Today, I thought, I’d stick my neck out and say it.

I believe we are in the midst of another huge bubble – the advertising bubble. If you think about how many industries today are dependent on advertising as their primary source of revenue, the list is quite long. The web, television, radio, increasingly music, smartphone apps…

On the other hand, we are increasingly becoming immune to advertising because we see so much of it. When was the last time you clicked on a banner ad?

I believe that somewhere in the not so distant future, the advertising bubble will burst and many industries will have to rethink their business models to survive.

PowerPoint Illustrations #4: More Home Appliances

Appliances2

Link to PowerPoint source file: http://db.tt/QDUoDXns

Hello everyone! A very happy 2012 to all. After a rather long hiatus owing to finals week, my Dad’s trip to the US and then my super awesome NYC trip, here is the second in the series of appliance illustrations. I have used these simple line drawings to convey ideas in various projects over time. Today we have the coffee machine and the washing machine. And there are still a few more to come.

PowerPoint Illustrations #3: Home Appliances

Appliances

Link to PowerPoint source file: http://db.tt/g78IV3PH

This is the first in a series of appliance illustrations I have created for various projects over time. Today we have the microwave and the split air-conditioner. There is more to come.

If any of you have done similar work which is open source, please share links in the comments. Thanks in advance.