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.

Why we need Processes

Off late I have been in a few discussions with people about processes. I am a believer in the importance of a clear articulated process but I often end up having to justify my stand because well processes have been known to kill creativity, increase bureaucracy and in general make people dumb! But I believe that is because of a lack of proper understanding of a process.

So I decided to put together some of my thoughts what a process is and what’s it good for.

So first.. what is a process?

A process is an articulation of how work is done.

What is a process good for?

Well lots of stuff that I can think of…

1.       Sustainability: Without a clearly articulated process, there is a lot more dependence on individuals. And with changes in the team… the work quality suffers and sometimes for things that are not seen as burning issues in the short term, work stops all together. I have seen this happen multiple times with people management initiatives and quality assurance activities which do not result in deliverables to the customer(I work in a service company). These activities die down with a change in management or increase in workload.

2.       Better Work Allocation: Dividing work into distinct steps allows us to understand how complex and/ or business critical each step is. People with different skill sets and experience levels can be deployed accordingly. In my experience as a team member and then a team lead in a software company, I found that once we broke our work into even the basic Requirements, Design, Coding and Testing phases, we were able to match peoples skills better with the work required off them. Some people are just better at talking to the customer and getting out his real needs, some (like me) love design etc. With this distinction in place, we were able to focus our attention to the areas we were good at and/ or enjoyed the most.

3.       Estimation: Breaking work up into distinct steps, especially in large projects allows us to estimate better because we can think at a more granular level. I have seen this work multiple times. The customer/ onsite coordinator asks you to add a certain functionality to an existing application and you say you’ll take 2 weeks to do it and then there is shock, awe and then some bargaining. What helps the most here is to break the work up into pieces… put estimates against each and let him make the call of which piece he wants to forego given the consequences it might have on the deliverable quality.

4.       Quality: Processes come with check-points and reviews. This allows better quality assurance. I do not wish to beat this point in any further.

5.       Automation: Once you break up a process into its constituent parts, lots of times you identify pieces which are just repetitive and simple. These pieces don’t deserve human owners, programs can be written to take care of them. We had a classic case of this in the projects we were executing. Our project itself was automation of certain design processes for an aircraft manufacturer. The output of our programs were 3D models in CATIA. Before we delivered our applications to our clients, to be sure that application functions correctly, we checked the output model whether all the necessary geometries and parameters had been created correctly. Over time we started creating checklists for these outputs. But as the requirements grew so did the checklists and the work of the poor tester, visually checking the parts for errors. This even for our relatively small applications would take 4 person days of boring checks and filling out spreadsheets. Then we struck upon the idea of writing code for it. When we did, we reduced the testing time to 30 mins and reduced the possibility of human errors. The important point here is that once we broke our work down into its constituent parts, we could see room for optimization and automation.

6.       Outsourcing: This continues from point 2… when work is divided into its components, some non business critical parts can be outsourced. And whole industries have been formed because of this. (including mine… long live the processes)

7.       Encouraging the right behavior: In an organizational context, this understanding of the components of work allows the organization to identify ways to encourage the right behavior whether through positive or negative incentives or through cultural changes. Now this is a path that needs to be tread with caution, because incentivizing wrong can lead to more focus on the steps of the process rather than the objectives. I saw multiple examples of this when I was leading a team and was involved in the goal setting discussion of our project team members. When we incentivized creation of reusable components and knowledge artifacts, a lot of the artifacts that we got were unusable because the author focused only on the creation of the artifact and didn’t put much thought into how it could be used and what might be the associated challenges.

8.       Academics: This is one of my favorites. I recently read a paper by MP Ranjan of the National Institute of Design in Ahmadabad, India. To reinvent the design education curriculum for NID, he had first analyzed how a designer works, what is his skill, knowledge and cognitive base. [Pic below] Now I don’t know how this impacted the curriculum at NID but what’s important here and now probably seems obvious is that to define a curriculum to educate students in a particular discipline, it is important to understand how work happens in that discipline to define the skills and knowledge required.

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The Process Traps

1.      Bureaucracy: Not much to say… establishing processes sometimes slows work down because the process becomes a mandate and people at the execution level are not empowered to use their judgment to forego processes and just get the damn work done!

2.      Big Picture: Processes rob a lot of people at the lower levels of the larger view of the work and the organization. So unsurprisingly, they end up focusing more on the steps to be followed rather than the reason behind the steps.

3.      Processes become obsolete: A process is established a point in time based on the knowledge, tools and limitations of the time. After a while these basic premises might change. So its important to always keep questioning the process and revisiting it from time to time.

 

To summarize, processes are just a way to understand and improve our work. It’s important to understand the process in spirit and remember that processes are our slaves not the other way around.

Questions of a commuter at a Bus Stand

What are the questions that a commuter has at a intra city bus stand? How can we answer these questions through an information system?

This post documents the results from our brainstorming session on the first question after our research at the BMTC bus stand. We made a list of all the questions we were familiar with in this situation. These are not results from user observation yet.

How do I get to JP Nagar? – The commuter has a destination in mind but doesn’t know the bus number or the platform.

From where can I get bus no 356N? – The commuter has a bus number in mind, and also presumably the destination but doesn’t know the platform number.

Where is platform number 21? – The commuter knows the platform, presumably knows the destination, may or may not know the bus number. He wants to now reach the platform but doesn’t know where it is.

Does this bus go to Forum? – The commuter checks with someone on the bus/bus stop if this bus will take him to where he wants to go. 2 cases that I can think of when this can happen are, one the user is at the platform that’ll take him to his destination but is not sure of the busses that’ll take him there, two, he is trying his luck with a bus in front of him.

Can I get a Volvo for this route? – This is one question I ask a lot. The Volvo busses in Bangalore are brilliant! I try to get one as much as possible.

What is the frequency of bus no 392? This is a question I used to hear a lot back in Bombay, don’t remember hearing it in Bangalore. Any ideas or interesting explanations as to why?

When will the next 392 come? Tough to answer but yeah, I remember asking this at Bombay. Whether a commuter asks this question or not, it will be one he thinks about.

 

Some others not exactly related to the task of taking a bus:

Where can I get a bus pass from?

Where is the toilet? J 

 

What else are we missing? Again, the context here is of a commuter at an intra city (not intercity) bus stand.

 

Who cares about Usability?

This post has been in the making for many months. When I started to think about getting into usability and UxD, I started to think… Who really cares about good usability? I mean people learn to live with bad interfaces as long as they can achieve their goal. Think about IRCTC (the Indian Railways online ticketing website) or ICICI Bank’s online banking and trading portals. They have poor interfaces, lots and lots of poorly organized data on each page, and yet people use them because they can achieve their objectives. As another example, I love Cleartrip but when they started charging extra money for booking, I started booking on the airline websites, which are much worse in their usability. Given these, I thought, which business in their right mind, would spend a lot of money on usability? (which is essential, so I can get a lot of money doing it!) Or think about it this way, how much does good usability really impact business?

After many months and many conversations here is my list of some places where I think usability really matters.

1.      Highly competitive spaces
Think about e-Commerce. There are hundreds of online shopping websites out there. If the user can’t quickly find what he wants on your website, he’ll just find another one. If the product cannot be found on your website, as far as the user is concerned, it does not exist on your website.

2.      Places where usability has safety implications
Aircraft cockpits, car cabins, controls in say the office of a nuclear plant. In these places, if the user hits the wrong switch at the critical time or doesn’t get the right feedback or fails to recognize an alert, it could lead to a loss of many lives.

3.      Interfaces where speed is essential
The example I think about here is call centres. While an agent is on the phone with a customer, he/ she not only needs to have all the information that the customer might need, he/ she also needs to know where exactly to find it and fast! Consider a typical call centre, lots of customers call every hour with lots of different questions. The agents are under pressure to complete each call as fast as possible because the more calls they process the more money the call centre makes (directly or indirectly depending on the business model). Add to that, these places have very high attrition rates, 30-40% attrition is common, so the company can’t spend too much training their agents. Thus the agent needs to be able to find the data he/she needs in minimum time with minimum training.

4.      Self-help websites
Take the example of online banking or portals where a telecom operator puts up information like the current bill amount, schemes available etc. These help not just the customer do his work faster but also help the businesses save millions in customer support. The alternate to an online money transfer for example would be customers coming to the bank, which means the bank needs more agents and thus higher wage bills. The alternate to checking you bill, validity, offers etc online would be to call up customer support, which is a cost to the company. Thus self help websites need to allow the average customer find the information/ execute the tasks easily and intuitively.

5.      Not Facebook!
Well earlier I used to think that social networking is such a competitive space, you have to have a great user experience for the user to chose your product over another. I have come to realize, however, that people have already invested so much in Facebook (/ your favourite social networking site) with their contacts and conversations and photographs and groups that unless Facebook screws up really bad(Which is what happened/ is happening to Orkut in India), people are still going to use it despite Idiotic (!!) additions like Live Feed and News Feed!!

So that’s my list so far. What do you think? Where else does usability really matter? And where else does it not matter? Let me know…drop me a line. Ok gotta go.. Facebook calling 🙂

What the hell is Design Thinking? Some resources.

Well I’m definitely not an expert on that..but here are 3 resources I found really useful.

1.       Innovation Through Design Thinking – Tim Brown (1hr) Great talk by the CEO of IDEO at MIT Sloan.

2.       Design Thinking… What is That? Article by Mark Dziersk on Fast Company

3.       Design Thinking- A New Kind of Leadership (iTunes U, 1hr 5mins) – Talk by Banny Banerjee of the Stanford Design program.

Abstraction and Analogy- Tools for Creative Thinking

On my way to Bangalore last weekend, I was thinking about alternates to contemporary tabs in browsers. I couldn’t think of too much till the time I thought about the problem in another way. “How can I browse though a large number of items visually, when I can see them only partially?” This problem definition allowed me to think of various ways in which we already do this in our daily life.

 

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Then I thought of the supermarkets, we browse through a lot of visual information but it is categorized. Categorization, how come browsers don’t have that yet? (Just checked, there are some Firefox add-ons that attempt at this.) I figure tabs can be categorized in some fashion. One way would be blogs, social networks etc.

Though I don’t think any of these ideas are too great, I did learn a new way of thinking about the problem. Define the problem in a more abstract way and think of analogous situations.