Category Archives: Articles

  1. Blues history as we know it from the man himself: BB King

    I have been a big fan of blues. BB King is a doyen who stayed loyal to Mississippi delta blues and worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. I thought there was a movie plot in here. Take a look.

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  2. Learning Discovery: How to make users reach products?

    The key to any good ecommerce experience is leading the user to the apt product and of course seamless fulfillment. This post deals with product discovery in ecommerce. The overall objective is to reach a single screen of appropriate products, typically 10 to 20, through a minimum set of clicks.

    A typical stage area promotion where the brand consistency and quality of design can be stronger

    Homepage promotional portlets have to be compelling and not intimidating

    Even if there are more than one gateway to enter an ecommerce catalogue we designers should meticulously think through the categories, search model, multiple portlets within portal pages and related (up/cross) selling These are compelling reasons for users to reach to a specific product easily. The elements of discovery in ecommerce are:

    • An information model and a catalogue tree that is intuitive and appropriate: Product groups should be put through rigorous questioning to tuck them under appropriate category headers. Category header labels should be easy to understand and offer quick segue to the products. A good practice is to put the category tree through a small focus group to understand flaws.
    • The basic search: Ecommerce search should start free form – a simple field and dropdown of categories. However filtering, sorting and comparing products from the search result is a key ingredient to a satiating shopping experience.
    • Sort and filter: The column headers of these search results to sort should be thought of intelligently. Typically these are values that can ascend or descend. For example – price. Sort rearranges the order and does not exclude like filter does. The parameters used for filter should be the ones that you will use as a buyer and these filters are contextual to your wares in a category.
    • Promotions and portlets: On the homepage or a similar page with multiple boxes that include house ads, the campaign plan and the content plan should help the user reach a product very quickly. The promotions should be calendar sensitive and the team should do a yearly plan that accommodates changes and inserts. The leader lists should be intuitive top tens on social parameters like popularity or rating. The lead stage promotional banners should contain the chief promotional messages well designed with striking imagery and typography.

    With these there is all possibility that all users will efficiently reach their product and if convinced can be converted too.

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  3. Good Infographic: Intelligent timelines intrigue me

    I have been working on a succinct communicative timeline to talk about Apparatus’ history. This is yet another information graphic over a chronological linearity done well. This rendition of timeline is a good mix of design and writing skills. If you do see any novel version of a timeline on the net, share it here. End of Computers

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  4. Turbulent Trays: The rise and fall of airline food

    Good airline food is an oxymoron. An improbability further diminished by strange reheating apparatus and plastic containers. They do promote food in the non-coach classes. But it is just better cutlery and wine.

    Few years back, my city airport was not a serious international hub. It resembled a state tax office with a wind sock and a large striped scoop looking for its mother on top. I had to do all my international connections at Bombay. Those were times when I did ten days at a stretch to America with visit USA coupons and a crammed itinerary of a city a day. I took bleary red eyes that dumped me across the coast and it was morning as I get ready to sack out. These carriers were filled with large belligerent stewardesses who slammed a pack of pretzels (who invented this outrage?) and a heavily iced plastic cup of soda onto my gullible hands.

    I spent overnights at long-stay hotels with no restaurants. The breakfast was not warm and dinners were microwave packs from the lobby vending machine. I would not call these trips a culinary delight except for weekends at a grill in Dallas with my brother. When I was done I took that long haul through Zurich back to Bombay.

    The lights of home were always inviting as we landed after midnight. I had to wait a few woozy hours on uncomfortable chairs for my Jet connection to Bangalore. That flight made me appreciate a good airline breakfast after days of insipid fodder.

    There was a fluffy folded omelet with translucent onions and cilantro – well cooked outside and gooey inside. The eggs were served with sauteed mushrooms glistening in the streak of morning sun and golden hash browns. A bowl of cold fruit, a croissant and good cup of coffee made it a complete meal tray. The vegetarian option was upma. At times I used my loyalty status and devilish smile to charm those sweet in-flight staff to get me both. And Jet Airways stayed consistent with their quality. I thought I would never say this, but I loved airline food.

    Things have changed. Air Carriers all over the World are bleeding. Travelers have to pay for their meal. Jet airways invented a new low-cost variant called Connect and collected money for your meal on-board. Recently I traveled a standard Jet flight and they were benevolent enough to serve breakfast. The masala scrambled was 99% spice and 1% egg. The grilled vegetables were more like chewing jerky. Stale croissant and an old bowl of papaya did not reach home either.

    Airline food is back to their grandeur of low esteem.

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  5. Window shopping: Is there a re-commerce in India?

    As Apparatus engages in new projects that involve catalogs, payment gateways and retail concepts I am starting a series of posts focussing on ecommerce in India. This is the first of the lot.

    Indian railways is probably responsible for making online users ready to pay and buy things on the web. With their devastatingly ugly website they could generate substantial revenue with payment modes that were compelling – cash on delivery for instance. The air carriers, travel and ticketing websites followed suit. And now this is the sole vertical that generates B2C revenue online. However fashion retailers and bookstores never took to selling online like they did in the west. The users were still wary of identity theft and misuse to swipe their cards online. There were a few retail platforms like rediff or indiatimes that stocked fashion, had their own logistics partners and private labeled shops for big brands. However this was restricted to the privileged credit card holders.

    Sometime early last year with the sweep of social shopping websites in the US and the death of local social networks in India online startups considered commerce again. Venture capital firms were ready to look at this new found interest. Even the new fangled security measure of validating personal credit cards at the über secure bank website did not deter them. Myntra, Flipkart, Bigshoebazaar and more such names appeared and today they are growing or consolidating.

    I personally think there are flaws in these properties and more payment methods do not necessarily make better user experience or more business. The things that ail Indian ecommerce are:

    • The business is not a brand: The principals are from a technology pedigree and they make functionally strong websites. But they do not consider the value proposition, persona or the tone/voice of these brand expressions. They do not engage the users like a brand does. Examples are Myntra’s inconsistent promotionals, human models without a specific statement and a packaging that does not communicate.
    • Product discovery is about an intuitive information model, focussed promotions and an agile search: Category trees can be misleading if they are not thought through. Consolidating categories for more real estate can be detrimental to a seamless ‘buy experience’. Flipkart’s ‘Art, Photography and Design’ as a category has about 100000 books in it and filters like hardcover/paperback or delivery time does not help me narrow down to what I need.
    • Focus the homepage: Why do we all like the Apple homepage? It is an intelligent solution with a single product/promotion occupying over 50% of above-the-fold real estate. The rest can really be interactive stamp size pictures. Cluttered home pages with too many portlets like in or can intimidate a new user. Also the brand gets a boost with a visually lightweight homepage.
    • Fulfill smoothly without much ado: Myntra messaged me twice, called me more than six times before they hand delivered a pair of shoes that I bought. I would have preferred it less intrusive and efficient. So it is important to engage a smart logistics partner to get wares without a hitch.
    • Play the brand always: Engage the users like offline brands engage consumers. Remember amazon’s bookmarks, expedia’s smart guides and goodies from Target to create a brand asset biosystem that goes beyond the online shopping experience.

    Follow our blog for more posts on online shopping user experiences.

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  6. Further conversations with a pedagogue: Part Two

    Manoj Neel heads Interaction Design and Information Design faculty at National Institute of Design, Bangalore. He is authoring an interesting paper on the future of design education in India. This is an excerpt from his conversations with me as a practicing designer. This is a continuation from the previous post. Read that first.

    Manoj Neel: You’ve been practising for over 18 years; and you’d have observed and mentored a good number of designers as they work on projects in the office. Any change you’ve observed in their mindsets from then to now (aptitudes, motivation to listen, passion etc. any broad patterns you see). In your interactions with the student community do you see any change in their mindsets, their motivations today – or is it simply that ‘students-will-always-be-students’?
    Shiva Kumar: Oh sure they’ve changed. Today it takes just 5 mins on my browser to know something which once took me 2-3 weeks to search, assimilate and represent – that leads to a phenomenal amount of complacency in present day students.
    And educators have not woken up to the fact that information is available so fast and so easily, because they are not power users of technology and Internet. So there’s a huge gap between the educators and students. Students are progressive in accessing info; now do they use it the right way, I don’t know. They take all this information and put it in these containers and show it as they are. They don’t interpret it within context, which is expected of them. They are not analytical about what you get; they access prepackaged information and present it to technologically challenged educators.
    When I run graphic design courses at design schools today the connect with the students is solid. The schools think I am of immense value to students. The reason is because I can access what they can and most often question their originality. And that’s because of the industry I am in, that’s all.

    MN: Your practice really informs what you do….
    SK: It can be brutal if I am not informed. I’m trying to always be on the curve if not ahead of it; and my team is well informed too.

    MN: Admittedly, your office handles a diverse portfolio of projects – from publications design to social web2.0 applications. Given this spread (and no stated media preference, you prefer to remain media-agnostic), what do you look for when hiring a designer or putting one on any job that comes in? Do you look at media-specific skills or at design thinking ability – or something in between? In other words, do you prefer a generalist or a specialist?
    SK: All I want is someone with a basic hygiene factor to create crafted solutions. And if that hygiene factor not enough we can train them. We can mentor a good typographer, layout artist – but the key ingredient is for somebody to look a problem in its face and be able to dismember it – deconstruct it. Restructure it in such a way that it can be viewed from multiple perspectives to reach a solution very easily. And that’s what we at Apparatus do. If a person can conceptually understand this that’s who we need. And yes, there’s a lot of work that’s done outside the machine before we even get to it.

    MN    In the course of your work you’d have interacted with a number of international designers, design students. How do you see the ‘Indian model’ of design education (as shaping the profile of a designer) as different from an ‘International’ one?
    SK: It is about how you can make design education more Indian, if I understand you correctly. First of all we shouldn’t look at the west, there’s a grammar that’s very seriously Indian. One important thing is we are a culture of narratives, a culture of storytelling where we string contexts to make tales. Grandmothers told us stories, you sit in a bus and the guy next to you is telling you a story. The West is waking up to this concept of narratives today. I think that is what is missing in our education and there are micro flavors to it. All of us need to be wired to that to create crafted solutions in context.

    We’ve followed the West for quite a while, which is a boxed method of delivery. While this is good, we are conceptually way more organic.

    MN: Do you still have trouble describing what you do for a living to your friends  – unlike say a doctor, a software techie, or an engineer – after all these years in the profession, how would you introduce yourself? And what would you say is the fundamentally different thing that a designer ought to have that, perhaps no one else in the room does?

    SK: That’s still a tricky thing to explain (not that it bothers me), so I say I run my own business, that’s all I tell people. Now what do you do as business? Well I’m a consultant. And it’s true; we define products for other people. So what did you do recently? Well, we defined this newspaper called Sakshi. In the process we design. Design doesn’t need to figure in the conversation, it’s got connotations attached to it that are unnecessary. Design just happened in the process. One of things we stress on is that we are ‘participative consultants’, we actively do stuff as a part of the consulting.

    MN: And what would you say is the fundamentally different thing that a designer ought to have that, perhaps no one else in the room does?

    SK: If you can straddle both the emotional and rational/analytical worlds – that is what a designer should have and nobody can ever have. The ability to think about something analytically and emotively within a specific context. From my head and heart, at once.  And I think it is so very special that you are always the odd guy in the room, because you’re talking about revenue models and you are talking about what’s the love in it.

    MN    We have regular Gyaan Adda sessions at our campus where the subject for a recent discussion was ‘Can design be taught?’ When you reflect on your design education at design school, do you see a tangible connect between your education at NID and your evolution as a designer? What has been the greatest ‘learning’ you’d recollect from being at design school?
    SK: Oh very heavily indeed. I did carry away two things – Consciousness for what you do/how you do it, and a phenomenal sensitivity to context. Two things that NID has taught me that no other place would have taught me – ‘sensitivity’ about being a good person; you respect, listen, respond, and empathise. Because most often I see that I’m constantly fitting myself into somebody else’s shoes, I’m constantly looking at a problem and wondering what happens if the user is handicapped or aged. And as I said, a great sensitivity to context.

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  7. Reminisce: Pool Magazine 6

    The advent of 50 years of Indian design has made sixth issue of Pool magazine revisit this long journey from inception till what design stands for in contemporary India today. As a part of this editorial search they interviewed few professionals in the industry. I am proud to be one of them. This post is an excerpt from my interview. To view or read Pool magazine online click here.

    What is your thought on “Made in India” as opposed to “Made for India”?

    In this context neutralized global marketplace ‘Made in India’ and ‘Made for India’ does not seem to be very different. In a way this is good. The Indian sense of quality and design is global now. However, there is loads of hidden needs buried in our small towns and villages which demands an appropriate ‘Made for India’ response. There are a few global companies, especially in telecommunications, quenching these needs with solutions. There will be more soon. A growing economy is an orchard for the wounded west and designers will be bridging this context gap.

    What is the most impactful, landmark project according to you, which was a turning point in the history of Indian Design?

    The most visible event to the world was Le Corbusier designing Chandigarh. But the true turning point was the establishment of National Institute of Design. Creating a knowledge center is the perfect way to grow a discipline.

    What is Indian Design?

    Indian designers should wake up to a frame of reference that is neither fully urban nor borrowed from an alien culture. Designing for this complex country of varied languages, cultures and ethnicity lies in defining the context right. Indian design is about realization of products or solutions for this specific context established through research and create using global best practices in technology. For example, designing farm implements for the terraced fields of wet north east or designing a vernacular newspaper for a large southern state.

    What is the future of design education according to you?

    Institutions should equip young designers with a palette of components that help them build solutions that affect lives. This pedagogy will reinforce basic design competencies with culture/context sensitive articulation to arrive at a holistic solution that engage users consistently across multiple nodes of engagement. The future of design education lies in creating responsible professionals who can deliver and articulate humanistic results within intricate contexts.

    How has the journey been and what in your opinion should we watch out for (phenomena/designfirm/upcoming technology/philosophy)?

    The Indian future is set in the vernacular. Culture will be the new black. Every solution is going to be made ready to fare well in the non-urban context. Indian designers should venture out of their comfort zone of urban cubbyholes and get ready to play in the larger arena. We will also see technologies that help us manage crowdsourced solutions and peer to peer collaborative creative platforms that help create stronger virtual teams. The user will participate, partially create and eventually use solutions. This process will be owned, moderated and enhanced by professional designers.

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  8. Flip through social

    I have been an active resident of social media. I am alive in three social networks, write two blogs and ardently follow a few. But lately I succumbed to information overload fatigue. I cannot machete my way through tweets and farmville updates anymore. Thought I should recede and reclaim my inner peace instead.

    Enter Flipboard on iPad. Created by Mike McCue, former CEO of a voice search services firm and Evan Doll, a senior iPhone engineer from Apple, Flipboard is an iPad application that effectively merges the beauty of print and the power of social media. And they had me at the first flip. On launch, the cover randomly picks posts from my list and plays them out for me. I can personalize the content page by selecting from a list of trusted sources including my twitter and facebook accounts. Flip on to read stories, photos and comments delivered to me like an attractive magazine. Delectable!

    However, there are a few ‘nice to have’ features that can better this product. I will be happier if I can add my own sources to the list, like a friend’s blog. Or easily post to social networks, which I cannot. The visual design can get better at places. Pages of the magazine filled with photos can be on black or typography can be enhanced on white pages with a few status posts. The landscape version of the pages are not as resolved as the portrait. They fold mid page over the content, which is unlike any good magazine worth it’s salt. There are more such niggling bits of peeves in this early version. I am sure the updates will solve them.

    But Flipboard is probably the most compelling new way to find, read and share social content – served as easily digestible nuggets of well designed magazine snippets. Happy flipping!

    As published in Pool magazine. View the issue online here.

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  9. Open Letter: To New Graphic Designers

    Apparatus has always been open about getting summer interns from design schools and training creative teams in organizations ‘the boutique way’. This letter is to all of you who are learning to spell mnemonic and understand pair kerning (If you are not better do it now).

    Dear Friend:
    You probably thought, like I did, that you will become a graphic designer and create those pretty logos, websites or magazines that we are inundated with. You joined a design school to learn all elements that cumulatively will make you a worthwhile professional. You have been at it for a few years and yet if you feel there are a few shortfalls read on.

    Graphic design never was and never will be solely about making things pretty. It is about presenting information appropriately – persuasive, useful and usable. Like how the lay of a piece of land dictates the design of a building on it, the underlying structure of content and concept defines the look and feel. So typography, color palette and imagery are elements or tools to achieve the desired result. They are not the end by themselves. Though it is still valid to debate Spiekermann versus Hoefler Frere-Jones you should know how to use their products intelligently to tell a story. And if you do not know of these guys go back two steps and start over.

    There are few things that you need to do to make hardworking pieces of design. Design schools do not teach you to:

    • Structure it: Look around, research to understand domain and objective. Prioritize information to visualize your own content structure (a photograph or a video is also content). Create an information architecture that is intuitive, compelling and clever. Now your job is to gently walk the audience/user through this architecture by crafting (with type, color and imagery) well resolved visual assets that work.
    • Articulate your viewpoint: Graphic designers need to write and talk. Not like a poet or a playwright. But well enough to clarify thought processes, communicate to team members or at times add to effectiveness of the deliverable. They need to use and teach tools like mind maps, or thinking hats. These tools help you organize your monkey mind to walk a tightrope and reach goals faster. Will help you define your scope and list a set of tasks towards the solution.
    • Emote: Persuasive communication is all about emoting right and creating emotional work is all about being humanist. You need to understand the audience/user to twang at their heartstrings. Close hands on research techniques that involves personal presence among the target group is the foundation for concepts that affect sentiments. An empathic approach towards audience/user automatically triggers emotive concepts that work. And emotion buys you unwavering attention and recall.
    • Design like a craft: Now that you have distilled stuff down to the product, you are ready to apply your skills in typography, imagery, color and other such elements of design. Choose visual and verbal style deliberately by trial and elimination. Assemble content on a grid with pride that comes with precision. Learn how to depart from the grid to make your work interesting. Importantly, do not ever fall in love with your work that it devastates you when others refrain from appreciating it. Be distant.

    I also extend invitation to share your work with me through this blog and we can get collective feedback through social media. Apparatus will start three week certification courses in information design and user experience design for recent design graduates and professionals soon. If you are interested contact us. Watch this space!

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  10. UX: Curators and Guides Available

    This post is an outcome of a question that haunts designers often – ‘What do you do for a living?’. I am, most often, bothered about overselling or understating my competence. Read on.

    When I sit down and think about an abstract version of what user experience is I do not reach a definite answer. Yet I believe that it is a lot closer to a curator, guide or an interpreter. If you take a set of information and tasks within a context, a user experience designer is converting them to bite size pieces of experiences. These experiences when strung together in a compelling sequence helps the user reach his/her goal.

    User experience design, in my opinion, is a seamless blend of pragmatism, engaging emotional narrative and sensitivity to user and technology. In other words, designers build bridges that brings the user closer to any object, tool or system by scripting an experience. I have a lot of professionals call this ‘uncommon’ sense.

    These user advocates need to be in solution definition teams to create successful products. We will talk about this soon.

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