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Usability = fanatical care for the user
Founder and chief executive of marketing consulting firm, Media Marketing Innovators, Anupam Mukerji, succinctly describes usability as 'fanatical care''care for users, their needs and absorbing these into the product, while giving attention to detail in the design.
According to Mukerji, "Creating the perfect user experience requires all of the four key factors to be met'a deep understanding of user needs; thorough usability testing right from the start till the end'through every phase of product development; extremely high design standards and benchmarks; and finally, top management vision, investment and support. If even one of these is not met, a product like the iPod cannot be created."
When Mukerji was asked to name a product that has bad usability, he was ready with an answer. He'd bought a Moto Razr, a very sleek phone with lots of features. A few days after buying the phone, it failed to work. He wanted to open it and check the battery but it was 'so well-designed' that it was impossible to figure out how to open the panel. Anyway, after a lot of effort, he managed to open the panel, only to find instructions describing 'how to open the panel' on the inside. Evidently, the designers concentrated so much on 'looks' that they decided to put the 'ugly' but useful instructions on the inside, without realising that this defeated their very purpose.
Mukerji also quips, "Every PC has a Start button, but there's no End button. The funny thing is'if you want to shut down the PC, you have to do so via the Start button."
This takes us to an interesting question: how far has India progressed in this regard? Is the country equipped to create products conforming to the diktats of usability?
Mukerji replies, "Can you name any good product invented in India in the modern era? I can't, and it's not because we do not have professionals capable of invention. To my mind, our days in the License Raj cost us dearly in our roadmap to product inventions. During the License Raj, the demand was always more than supply. Hence, user experience was the last thing on the minds of product developers. Even after liberalisation, we don't have much indigenous design coming out of India. The biggest problem, to my mind, has been a lack of top management conviction in building world-class products. Products are a high risk, high investment game, and somehow the Wipros, Infosys and TCSs seem to be happy making their billions in services but reluctant to invest in products."
But he sees reason for optimism. "I do believe that in the next few years some great products will emerge out of India'but these are more likely to be from the MNC stable. Indian R&D centres and labs of companies like HP, Motorola and Sun Microsystems are doing a lot of interesting work in the space of new product design and development. So, it is quite possible that a next-generation handheld device may be invented in India. The good news is that every global company is eyeing India as a big market for its products. So, products tailor-made to Indian user needs are definitely on the anvil, and these will definitely be invented and user-designed in India," he explains.
Muthukumar echoes this sentiment, saying, "We are not there as yet but we have made rapid progress during the last five years. At this point of time, loads of high-quality work gets partly designed out of India, but strategically, we haven't yet arrived. We are still playing catch-up."
A make or break situation
Of course, India does not have the luxury to play catch-up forever. Muthukumar emphasises,"User experience makes or breaks a product, so if we don't concentrate on usability, we would only be catching up with the rest of the world'doing low-end work and paying royalty for patents created by other countries instead of inventing newer realms."
Focusing on usability will undoubtedly pave the way forward for Indian technologists. Muthukumar translates this as a need to "nurse an innovation-friendly work environment, institutionalise usability, continuously evangelise usability in organisations and consistently perform user research. Further, every organisation should have a Usability Strategic Business Unit and have representation in the management, at least at the vice-president level."
Indian usability experts service the world
But until we reach that stage, our home-grown usability experts are being increasingly sought after by overseas technology firms to "make products look better and feel smarter," in Mukerji's words.
Mukerji highlights the increasing participation in international design of a unique band of Indian usability specialists who are right-brain oriented, yet analytically sound; keen observers of individual and social behaviour, with the ability to spot patterns, and with a passion to innovate.
Thanks to these professionals, India is fast becoming a destination of choice for usability. So much so that Mukherji says, "Companies like Human Factors International (HFI), who have already created mature processes, templates and frameworks for usability, have leveraged Indian talent to service companies globally. Standardisation has rendered usability easier to offshore."
A usability specialist in every Indian home?
What is it about Indians that makes them natural usability specialists? Knowing their strengths is the first step towards leveraging these for their benefit - to develop an Indian range of successful products.
Mukerji traces India's strengths to three core reasons'he first speaks of Atithi Devo Bhava, an Indian proverb that means, 'A guest is a form of God,' and which is invariably the root of the world famous 'Indian hospitality.' Indians go out of their way to accommodate guests and make them feel comfortable, by understanding and then catering to their special needs. In other words, this translates to sensitivity, a character trait that makes for a successful usability practitioner.
Second, he says, "Life in India is a constant battle between needs and resources, with needs almost always being more than the resources available. In the chaos that life in India entails, the only way to survive is to be creative and find simple solutions to life's complex problems." This, again, is the hallmark of a usability expert.
Lastly, India's diversity in every sense of the word has contributed to its people's "ability to find patterns in order to follow the 'lowest common denominator' principle, that of making things acceptable to the maximum number of people. This makes Indians natural usability practitioners."Evidently, all India needs to do is to play to its strengths. It may sound quirky in a technology write-up, but Indians need to look inwards to come up with the next big innovation. Undoubtedly, it's all there.