Sunday, August 31, 2008

Meaning is empty without Belief

Look at these two pictures. I captured these two moments at Luoyang (a place of great historic significance in China). The girl is sitting atop a lotus and trying to mimic the Buddha pose, just for fun. Her friends, who are not in the frame, were clicking and cheering her. The man is looking at a very old rock carving of Lord Buddha as he takes a drag and reflects (perhaps).
This shook me, more than many of my Chinese friends – may be because the beliefs imbibed in me from childhood about paying respect to God. However if I were not aware of the concept of God, or may be not aware in the way I have been told, then this statue would not have been anything more than a relic of historical value or a beautiful creation that has been preserved. And may be I would also be sitting atop the lotus with my shoes on, doing something similar.
I do not intend to pass a value judgment on anyone here but I believe it is worthwhile looking at things from the other person’s point of view before classifying their behaviour as good bad or anything else. To me things or people do not mean anything without being founded on an underlying belief. A belief, in turn, is based on knowledge and experience. To be able to have an objective point of view about anyone, we perhaps need to make an attempt to tap into their experiences and knowledge and then things look a lot simpler to understand and relate to.
I am not well read so I do not know how many religions already say something like this, but to me this is the biggest religion.
There is no walk like trying to walk in another man’s shoes for a while..
When I step back and look at this from the consumer understanding perspective– the analogy of walking in another man’s shoes comes in very handy. When I try to fathom the knowledge and experiences of the person who I am speaking with I start looking at the world as s/he sees it.
The intersection of the way he looks at the world and the way we as consumer behaviour professionals look at the world is the place where insights opportunities and breakthroughs live.
This sure is an amazing experience!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Observation, Intuition & Tactics

Watch these young men and women in red. They are at the Hangzhou railway station on a hot summer morning – when the sun can almost burn you. These people are selling Hangzhou-Shanghai bus tickets.
(Hangzhou is a popular travel destination in China, it is also the birth place of the famous Chinese silk among many other specialties that it has to its credit).
There is a train between Hangzhou and Shanghai almost every 40 minutes. Thus it would be expected, that selling bus tickets would be rather difficult given the good frequency of trains. Yet these salesmen have found a novel way of doing it. They appear around the train ticket office immediately after one train leaves and continue to be there, selling bus tickets up until 15 minutes before the next train is expected to leave. They have figured out that a sizable chunk of passengers does not like to wait for more than 15 (bus frequency is about one every 15 minutes).

They did not seem to use any technology tool to derive this conclusion however they have intuitively found a way of sequencing the frequency of bus service between the two cities. And to top it all it seems to be working fine.

To me it offers two fundamental learnings for business:

1.Keen observation and intuition helps develop a smart product or service

2.Flexibility & agility is critical as we place our product or service in the market

I am reminded of what I recently read in “Radical Evolution” by Joel Garreau, “Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.” In fast growing markets like China and India and in times of rapid technology change, agility is an imperative. There is a lot that these ingenious everyday entrepreneurs on the street, can teach us form their daily stories of survival and growth through their bottom up tactics.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Form Function Faceoff

Only after the dust settles, and the euphoria of holding a very beautiful looking mobile phone is replaced with the realism about “what am I getting for what I am paying”, will the real winner emerge.
Today, as I sit writing this, many would be queuing up outside the Sahara Mall. Today is the iPhone day!
Now Indians will get a phone on which they can pinch pictures with two fingers and make them big or small, will no longer need a stylus and yet need not press any buttons to do what they want to do, would see outstanding details on the screen, would experience desktop-like internet, would experience and unlimited new applications that can be downloaded from the App Store. And most importantly from today they will make heads turn. Well, at least a little.
So, iPhone has it all. Or does it? To me it has great form – shape, look, display, BRAND, status, some novel features to make girls in your office say “Wow!” and rub their shoulder (unknowingly) against yours, a little longer as you show them what the phone can do in contrast to the usual “New phone, nice!” and walk away kind of situation.

Attention for female colleagues apart, but iPhone has its own share of limitations, which I am sure the readers here would have already experienced of read about viz. the hugely infamous ‘no copy pasting and forwarding of messages’ (due to this Vodafone & Airtel make less money from SMSes that are forwarded, no wonder they have not shown any mercy in pricing the device!), Bluetooth only for hands free, no transferring of contacts between the SIM and the phone (strange), no recording of video (that is even more strange) and to top it all no option for external memory. So an 8 GB or a 16 GB iPhone will live as an 8 or 16 GB and die like that! Pity, in our times of expandability and modularity – we can’t do much about that on the iPhone.
This said iPhone is the greatest mobile ‘form’ that money can buy. I would have said this about functions too but because there is no 3G service in India yet, iPhone will remain a hugely underutilized device.
How? Well, for example with 3G you could have watched the much awaited Vijender Kumar fight at 9:30 pm tonight, on-the-go (and needless to say could have made more heads turn!)

While you cannot yet watch the Boxing match tonight, on your iPhone, Nokia pulled of a punch on the day of India’s second medal at the Olympics. They have tried to preempt the iPhone launch with their N96. So what makes this worth looking at as compared to the hugely attractive and so much more talked about iPhone? To me, a lot is going for it. Just sample some of the things that it offers. N96 is a dream come true for memory hungry Indians at 16 GB expandable to 24! With that kind of ‘memory’ I really do not think if N96 will ‘forget’ much. For instance it will remember 18000 songs, keep as much as 20,000 pictures at 5 Megapixel, and store as much as 60 hrs of video that can be viewed on its 2.8” screen.

It also has a novel feature called Wave Secure that will help you back up your phone on the net and even help you track it if you misplaced it. While these are more of the device virtues, which Nokia has traditionally been strong in, what are more impressive are the new applications. Maps functions helps you create your own ‘soft maps’ (I like soft maps), so you can location tag your pictures and create your own world, your own topography for you to share with those who are close. N96 also helps us access OVi, which will now finally go head to head with Apple Apps and we’ll come to know who stands taller.

So how is the stage set? Who will win? Why? What to expect?
The way I look at these two launches is Apple is finally stepping on Nokia soil. I suppose India and China are both big Nokia markets without any iPhone yet. So it would be interesting to watch how things unfold.

Some initial thoughts:

1. I look at this as a battle between form (3G iPhone, in 2G environment will continue to be more of a looker than a doer!) and function (the ‘very loaded’ N96)

2. I see this as a battle for the top slot in terms of image - Apple iPhone Vs. Nokia N 96 – Nokia’s convergence flagship
But the way I look at it now, Apple could win round one – the first batch of sales, because a N96 still looks like a Nokia, and people have seen that look and are a little jaded. They want to flirt with design. And for people ready to pay that price – functionality can take a break for a while (until at least as long as they do not get bored with their iPhone)

3. This might sound a little provocative but I see a lot of girls buying the iPhone – it’s a beautiful thing to carry and it does cute things too!

To me while the iPhone is entertaining, N96 is entertainment converged but people will take time to discover the meaning of entertainment converged, till that time they will fiddle with their iPhones.Another thing, a little unrelated but interesting none the less, is to watch that will be useful to track is iPod sales in India after the iPhone launch. I understand that Apple will end up selling fewer of those, because the iPhone can do a good deal of personal stereo pretty well.

At the end, I look at iPhone’s launch and its predictable success, (unless the devices have a bug or something that makes people regret their decision) as an example of how great product design can cover many a weaknesses of the product. I see N96 as a great workhorse who unfortunately still looks like many other Nokia phones that came before that - one of the reasons why it would be overlooked by many who actually need it.May the better product win!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

At the face of it

Spot the driver in the picture that you see here, can you? Unlike India where it is much easier to tell the server from the one who is being served, in China it is very difficult. Usually you cannot tell who is who, at least in big cities. Because if the driver is wearing very clean, contemporary clothes and shoes, if he is busy keying in stuff into his PDA with the stylus and then we all sit together to eat, it becomes virtually impossible to tell one from the other. I am sure it might not be as difficult to tell the difference for people who know the language but sometimes (only sometimes) not knowing the language helps in gaining a point of view. Sometimes not knowing the answer is useful, because it helps you wonder constructively.

Coming back to the difficulty in telling one from the other, I think this a great sign. It means that the society is progressing at a pace wherein in there is lesser disparity, at least in some ways and some places. I am sure there is a long way to go but at least things seem to be moving in the right direction.

Now look at these two men below. Almost a contrast to the big city driver in their looks, aren’t they? Before you conclude that this is a ‘home theatres for the homeless’ kind of situation, I must add that these two men, staring at the bikini clad women on the screens, are sitting in an electronics super store in a tier 4 city in China and the sales woman is helping them choose the LCD TV that they should buy.
Surprising? Well, not really. In terms of money some farmers might be making as much if not more than the driver on the right in the picture above, however their expenses seem to be much less in the village. Add to it the price of a Chinese LCD TV does not make you mortgage anything to be able to own it!

I am sure the readers here would have read many stories about the poverty in rural China. However I feel that no picture is ever complete. If that is a reality, this is another reality. The way I look at these two examples is that technology adoption is moving down the economic pyramid. This is a great sign. I believe that technology adoption would further speed up the process of bridging the gap between the haves and have nots. Also, to me development (especially in a large country like China) cannot be a high precision activity. There will always be difference in the levels of development across regions and across occupations. However it is important to note that there is movement in the right direction and that to me is a very promising reality!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

I can hear you thinking

I have always been a believer in this and I always will be. Best interface is the one that can read minds rather than wait for my hands to do something or my vocal cords to make some noise!
I wrote about this a few months back when I was passionately attacking ‘classical languages’ like English and others that we have grown up speaking and writing. I as I said then and continue to say now, these languages were not developed keeping computing in mind (read earlier post “Undocumented Irrelevance of the Written Word”).

They we designed for ‘classical social interface’. However as we interface with ever more powerful computers, ‘as our needs extend beyond classical social interfacing’ we need an interface language that that can match up to the task. So when something like Epoch (from Emotiv Systems, see more here comes over the horizon, I see hope.

I have not tried Epoch yet, from what I read and hear about it, it brings us a fair picture of the things to come and at USD 300/- (around RMB 2100/-) it is worth trying out to get a feel of how future interfaces might feel.
Epoch is fundamentally a mind reading headset that helps you interface with your computer (it uses the same technology as in EEG – electroencephalography but without the gel!). In other words if it works as I imagine, in the time to come, it should be able to replace your keyboard and mouse.
Though right now it seems to be more of an entertainment tool because the primary applications is immersive gaming but I feel it can become much bigger than this. It could be a dramatic shift in human computer interface. The iPhone technology ended the need to press a physical buttons because the screen became the button; the Wii technology ended extended human motion to real time onscreen responses, and Epoc promises to completely rid us from getting physical with our machines!
I might sound like a technology fanatic but if we were to think objectively, in the past we have been very unfair to the way computing works. The computing world is the world of bits and bytes, which of course is much more efficient than the human or physical world of atoms and molecules. However, just because we live in the less efficient world, we have always brought down the interface to the level of inefficiency that typifies the physical world. But with neuro-impulse interpretation, we stand to break free from the fundamental limitations of the molecular side of us being humans. To me, human neuro impulses come closest to the bits & bytes efficiency and accuracy paradigm of the digital world. Neuro impulse is like the digital side of our biological or molecular existence. Thus if we can set up an interface with our computing devices at the neuro impulse level, then we would be interacting with these devices in the most efficient way that biological evolution can permit us to, today.

Another key reason for me to stand by the neuro impulse future is that it promises to democratize technology in an unprecedented fashion. As I wrote in my earlier piece, people would not need to be ‘language-wise’ before they could start using the benefits of the new technologies.

It is worth thinking at what level would we be picking up neuro impulse – would it be just an impulse or would we need to wait for the impulse to be given a word form before it can be interpreted. Right now I guess we are at the latter, however I keenly look forward to language independent neuro impulse recognition for superior interface with computing and more importantly a better life!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Functional Frills!

I am sure we all have seen Pedestal fans, and in different sizes. I am sure we have seen pedestal fans that rotate for a wider wind sweep to serve more people. Ever wondered why nobody ever found a way to rid us from the hassle that every time the fan speed had to be adjusted, we had to walk up to it and do it?
Well, as I discovered a few weeks back, somebody actually did. How many of us would have seen a Remote Control Operated Pedestal Fan. Here is one from a less than million population township in Central Eastern China.

No big brand but functional product design that’s relevant to the market.
How much? About RMB 200/- (roughly USD 35)

It is interesting to note how features get loaded, even to the seemingly basic products like a pedestal fan.
To me this is almost like an inspiration to get Functional frills into value for money products and build relevant differentiation. For example as my friend Deepak recently mentioned, why can’t we have no frills mobile phones with folding USB ports so that we can use them to transfer data without waiting for Bluetooth connectivity or looking for the PC connecting cord (which we seldom remember to carry around). Add to it we can even replace our USB flash memory sticks with such a feature in the mobile phone. I am sure most of the readers of this post would have lost at least one of their USB flash memory sticks by the time they find this post :)

To me, functional frills could be defined by some basic characters
1. Functional Frills are Hardy: Dust, heat, climate compliant/ tolerant
2. Functional Frills are Cheaper: Cost effective
3. Functional Frills are Physical: Based on hardware more than software
4. Functional Frills Differentiate: Help in bringing uniqueness to basic products/models/Designs
5. Functional Frills & Mobility: Help in making travel easy; need not carry different things any more – one can do more

One of the most compelling example of Functional Frills is Flip, an award winning Digital Video Recorder from Pure Digital starting at as less as USD 129/-. Flip is super simple, thus easy to use, can be connected to TV and has a USB that can help you connect it straight to the PC too. It is designs like these that make people adopt gadgets effortlessly.

Simple cost effective design is the shortest line between innovation and adoption.
Are we up to it?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Utility Design – from BOP homes to swank shopping malls

I spotted this ‘magnetic lock’ mosquito curtain, at a Bottom of Pyramid (BOP) home in a tier 4 town in China. It is simple, ingenuous and cheap (approx RMB 35 /USD 5).
The vertical magnetic strips woven into the nylon fabric at the center, keeps the thing closed & mosquitoes out!

What can we learn from this about cost effective design for everyday things that deliver maximum functionality? Could we have more such ‘magnetic partition doors’ that use canvas or cotton and help large shopping malls save on their monthly power bills. Right now most of these shopping malls install power hungry air-cutting devices to keep the cool air, inside and the heat and insects out.

Could this also be a new away for the large enterprises to walk the ‘green line’ save power go simple?
Functional design can be for everyone. Anyone?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Organic Bowl

This is how one can avoid asking for a plate. Watch how a water melon morphs into a water melon bowl that you eat and eat from. And finally it turns into organic trash – totally biodegradable. Effortless green, smart eating!
While we try and find out how we can get rid of the spoon as well, can someone please dream up ways of making dishes that do not need cleaning, are bio degradable & yet are dishes!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Moments or Memories

As China made a breathtaking entry into the world stage, with a zillion flash lights working overtime and hundreds of TV stations across the globe busy reporting the ceremony live, I enjoyed watching every bit of it from the comfort of my Sofa. Fireworks, Music, Confucius, Glowing men, cute kids and so much more, all came together. It sure was a great moment! Audience cheered all the way, they waved glowing lights, they made the camera batteries work over time, and they made it the toughest day for the flash guns in their cameras.
But that was audience. What amazed me was the ubiquity of cameras, video recording devices, and mobile phones as the teams starting marching in. Almost all the contingents had a good number of people carrying their own cameras and digital video recorders. Some of them were even talking on phones. I do not know how many of us feel this way, but I was completely amazed by this. To me it was almost like a stage performer clicking or recording his audience. To me it was also like an individual recording a broadcaster. To me it was recording back! A spectator can be granted the trigger happy status – after all he is there to see and capture. However when I saw the participating sports person’s form different nations, doing that, it dawned upon me how proliferation of personal recording devices has subtly impacted the creation of meaning.

Every performance now seems to be turning into a two way show, that which is being watched and that which is being watched by those who are being watched.
But that is not surprising, after all this the result of democratization of personal technology devices. However it would be more and more interesting to watch how people would associate meaning to events and occasions when the recording back would be watched by a larger set. Meaning would have multiple interpretations based on the Meta information that would be plugged in from multiple stand points (Meta Information can be called ‘the information about the information’ viz. recording the people who were recording an event, watching the actions of people who were watching the event, etc).
What is surprising though is people are choosing to record as much as they choose to experience the moment. Is this a new behavior or is this something we always wanted to do but never had the tools? Would we capture more and remember more but still end up having not experienced enough? Is this another proof point about people wanting to do more than feel more? Question aplenty.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Invisible Design

Last month I was in Luoyang (a place of great historic significance about Buddhism in China. See more here .

As I was walking by the rock cut caves, these two pieces of design captured my attention. Look at the lamp post. At the face of it – we see a perfectly old design. It has been carefully chosen to blend with the context – the historical site. But inside it is a contemporary high watt light bulb. But look at how both live in perfect harmony. Needless to mention, it looks look good too.

Second and even more amazing is this ‘sound rock’ (as I call it). As I walked around the caves I wondered where the music was coming from for I could not see any speakers. Finally I discovered the speakers hiding inside the dead looking rocks.
What you see under the bench is a speaker hiding inside a rock-shaped shell. It is nice to see how Simple & beautiful, merges with the surroundings, rather than standing out & shouting for attention. If great design disappears is that which in behaviour, then these two are good examples. I look at them as examples of simple smart design that is context sensitive. So the next time you see a gadget or an appliance that stands out from the context, just be reminded that it is not outstanding design. Because great design is that which is felt much more than seen!

Monday, August 04, 2008

Why iPhone will keep eating into BlackBerry’s market share

Stop looking at the device for sometime and just watch what Apple is doing around the iPhone. Go to iTunes App Store and you’ll know why I am saying what I am saying.
The new App Store has unveiled over 500 third party applications for the iPhone. Add to it, almost 25% of these 500 new applications are free. A lot of the remaining cost less than USD 10!
I am not going to talk about all the new games that you can download because many phones already do it and iPhone is expected to and does it rather well. But I would like to mention the specialized programs that can even help you access business analytics in Oracle database. iPhone no longer seems to be just a looker, it is turning into a great business doer as well.

What I see happening is that iPhone is covering the spectrum of multiple applications much faster than its other Smart Phone counterparts. What about BlackBerry? Well, despite its advertising and many new colours (pink is noteworthy!) as we see below here – BlackBerry is still essentially a business phone that my mom and girlfriend won’t buy. But iPhone is a kind of smart phone that my mother, girlfriend and even my brother would happily buy. Why? Now it is difficult to slot it as fun only. It can do both - fun and work equally well.

However there is something more important that is dawning upon me (rather late!). It is that the future of mobile phones is not about the shell the (hardware). Thus unlike today when you have a colourful phone for girls and a dark grey phone for the executive or a large screen phone for the movie buff or the great speaker edition for the music crazy; tomorrow’s phones could essentially come in different sizes and shapes but standard hardware capabilities (ps: no matter how many diverse applications we might develop, people I suppose, would still desire a basic minimum diversity of design). Standard does not mean lowest common denominator. In the future one could choose from among many available applications as per ones needs. So you and I could be holding similar looking phones but they might not be geared to do the same stuff. In other words, function would finally be freed from form.
What’s great about it? For starters I would not be forced to buy a funky looking phone just because I like music. I can buy a more regular looking phone but it could well do a great job for me on music sharing, downloading, sorting etc.
Or I need not buy a boring looking phone just because I need to check my store’s inventory on the move. The other interesting thing about newer applications is that it makes an old phone feel new. It is almost like a video game console being as good and exciting as the games titles that are released for it!

One question.
Why have we still not achieved this kind of freedom (function independent of form) in desktop or laptop computing devices?
Because PC applications, have been dominated mainly by one software company viz. Microsoft. In the computing arena we are still carrying Microsoft influenced enterprise legacy on our shoulders.
Microsoft started with enterprise software applications and it still makes things from that mindset. Because software applications were originally developed for work more than life, we still have the hangover in the way the largest software company creates these applications. Although we can never be thankful enough to Microsoft for all the progress that they offered from the dull and gloomy days of DOS prompt, to the new icon driven applications, we still need to shift gears and develop applications that can bring about a similar revolution in PC/Laptop Computing (unless of course if mobile phones become the PCs of the future as many of us believe).


It has been a long break. Some of you who visit this space might be wondering what happened. Well, a lot.
Traveling across big cities in China and getting a glimpse of tier 4 and 5 towns, frustrations of not being able to go into the depth of things mainly due to the language handicap, struggle and subsequent failure in trying to ‘crash learn’ the language, meeting many new people, discovering some of the joys and sorrows of the people in China, hosting my parents in this country and seeing them enjoy the experience, hosting my uncle and aunt and cousins and rediscovering the joy of being with blood relations, realizing that I have not written anything in the past three months, feeling the urge to create and failing repeatedly due to work pressures and a lot more..

While all this has been happening in place of writing and sharing I have been thinking about adding a new dimension to this Blog. I now feel that my passion for personal technologies and how people are using them and my preoccupation with design must start reflecting in the things that I put up here.

So from now on I will try and share as much of these, as I have tried to look at people in the past.
I hope that the change will be refreshing for the readers and also bring something new to this space.

I would share more about some of the additional changes that I am mooting, in the months to come. Till then, stay hungry and keep creating!