Think Design is an experience design company–which is the practice of designing products with a focus placed on the quality of the user experience and culturally relevant solutions. Established in 2004, the company provides design services focused on industrial design (provide concept enclosure designs), user experience design (experiential aspects of human-computer interaction), and user interface design (designing human-machine interaction). Its services are aimed at first conceptualising and then improving usability for clients.
Hari Kishan Nallan, CEO, Think Design spoke to Ashwin Gopinath of EFY about the latest in the burgeoning field of design houses.
Q: For the benefit of our readers, could you elaborate on what Think Design (TD) does?
A: We are primarily an experience design company. TD started in 2004 offering services in two verticals viz industrial design and user experience design. However, currently we are also focusing on user interface design for software apps. TD doesn’t make products. We are a design services company. Hence, we help in improving/conceptualising products for our clients. As of now, the company is solely focused on R&D.
Q: This is the first time we are interviewing a user experience company. Could you give us an idea about how a user experience project is implemented from end to end?
A: Every project handled has five layers to it.
1. Backend: The R&D team of the client develops the backend, which is basically just a template of what the system must do.
2. Information and Navigation Architecture: This layer deals with sorting out the menu items and navigation structure of the system. The design team also decides on the algorithm for how information grouping is done to facilitate easy and seamless use of the data.
3. Framework: This layer, based on the above layers, decides the look and feel of the system-human interface. The salient points would be to determine if it’s a 3-column or a 4-column layout and what the desktop size is and other such details which are purely aesthetic.
4. Interactivity: This layer decides how the app will work when it is being used by the client. For e.g. If the device is a touch-screen phone, then is it a resistive touch or a capacitive touch phone, how will it navigate and how will it react to multiple touches and other concerns like that.
5. Visual: The final layer which encompasses all the above layers into it. This is worked upon solely with regard to what the client has in mind.
When we design a system, we work on all but the first layer.
Q: What are some of the software design tools used for UI design?
A: There are no specific tools for UI design but there are tools which are helpful for the processes in between. If we take wire-framing, there is a tool “Balsamiq” used to create sketches on screen. It is preferred because it is very quick and all the major components are built into it. Plus you can collaborate easily with others and work on large projects by breaking it down into smaller ones. Rather unconventionally, people use PowerPoint for wire-framing too.
As far as visual design goes, the industry default is Adobe Photoshop, but we recommend using Adobe Fireworks. Fireworks lets you slice sections on the screen and see how the front end looks. Hence the interactivity is increased and that’s a very interesting aspect of Fireworks.
Q: TD has been working on ‘Usability Testing’ (UT). Could you elaborate on that?
A: The field of UT is very deep and vast. It is usually used for systems which have reached a certain level of maturity and when we don’t know how to improve it any further. So what we do is install cameras at certain points in a room. The user sits and uses the product. There’s a one-way mirror and an analyst and/or a designer sits and track the user interaction. The user is given tasks and the staff finds out how much time he takes to perform the tasks and other miscellaneous details. A detailed analysis is conducted and based on the results, adjustments are made to the system to further improve its working. When there are mission critical tasks to be performed or you just want to know if the changes to the design work as they were supposed to, that’s when the function of UT is on full display.
Q: What trends do you see in user interface design for electronic systems?
A: Electronic firms in India typically have been focusing on “Device” whereas the global trend is towards its “User Interface”. As an example, see how Samsung, essentially an electronics company, has moved from component manufacturer to a Global brand by constantly focusing on User more than Device.
User Interface is a vague term and can mean interface of a software product (which runs inside a screen) or it could be the physical interface of the product itself. For example, you will not like to buy a fully automatic washer that has ugly and un-intuitive user interface.
In one of the projects we did, Whirlpool’s home inverter, the focus was on user interface and it was really successful after the design revamp.
Q: Overall, what types of electronic products need to focus on this aspect? We have seen Apple User Interface as a key differentiator. Do you think that if other electronics products focused on this aspect they could create a strategic advantage?
A: Usability focus should be there for all electronic products, except if the product is not being used at all (pun intended). Products that can benefit (and are currently benefiting) from physical interface are:
1. Fully automatic washers
2. Microwave ovens
3. Payment/ Transaction terminals
Many more products like this where there are multiple functions to be performed using a single shell (product).
Q: Can you share examples of products that could benefit from both–software and hardware user interface designs?
A. Products that can benefit from both physical as well as software UI:
1. Transaction/ Payment terminals
2. Deskphones (FWPs, Cordless phones etc., where there are challenges in showing call history, phone book, speed dial etc., using single color LCD… these are very interesting challenges)
3. Digital cameras (intuitive UI both on the buttons as well as in the screen are equally critical)
4. Consoles (typically b2b products, consoles used in Defense or special purpose monitoring consoles used in security etc.,). Here too, both hardware as well as software UI are equally important
5. Medical equipment (products such as Ultra sound monitor)
6. Engineering equipment (products such as CNC moulding machines) where computer interface is as important as the buttons on the equipment
Q: What would be the ratio of your customers w.r.t. Indian firms versus MNCs based out of India versus global clients?
A: That’s a very difficult question to answer. After globalisation, nothing is truly local. If we were to profile our clients based on this, we will have equal mix of:
1. Indian firms run by Indian businesses and catering to Indian market
2. Indian firms funded by foreign VCs or firms and catering to foreign markets
3. MNCs in India catering to global market
4. MNCs in India catering to Indian market
5. MNCs outside India catering to Indian market
6. MNCs outside India catering to global market
7. Last but not the least, Indian firms with Indian finance catering to Third world market, including India
Q: Could you elaborate on the balance of user interface design for the hardware and software part?
A: Our Key segment currently is IT firms. Having said that, till few years back, we had worked a lot with electronic firms. The global trend and movement has taken us to IT from Electronics. As such, if you see from Industrial Revolution till date, the world moved from Mechanical to Electronic to Digital. We are now in Digital revolution and most of the electronic firms will be contributing to it in some way or the other. For example, we do know Intel as a chip manufacturer, but ultimately it supports Digital aspect by not just powering consumer products, but also enhancing the user experience through solutions such as graphic accelerator. When Intel didn’t yet reach there, it was Nvidia all the way, but Intel got there with a grand vision.
Q: What are some of the customisations that a company makes when designing products especially for the Indian user?
A: Indian users and Indian conditions make sure that the market has to customise products for Indian demands to remain competitive. Let’s start with the basic customisations. Indian hands are smaller than the world average, so that oft-neglected point has to be addressed.
India is a very dusty place with high heat and humidity. It’s my personal opinion that the Mobile Market has not yet customised a model to suit Indian needs. If I were to do it, I would make sure to include adjustments for the average Indian.
In fact, on the terminal we did for Vision Tech, on the data processing terminal, we installed poly-carbonate caps on the keys. Since it’s typically used by bus drivers and in parking lots, where dust is a big issue the wordings on the keys were getting erased.
Another example is with bills and pay slips. Most of the transaction terminals use thermal printers. Thus, on hot days, the wordings on the bills get erased rather quickly leading to problems of data retention. We designed a terminal which had an impact printer. The printer is heavier but the data doesn’t get erased. In India retaining the bills is very important, but if the data on the bill is erased, what use would the paper serve?
Q: Can you share with us some intuitive design trends that you have observed?
A: A huge amount of trends are emerging from the overseas markets. Let’s take borderless design. Earlier the screen was embedded in the frame, now the screen wraps the frame. An example of that is the new Nokia Lumia 800/900.
Then there is the haptic feedback. When you touch an android phone, it vibrates a little to tell you that the touch worked. It’s a form of feedback generated by the device itself. Now, we see haptic feedback in almost every toucn-enabled smartphone.
These trends have slowly been picked up by industry leaders and we can expect them to be incorporated into new designs soon enough.
Q: What do you think about the industry readiness of students in India?
A: The ground reality in India is that there is not a good interface b/w industry and institute. Industry education and the institute tie-up is somehow hampered by bureaucracy. The institutes give great theoretical background but little to no industry values. So you could say that I am not very impressed with the industry readiness of today’s students.
Q: What kind of training does TD provide the freshers?
A: In a design company like ours, we roll products daily. Most small/medium companies work on 2-3 products a year. Big companies like Samsung work on 1000s of products. In a year, Think Design works on at least 100 products, so the fresher engineers in our company get lots of training by people who are not only industry experts but also have huge experience in the field. We make sure to arrange regular industry visits. Hence industry exposure is huge too.
Q: Do you give importance to the projects that a student has completed during his college years?
A: Yes, of course. We are very interested in knowing what kind of projects the student completed during his college years. We attach a lot of weightage to it as it shows that he can work in a team and resolve challenges related to the kind of work we do.
Q: What are the necessary skillsets you look for while recruiting?
A: One of the most important skills in our line of work is to be able to network better. Networking capability of the individual would help him to deal with vendors and clients and suppliers. You interact with many people when you’re a design consultant so inter-personal skills rank very high on the skillsets we focus on.
Q: Without doubt, the Indian electronics market has come a long way from relative obscurity to being a major player in the world market. How do you see future growth in this area?
A: My personal experience has taught me that there is an abundance of skilled labour and there are no technical ‘skill’ constraints. We have R&D centres here which are world renowned. We exclusively utilise the Indian talent pool. But I also feel that what we lack is a Unified Global Vision. Take Taiwan or South Korea for example. They have a much smaller workforce than ours but it is their long term vision which has made sure that they are the leaders in this department. With a proper plan, I see no reason why we cannot be world leaders in technology.