Design stories from recent travels in India

This post has no photos. None that I took anyway. Because taking photos is hard, while we navigate badly designed situations.

When we don’t understand or care about customer experience.

My flight on the world’s favourite airline ran out of disembarkation and customs declaration forms for India. For now, I shall refrain from commenting on this not-infrequent occurrence.

At Bombay’s International Airport arrivals, one had to pass immigration and then seek the customs forms. Near the desk called Customs, I asked where the forms could be found. I was told, in Marathi, “Near the flag”. The “flag” turned out to be a 1 inch by 1.5 inch plastic or paper thing hoisted on a 4-5 inch high pole, kept atop the counter, surrounded by so many things it was hard to see.

As it were, I took the last form they had. Since I was amongst the first to disembark, there was bound to be trouble after as many of us were without forms.

It is hard to imagine how such poor design decisions — organisation, choice of language of communication, quantities made available — helps those, who are not Indian, visiting India for the first time, and likely unfamiliar with the “jugaad” element so common to nearly everything in India.

When we sometimes use fancy new technology, but mostly not .. well, who cares?

I used a bathroom in a swanky new-built commercial building in Bombay’s famous Bandra Kurla Complex.

When I entered one of the loos, the light turned itself on. “Clever use of motion sensor technology”, I thought. Pun unintended, and not applicable, as you will see next.

Then I saw a manual flush handle in place. So the user of the loo touches the flush with what may not be clinically clean hands. “Could this not have been a sensor driven flush?”, I wondered.

Needing then to wash my hands at the basin, I saw the tap needed manual turning on. “Another lost chance to use a sensor”, I thought.

To dry my hands, I couldn’t find either tissue paper or a dryer. The attendant in the bathroom had to show me a broken almost hidden sensor with which I was to turn on an air-dryer. The dryer was located just above a bin where people had been discarding paper towels. Uh, ok.

In a tropical country teeming with dust, dirt and possible infections, all opportunities for fomites have been left intact in this fancy bathroom. Random things have been sensor-ised.

Well done. Not. On the obvious incomplete thinking in designing the bathroom.

When we don’t care about accessibility and safety.. 

Arriving from Bombay late at night, I was reminded why I avoid taking domestic flights to Delhi’s T1 terminal. As an able-bodied person, I was required to navigate a trolley amid 3-5 lanes of taxis and cars speeding toward the break in the Metro barrier, where I was to get out to wait for my car on the main road. Along with a gazillion other people.

Forget pedestrian priority, the awful road surface was its own challenge. Tough enough to push a baggage trolley till I saw a young airport staffer pushing — struggling with it actually — an old lady in a wheel chair towards the same exit, navigating the same cars coming at him and her at some speed.

When you get out, you find yourself on the road with many others, no identifiable markers anywhere. This means your driver has to inch closer, driving while on the mobile phone call with you till he visually locates you. Nice one, eh?

I thought about this airport experience for a while, but soon I had occasion to experience a new hotel and an orthopaedic hospital.

In India, nearly all bathrooms are wet rooms. This means that the probability of slipping is finite.

One might think this necessitates some mechanism for steadying oneself both in hotel and hospital bathrooms — not to mention a hospital, where people are suffering broken bones already.

None of the bathrooms had any grab bars or any support. In the hotel bathroom the shower area was treacherous, complete with black marble floor on which it is  hard to distinguish dry and wet areas, while the bathroom in the orthopaedic hospital had no grab frames around the loo seat. This is a picture of the bathroom in the hotel [(c) Cleartrip].

The Hotel BathroomThe absence of empathy in all these places, caring for neither accessibility nor safety, was quite disappointing.

Can we blame legacy?

None of these bad design experiences in these stories could be blamed on legacy. Each of them took place in a newly built, plush looking facility. The hotel is so new that as of October 2015, it had not formally opened. The hospital is about twenty years old. Bombay’s international airport opened for business in February 2014 while Delhi’s T1 is being renovated.

This was doubly disappointing.

So much money and material spent on building things comfortable and modern and pretty, but not a lot of time spent on thinking about making things that are fit for purpose!

There is a long way to go before the world is made at least comfortable for all of us.



Four For Friday (30)

This series took two weeks off due to urgent travels, but we are back now. This week’s readings discuss Purpose and Meaning.

Fast Company interviewed several entrepreneurs who believe they have created businesses that mean something to their customers.

These are not just stories about underserved consumers; these are stories about people who could not get on with their jobs or their family lives because brands were not thinking about their needs. “These are stories shared by millions of people,” Walker says. “We take a very consumer-centric approach to our innovation. It’s not about building it and seeing if they come; it’s talking to them and knowing that they will come.”

LinkedIn’s founder Reid Hoffman writes about the power of purpose at work. Purpose not perks.

According to Imperative’s research, purpose-oriented employees are:

* 54 percent more likely to stay at a company for 5-plus years
* 30 percent more likely to be high performers
* 69 percent more likely to be Promoters on Bain & Company’s eNPS scale, which measures employee engagement and loyalty

So how to find one’s own true purpose? Help is at hand from several corners, as curated by Maria Popova. Here, Paul Graham on the false metric of “prestige”:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.


Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.


Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

A lot of times, pursuing and even re-focusing on one’s own purpose means saying No. No is a full sentence. Here is an interesting, rambling piece by Tim Ferriss who is taking a break from investing in and advising startups, and may do the same for conferences, interviews etc.

To become “successful,” you have to say “yes” to a lot of experiments.  To learn what you’re best at, or what you’re most passionate about, you have to throw a lot against the wall.

Once your life shifts from pitching outbound to defending against inbound, however, you have to ruthlessly say “no” as your default. Instead of throwing spears, you’re holding the shield.

On that business of saying “yes” to a lot of experiments, here is a bonus link — for one year, Shonda Rhimes said “yes” to everything. Here is how it started.

“My oldest sister said to me, ‘You never say yes to anything.’ And by that she meant I never accept any invitations,” Rhimes says. “I never go anywhere. I never do anything. All I did was go to work and come home. And she was right. My life had gotten really small. Once I sort of realized that she was right, I was going to say yes to all the things that scared me, that made me nervous, that freaked me out, that made me think I’m going to look foolish doing it. Anything that took me out of my comfort zone I was going to do it, if asked to do it.”




Four For Friday (26)

For me, this was a week full of books, reading about books, and headlines about publishing. A new publishing house, called Juggernaut Books, was launched in India with unusual fanfare. There is much promise, albeit not much detail made public yet, of revolutionising publishing using the magic of tech. The business is of interest to me as someone who reads, “techs”, is interested in business model innovation and financing of new business models, and watches women in leadership roles in creating such innovation.

Over here in London, the first volume of Niall Fergusson’s two-part book about Kissinger was finally delivered. In hardback. I am sure I will only ever read it at home because it is so heavy.

Kissinger by FergussonA personal pattern however is becoming evident. My recent purchases have all been paper. I have company. Digital books have stopped evolving, but why? The rational argument about closed ecosystems resonates with many of us, perhaps, but most of us are committed (read: locked-in) to one or the other closed ecosystems.

In other words, digital books and the ecosystem in which they live are software, and software feels most alive and trustworthy when it is actively evolving with the best interests of users in mind. An open stack is not strictly necessary for this, but it certainly helps.

But the main, and I think the real, reason for some of us falling back into the arms of physical books is emotive.

The object – a dense, felled tree, wrapped in royal blue cloth – requires two hands to hold. The inner volume swooshes from its slipcase. And then the thing opens like some blessed walking path into intricate endpages, heavystock half-titles, and multi-page die-cuts, shepherding you towards the table of contents. Behbehani utilitises all the qualities of print to create a procession. By the time you arrive at chapter one, you are entranced.

This was the week that celebrated Urvashi Butalia, founder and publisher of Zubaan Books, for her path-breaking contributions to publishing women’s and other marginalised voices.

Concerns over the growing acceptability of violence against women – in their homes, in workplaces and public spaces, in conflict zones, by fundamentalist and communal forces – fed directly into today’s ongoing debates on women’s freedoms and the attempts to truncate those freedoms in the name of safety.

Through these tumultuous times, Zubaan and Kali for Women functioned also as archivists and as participants in the organically evolving network of disparate groups that formed the Indian women’s movement.

“We’re putting together an archive of the interviews we’ve recorded with authors, organisers, women on the front lines,” Urvashi says.

Recorded over the decades, these will be an invaluable oral history of Indian women, many of them far more focused on getting the job done in any given moment than on chronicling their thoughts.

A recurrent theme in conversations with my erudite women friends is about frivolity. Or at least perceived frivolity. Can feminists be interested in fashion and style and clothes and jewellery? “Yes, they can and they should,” is my answer. If for not much else, then to redress this.

But can feminists enjoy romance novels? Sure, they can, argues this piece.

‘I am of the opinion that a genre that is written by women, for women, about women, about the female experience, even if that experience is codified and structured within patriarchal, established boundaries, is inherently feminist,’  says Sarah Wendell, co-founder of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a US-based website devoted to reviewing romance novels through a critical lens.

Wendell grants readers of all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds permission to enjoy their fantasies – be they feminist, sadomasochistic, paranormal, or male-on-male. For Wendell, this permission is the genre’s beating heart. ‘With romance, you are placing a centrepiece, a focus, on women’s sexuality as a healthy and important thing,’ she said. ‘Her orgasm is important! And so is her security, and so is her ability to access birth control.’

The eagle-eyed amongst you have noticed there are only 3 links here. There is a fourth link embedded in the text which is my sneaky way of making it good on the promise of the post.

Four For Friday (25)

This week marked one year of India’s famous, frugal, successful Mars Orbiter Mission.



Aptly enough women in design, science, business, politics, art all caught my eye this week.

Allowing for the usual hyperbole and USA-centricity of TechCrunch’s reportage, here are 30 women, who have revolutionised male-dominated industries.

Unbeknownst to the world, Ursula Burns joined Xerox as a summer intern in 1980 and would later become the most powerful woman in the company. In a period of just a few short years since she became CEO in 2009, Burns drove Xerox to transform from a global document company to a massive enterprise with a diverse set of services and clients. Though she remains busy with her current position, Ursula is a board director of the Ford Foundation, American Express and Exxon Mobil Corporation and is a leader in various non-profit organizations.

It would be remiss of me to highlight the USA-centricity of such lists, and then omit to mention Elmira Bayrasli’s forthcoming book. Adversity creates entrepreneurs and in places we cannot stretch our imagination to.

The Daraprim (pyrimethamine) story this week was a chance to dig into the real story, of Gertrude B. Elion who developed it. She was a Nobel prize winner whose work led to the development of retrovirals as we know them now.  Here is a partial list of what we owe her for:

6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol), the first treatment for leukemia and used in organ transplantation.

Azathioprine (Imuran), the first immuno-suppressive agent, used for organ transplants.

Allopurinol (Zyloprim), for gout.

Pyrimethamine (Daraprim), for malaria.

Trimethoprim (Septra), for meningitis, septicemia, and bacterial infections of the urinary and respiratory tracts.

Acyclovir (Zovirax), for viral herpes.

Nelarabine for cancer treatment.

Here is what she did after her “official” retirement:

During 1967 she occupied the position of the head of the company’s Department of Experimental Therapy and officially retired in 1983. Despite her retirement, Elion continued working almost full-time at the lab, and oversaw the adaptation of azidothymidine (AZT), which became the first drug used for treatment of AIDS

And anytime you feel “old”, stop and think of the amazing Barbara Knickerbocker-Beskind! At 91, she is an active and busy inventor and designer.

I tried to retire five times – as an OT, as a private practitioner, as an author – but it never works. I went back to school to become an artist in 1997 and that has been helpful in drawing my inventions.


In 2013, I saw David Kelley – the founder of the design firm IDEO – on the TV programme 60 minutes. When I realised he accepted, and really respected, people from a varied background, I thought, “I have a unique kind of life experience and designing skills – I could be of value to their firm.” I was 89.

Bonus: you will have to read these answers yourself. Some brilliant lessons in history! What are some things where the first person to do them was a woman?

The design challenge called Indian traffic [2]

An earlier, admittedly ranty post documented the weirdness that is Indian traffic. Though it focused more on vehicular traffic than on pedestrians, any good traffic system design should enable peaceful co-existence of both vehicles and pedestrians.

I have spent some time thinking about traffic systems since I have been able to observe traffic in several countries outside India, especially the UK, for a few years now. I’d say it largely works well in the UK. Except when it does not, say, when we have the wrong type of snow. Roads don’t work, trains don’t work, almost nothing works.

Yet, some sincerely wonder if traffic in India can be improved to the level it is in developed countries.

Jokes apart, traffic in developed countries, when it flows, has mainly three component parts, although not all developed countries are created equal in their traffic discipline. These component parts exist in a Nash Equilibrium, which keeps the traffic flowing.


Unlike India — where most people with driving licences have done few, if any, lessons, and most driving licence owners have never been subjected to a rigorous examination of car knowledge and driving skills — it is near impossible to get a driving licence in most developed countries without passing multistage tests of road rules, car knowledge, and driving skills.

As far as I know, road rules — that would cover speed limits, lane discipline, overtaking procedures, use of indicators and other functioning lights on the vehicles, driving behaviour during egregious weather or road conditions, prioritisation of emergency vehicles, required civic behaviour during emergencies — aren’t even fully documented in India. Documenting them and then making them available in the many Indian languages would have to be the step that precedes training and testing for licensing purposes.

Licensed trainers and an incorruptible testing procedure would be the next essentials.

Then the state of the roads. It shouldn’t be down to a High Court to pronounce that citizens have a right to good roads. Because, so what?

Rule followers aka the social contract

Then comes the harder part. Of making a citizenry — of whom many are accustomed to saying “do you know who I am?” and “ok, do my work first, here is the cash!” — follow the process of learning and being tested to obtain a licence, with knowledge and humility, and not by sending someone else to get the paperwork done.

Some positive change, led by citizens themselves, is in evidence so there is hope on this count.

Enforcement and punitive measures

The third crucial part of a functioning traffic system is a traffic police force that catches, penalises and prosecutes if necessary the violations, no matter how minor, of road rules. This is helped by clear rules, along side specification of punitive measures for breaking them. This is further supported by a judicial system that lets traffic violation cases be tried swiftly instead of dragging them on for years, as Indian courts often do with many court cases.

So to return to the question, whether road traffic in India ever be improved to the level it is in developed countries, the answer is both Yes and No.

Yes, if India can arrive collectively at a new Nash Equilibrium of the above-mentioned factors.

No, if any of the above is missing.

The challenge for India is where to start.