Why Good Design Goes Beyond Good Looks

Design is a series of homonyms with several different meanings. It is in no way just restricted to the world of fashion, interior or graphic designing. At its core, design signifies a new way of doing things and a new way of creating value that can make products more inclusive and egalitarian. While the former references to design are fairly well understood, it is the product and industrial design that Indian businesses could focus more on to solve society’s most pressing problems.

Take the Simputer, for example, a palmtop-like personal computing device that was launched in 2002 amidst a lot of fanfare (it was hailed as the most significant innovation in computer technology that year by Time magazine and The New York Times).

Developed by Bangalore-based Encore Software, this device had several features convenient for rural use. It was easy to carry and handle, came with a low price tag and could run on batteries (essential in villages where electricity supply is intermittent). It was also simpler than the regular PC where the user needed to know Windows, English and the functions of the mouse to use it.

Not just that, the Simputer worked on the open source OS Linux, had a touch screen and stylus with simple visual icons and multilingual options to translate English into regional languages, and a Smart Card reader and writer for secure financial transactions. Due to abysmally low internet penetration in rural households, the device also had an inbuilt modem to transfer information to internal servers.

In all, the device was a product of focused thinking and was specifically developed for the rural market. And still, Simputer sales were disappointing. Encore managed to sell only one lakh units over three of its best years. Vinay Deshpande, CEO of Encore and co-developer of Simputer, confesses their target was “much larger”. Deshpande attributed the low numbers on the users’ distrust of indigenous technology, and the lack of funds for marketing or large scale commercial production. He also believed that the product was ahead of its time when it was launched and potential users could not appreciate its many applications.

But, were these really the predominant reasons for the lukewarm response Simputer received from the market? Perhaps there was a different reason at play that Deshpande could not identify — was it truly designed keeping in mind a user working in a village?

In 2008, Pune-based DSK Digital Technologies, a subsidiary of the Rs4,000-crore DSK Group, bought the technology used to make the Simputer from Encore and started its own R&D operations to create another computing device for rural markets called the Mobiliz.

Typing long reports or even page long documents would have been cumbersome on a mobile phone or a tablet like design and hence these forms were ruled out, right from the beginning. A standard laptop QWERTY keyboard was thought to be ideal for the purpose instead. Unlike the Simputer that was developed by a team of scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Mobiliz was developed by a business group that had roped in product and communications designer Satish Gokhale, co-founder of Pune-based Design Directions, right at the early stages of product development.

“I always believe that a product should be designed outside in. So my goal with Mobiliz was to first find out what the product should look like depending on what it will be used for and then the entire electronics inside it,” Gokhale says.

“Then when we went onto the field to understand how people in villages in Maharashtra worked, we saw they didn’t have chairs or tables to sit on and work,” he says. That meant Mobiliz had to be physically different from a regular laptop so that users could use it while sitting cross-legged in a sugarcane field under a strong sun. So, Mobiliz was conceived to be a more compact device with ample space for resting the wrists. At 800–900 grams, it was lighter than a regular laptop which usually weighs between 1.5 to 2 kg. It also has a 7-inch touchscreen that can be laid flat or angled anyway to prevent the glare of the sun. The touchscreen made the interface intuitive and easy-to-use for rural users, many of whom were first-time computer users. The touchscreen also played a key role in building trust with the users. “It’s purely psychological but the touchscreen gave Mobiliz the look and feel of a high-tech product. It gave our users — farmers, dairy workers — the confidence that their financial transaction and data were safe with this sophisticated device. That type of confidence in a product plays a big part in establishing trust,” explains Gokhale.

Apart from technology trust issues, there was another significant challenge in rural areas — the erratic supply of electricity. Using simple batteries could have been an option but earlier Simputer designers had observed that people interchanged polarities while using AAA batteries and battery contacts even became loose due to rough handling at times.

However, there is one natural source of energy that is in abundant supply in most villages in India — the sun. Mobiliz has been designed to be powered through two small solar panels attached to the device’s storage jacket which goes into a halo sack used to carry the device. This halo sack also has enough room to carry a tiffin. It’s handy to carry on a cycle as well. As Mobiliz is a low-power device that consumes only 3.5 watts of power (compared to a normal laptop that consumes 60 to 100+ watts in an hour), it has a Lithium-ion rechargeable battery back up of more than five hours. It also dissipates less heat without cooling; reducing the harm to the farm and village ecosystem where the device will be used in.

However, what differentiates the laptop and Mobiliz the most are their applications. “Our field studies taught us that a laptop has a lot of wasted applications that never get used in a rural setting. It is an all-purpose common device,” says Vinod Philips, CEO, DSK Digital Technologies. “Mobiliz, on the other hand, can be custom configured to have very specific features, say for only data entry at a dairy farm, or for e-learning at a municipal school or for financial transactions with a microfinance business correspondent. That way it cannot be used for anything else. This prevents the device from being sold or getting stolen by non-users,” he says.

Apart from technology trust issues, there was another significant challenge in rural areas — the erratic supply of electricity. Using simple batteries could have been an option but earlier Simputer designers had observed that people interchanged polarities while using AAA batteries and battery contacts even became loose due to rough handling at times. However, there is one natural source of energy that is in abundant supply in most villages in India — the sun. Mobiliz has been designed to be powered through two small solar panels attached to the device’s storage jacket which goes into a halo sack used to carry the device. This halo sack also has enough room to carry a tiffin. It’s handy to carry on a cycle as well. As Mobiliz is a low-power device that consumes only 3.5 watts of power (compared to a normal laptop that consumes 60 to 100+ watts in an hour), it has a Lithium-ion rechargeable battery back up of more than five hours. It also dissipates less heat without cooling; reducing the harm to the farm and village ecosystem where the device will be used in.

The end user of the Mobiliz today are trained (albeit literate 10th class graduates, not college graduates) personnel taught to carry out specific tasks in the village, and not every member of the rural household. There are three versions of the device — silver, gold and platinum and the price varies from Rs20,000 for the lowest model to Rs 35,000 for the highest version. The price range begs the question — why would anyone want to buy a Mobiliz and not a cheaper laptop available under even Rs 20,000? The manufacturers of the product believe that the features that this device provides are not available on a normal laptop, and stress that this is only the launch price.

As production volume increases, DSK aims to reduce the price to an affordable Rs 10,000. Their optimism may not be too misplaced. Mobiliz was launched in March 2013 and within a year of its launch, the device has received a good response from banks, dairies and milk collection centres. DSK has tied up with 22 nationalised banks to deploy it to business correspondents for carrying out banking transactions in villages of Madhya Pradesh. 300 rural dairies in Maharashtra have connected the device with their milk analysers and milk weighing scales to measure the amount of milk delivered by a farmer and clear his dues in real time. And the team has already started work on collaborating with government and private players to develop applications for floriculture and horticulture.

Simputer’s journey to becoming Mobiliz bears testimony to the fact that industrial design has the power to open up new markets for any business. Yet, it’s not used enough as a vehicle to lead that change in India.

When it comes to design, DSK’s Philips believes it’s a cultural trait among Indian entrepreneurs to usejugaad’ to cobble up something, or to copy from a variety of sources to put something together instead of hiring a professional design agency that understands the right process involved in product design. He concedes that getting Mobiliz market-ready took longer than he had anticipated because of this design intervention but confesses it might well be the game changer for his company.

Dr Aditya Dev Sood, founder of innovation consulting firm Centre for Knowledge Societies, adds that education too has a role to play for the lack of enthusiasm among Indian enterprises (though it is becoming a buzzword in the startup world) for design. “Management education at a premier school even today can be completed without ever being exposed to the fundamentals of design or product development, and you hardly ever have designers migrate into decision making positions in an organisation,” Dr Sood points out. “Given these challenges, if a company has come out and developed great design, it’s laudable.”

This post was originally published in Inc. India magazine.

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