Abhinav Chhikara — “Being in the right environment at the right time, with people who share a similar vision and energy can be powerful.”
Abhinav Chikkara is a prime example of the new crop of UI/UX designers spearheading Indian start-ups in the disruptive innovation space. Having gained experience with several home-grown start-ups, he is currently Head of Design at Unacademy, one of India’s fastest growing online learning platforms. He also shares his passion for the hustle through his book Pyjama Profit, which aims to help millenials develop sustainable freelance careers. We dig deeper to understand what attracted and now continues to drive him in developing and scaling tech innovations.
Fill in the blank: A designer rarely says no to learning opportunities. They’re always looking to push the limits of their craft and creativity.
What was the primary factor that convinced you to switch your career to learn and practice design?
The way I usually tell this story is that I watched the Social Network when I was in school, and decided that my goal in life would be to make the next explosive Silicon Valley startup.
This is partly true, but the other side of this was that I wanted to build products and find an outlet for my creativity. Somewhere in college, I realized that code was great for this but I found it limiting to explore big ideas. That’s when I started learning UI/UX design, making apps and websites, and doing freelance projects for companies based in the US.
You’ve found success working in both situations — as a freelancer and also part of a strong design team. Apart from scale, are there ways in which the design output differs? Which experience do you prefer?
Very interesting question! Freelancing is how I started my career. I continued to freelance out of college and had some great experiences working with clients I wouldn’t normally have a chance to work with in a full time capacity. In fact, I loved freelancing so much that I published a book about it with Bloomsbury called Pyjama Profit.
Now, I work at Unacademy with a team of 7 other designers. My work is more managerial than hands on. One of the biggest differences, apart from scale, is the ability to work in a team. To give you some perspective, a recent product we launched had about 100–200 people from the company contributing to it — from legal, operations, content, graphic design, product design, engineering etc. Working in a team of that size comes with its own unique challenges and learnings. It helps you realize that being in the right environment at the right time, with people who share a similar vision and energy can be powerful.
In terms of preference, I don’t think I can pick one. However, I’d always want to work with a team — whether that means starting my own company or working at a high growth startup. I’m never going back to working solo.
A part of your job at Unacademy is creating a virtual environment that helps learners stay motivated. Based on your experience, what really motivates humans (and users) and can design leverage this?
This is an interesting question. I think motivation depends primarily on two factors — the task at hand and your mindset towards it. Personally, I find that my motivation varies depending on the task — if it’s something that I don’t think is worth achieving, I often procrastinate or just don’t do it until there’s a deadline. However, if there’s something that I strongly believe should happen, I get into the ‘zone’ and nothing can come between me and the task.
For our learners on Unacademy, I think motivation comes down to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Some days you’re into the zone and you get things done, your motivation is fueled by intrinsic factors. Other days, something just doesn’t feel right and you don’t feel up to the task. In which case, you need some extrinsic motivation to keep you going.
We’ve invested a lot into getting the app’s gamification system right. It’s designed in a way that when you’re high on motivation, it lives in the background and keeps track of your progress. This helps learners build habit and automatically have their positive actions logged. When you feel your motivation going low, the app supports you in keeping the positive momentum going as long as possible.
On the educator’s end, we give them a lot of positive feedback straight from their learners. When one of their learners achieves a significant learning milestone, they can ‘dedicate’ the achievement to the educator with words of encouragement. These notes show publicly on the educator’s profile and help them feel recognized for their efforts.
As a designer, what separates work from play for you? Does it often overlap or do you prefer to separate the two?
Haha, good question. For me, work and play are the exact same thing. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m a workaholic but rather that my definitions of work and play are not what you’d expect.
I believe that creativity is the ability to connect abstract thoughts and make meaning from all the different experiences you’ve had. This means that every single thing you do in life is subconsciously adding to your repository of experiences.
The last time someone asked me a similar question, I said “I’m either working or doing nothing. Sitting idle.” I think the process of ‘doing nothing’ is what gives the brain time to process information and make these connections. Of course, it’s hard to ‘do nothing’ because that requires you to just sit alone with your thoughts. Not browse your phone, not watch Netflix and YouTube and not idly browse Twitter.
Which is why I consider spending time online as work. I consider meeting new people work. I consider any form of expression as ‘work’. I love ‘working’. You never know what you come across on YouTube that leads you down a rabbit hole that eventually leads you to have a breakthrough in a problem you’re working on.
According to you, what about the city of Bengaluru makes it a thriving environment for entrepreneurs and hustlers?
I’ve always wondered this. Other major cities also have a lot of startups, but there’s something about Bangalore that is different. The primary thing is the people. Rather than engaging in competition and secrecy, most people are very open with sharing their experiences and what worked for them. It’s no Silicon Valley, but I think as the startup ecosystem is maturing, we’re slowly getting there.
My current hypothesis is that Bangalore has had more startup exits than anywhere else. The people who’ve been a part of that want to give back to the ecosystem because they know that value creation is not a zero sum game. If the ecosystem grows, more people will start up, more startups will exist, which leads to more jobs. By sharing what they know and investing in upcoming startups, the new crop of startups can avoid the same mistakes that they made and be more successful. This leads to financial success for everyone involved which keeps the cycle running.