Case studies of hybrid products
This post presents three cases, namely 1] SBI tiny, 2] Radio and 3] Digital educational games. They are representative examples of the idea of hybrids. The readers need not see these examples as a support to the map tool. That is just a first step or a starting point. They also point to the deeper messages at the end, of the future challenges and how designers can convert them into new opportunities. We will return to this topic after the cases are discussed.
Case 1: SBI Tiny
SBI Tiny is a good example of retail banking in rural areas. Its innovation by reversing the trends of moving to the best practices in digital and ICT technologies. In terms of transactions handled, retailing over the counter through bank branches in rural areas is economically not a viable option. Nor are the transaction volumes and the amounts large enough to justify deploying ATMs (besides of course the problems of 24×7 connectivity). What this context demanded was a breakthrough solution to drastically reduce the transaction costs by depending on cost effective connectivity.
The idea developed is simple. (See figure 1) Users approach designated location in their own village with their smart card given by the bank. A local person, often a lady, doubling part time as a banking correspondent, handles the cash manually and updates banking data using mobile phone. Printer ensures that receipts are given on the spot. Card reader and biometric identification ensure security. The product is an interesting mix of being connected to the digital world and network at lower cost. The front end is a collection of existing artefacts and technologies with minor modifications, in fact a concoction of tangible artefacts and use of human assistance. It further redefines the idea of hybrid to meet the local needs.
Figure 1: a] SBI Tiny is a pilot project in online banking where modified mobile phone, card reader, printer and biometric authorization are interconnected. b] Biometric data is used to authenticate the customer. Mobile phone is also used to connect with the banking network. The commission agent manually delivers cash to remote villagers at very low transaction cost and earned a commission.
SBI tiny relies mostly on existing devices and technologies. (Mobile phone, biometric reader, card reader and printer) It connects them together locally and whenever necessary by reconfiguring them. It offers the opportunities to create a context specific and integrated artefact design out of these is devices. It connects with banking backend network by updating data online and sometimes offline.
In terms of service design, it offers a culturally compatible model that mixes human involvement with machines. Lastly, it creates a new low business model to make the idea viable. In terms of our model, it is a hybrid idea that shows how the effective solution lies in finding an appropriate location on and around the diagonal.
Return to (digital) appropriate technology
SBI tiny appears to be a digital version of appropriate technology ideas that had caught the imaginations of grassroots innovators in the developing world in the1960s. It challenged the idea of international practices in technology applications as appropriate solutions to developing economies. Most developing economies will be better off exploring such alternatives.
The innovation in this case lies in the bold step of moving away from practice of finding technical solution by upgrading technology, a common approach in most new product development. The idea also comes close to C K Pralahad’s idea of searching for, not the ‘best practice’ but for the ‘next practice’ that is appropriate to the context.1
Networked artefacts have advantages. But to conclude that the future is necessarily dependent on it will not be correct, nor is that the only approach in all innovation initiatives. Here is another interesting but an opposite case.
Case 2: CARAVAN radio plus
The idea of such a radio may be available internationally, but what prompted its inclusion is the cultural compatibility. In India, old local songs continue to remain popular, even with the youth. This is how the music company, that had copyrights of these songs and radio makers collaborated to create a new value proposition.
CARAVAAN radio was recently introduced in the Indian market. Radio as a product category was loosing out to more modern modes. This radio functions in two modes. It is connected to radio stations and functions as a normal FM radio. It also has a library of popular local songs of the last six decades as a playlist. It can be retrieved based on singers, moods and year when it was popular. When listening to the prerecorded songs, the customer comes out of the radio mode and the artifact now functions as a standalone music product.
Besides the innovative use of known technologies, it makes some interesting contributions as a product design case too. It has UX interaction that borrows the simplicity of operation from radios. As a visual statement too, it has roots in operations of traditional radios.
Figure 2: CARAVAAN radio plus. Old songs are offered as stored contents accessed through a playlists; a] based on artists, moods and popular Gitmala; b] The interaction is radio-like and simple. The styling is deliberately retro and is consistent with the contents offered.
How does CARAVAAN fit on our map? Innovation is trying to move around in the map to find opportunities. Is not transformed retro also an innovation? Unlike other products, this one is moving leftwards of the diagonal, defying the common trends. The technology used was known and available. So were the contents. It is packed differently to create an innovative product offer.
It is not the claim that the map actually was used in any of the cases above. In fact the idea of map is too recent and could not have been used in these cases at all. The cases only suggest that the map is like an innovation space and can induce the design teams to think of new ideas that are conceptually different than the current practices.
Case 3: Hybrid ‘digital plus’ educational games
Unlike the first two cases, this is not a commercial product available in the market. This is an academic exercise to explore the idea of hybrid-ness. That qualifies it to be included here. These are only at the prototype level. This is a conscious attempt to create cyber-physical product. We called them as hybrid educational games.
We have been running courses on game design for more than a decade now. We have focused on board games so far. There were two main reasons. 1] We believed that designing a board game is the best way of understanding the nuances of game design; 2] The duration available was two short to explore digital games. With the changing time, we could not put off development of digital games any longer. Fortunately, extra time was available in the new schedule.
‘Digital games’ is a rapidly growing category that has revolutionized the idea of games with new technology possibilities and experiences. There are number of benefits of being with the digital environment, particularly when you are dealing with educational games. They can handle difficulty levels, keep player’s progress records, give prompts if necessary and of course engage the players. Besides, it has all the advantages that digital entertainment games have. With smart phones and desktops becoming powerful. These games are designed can be easily accessed on smartphones and desktops. They offer intensely immersive media experiences, even though virtual reality was not deployed.
Digital environment has irresistible appeal to the new generation. In spite of its major advantages in games, it is also turning out to be a problem. So intense is the child’s involvement that, it is difficult to get him away from the screen. No wonder this has prompted WHO to include it in the classification of diseases and referred as Gaming disorder.2 Digital games are criticized for isolating players from the social context. Children neglect the negative consequences of involvement in the games. Other interests and daily activities are sacrificed for gaming. We thought we would cash on this obsession by converting this into a positive opportunity in a small way. That is how the idea of hybrid games came up.
These are multiplayer games. Other multiplayer digital games connect children remotely. These games demand that the players have to be co-located in the same space in order to play. This was just a first step to ensure player-to-player interaction, something that the classical games thrived on. There were other conditions that we built into design of games. First, we ensured that education never dominated fun. It was covert and the child learnt it through repeat play and from his seniors. Second, the gameplay was specially designed to ensure that the children formally interact with each other as part of the gameplay. It was either physical or through speech or through exchange of game artefacts. Third, co-location ensured that the players are also engaged with each other informally, thus creating opportunities to learn from other children. This was the critical part of the classical games that we intended to bring back. When the prototypes were ready we playtested them with children. It showed that the nature and level of interaction was same as board and field games.
Video 1: So intense was the involvement with the display on the screen, that children often forgot that they were competing with each other and discussed and tackled the game as a collective attempt. This shows the advantage of informal sessions over formal competitive environments in the games. They were playing and also learning at the same time.
Some of the children actions were beyond what we had anticipated. They appropriated the style of play. For instance, instead of competing, got together to tackle problems cooperatively.
Video 2 and 3: The children discussed and divided the task as a form of cooperation, teaching each other what is correct and wrong. The intention of using tangible objects to grab (in this case words) could not be executed due to short duration of the assignment.
Video 4: children love to pass on secrets messages that they want to tell the select few. There are other private networks that develop eventually. Co-locating ensured this and avoided children getting isolated from the context.
Some children formed groups to play against other groups. The goal of getting children to come together and interact had visible effects. There were enough discussions during and after the completion of game session. Most of it had bearing on education. Children intensely discussed on ‘why and how’ of the game actions and the concept. No child was isolated because the older children took care of their inclusion in the action.
Video 5: Video records clearly show the atmosphere that prevailed. The excitement of winning is never lost on children. They were happy to earn a star.
Analysis of work in progress
In terms of the map, so far, we managed to move up the classical tangible games vertically upwards to ensure qualitative difference in their effectiveness. In the next level, we plan to use tangible interfaces, so that all actions leave digital footprint. Notice that children love tangible objects and are proud to possess and display them.
Video 6: Can we miss tangible objects? Children are proud of even a small gift that they want to display and take home. I wonder if the digital leader board can create same emotions and engagement.
Additionally, with Internet connectivity to the games and the gameplay, we plan to generate new educational possibilities and more exciting experiences. Enormous potentials in digital environment need to be tapped. We hope to create such a vision in future.
A slight deviation from the story. The idea has been to consistently match educational game experiences to the school curricula and what is being taught currently in the school. The games are intended to compliment teacher’s efforts. Downloading of smartphone versions would have delivered this, but without the advantage of learning from each other. The business model envisaged, had to fit into this scheme of promoting physical player-to-player interaction. Consistent with the new thinking that integrates service and delivery models, we thought of preliminary business plan of how we could offer access to educational games as a service to the children in schools through a game lab.
There is a clear message to build further on the artifact oriented Bauhausian approach to product design and make it more inclusive. The world of design is changing from its exclusive focus on artifacts to something lot more holistic, inclusive and open. The definition of design accepted by the WDO is a clear indication of recognizing change. The multidisciplinary design teams can look at each product category map and explore new innovation opportunities.
Design educators in India have begun to accept this gradually, and sometime grudgingly. Still the Bauhaus grip continues to be very strong and visible in their artifact orientation. It is bound to limit the scope.
It also raises interesting questions.
Bauhaus pioneered the idea of basic design to build a strong and wide foundation in design for industrial age. Is it adequate for the digital world and beyond? How valid is the idea was designers as a generalist now? How general should he become? Or should we promote specialization?
If service design and conceptualization of business models become part of the design process, is there an equivalent of basic design in service design? And in business model development? How should they be taught to design students? And how should design be taught in business schools?
There is a scope for other stakeholders to participate in the design process? If so, should their education change to include understanding of design thinking, design(erly) thinking and design approach?
Broader design vision has to align itself with the cultural vision, the aspirations and larger human goals of each community. Nor can digital world be humanized by restricting contributions to UX alone. It is too reductionist.
It will be myopic if we leave the digital world to the techies, who develop ideas in laboratories that are delinked from the societies and the social context. This is not a ideal setting for developing broader vision. It will be sad if such an approach dominates new product design and development. Design as a profession has always committed itself to making humans survive and thrive as humans. This is how the designers saw their role in the industrial age. The technologies were critical even then, but they were in the background. If the designers have to achieve this, hybrids and dematerialized objects is one of the directions to be pursued, but definitely not the only one.
The role of the new age designer is to understand the potentials of digital technologies and explore how it can be exploited to create new and innovative product ideas. In future post, we will look at designer’s role in the brave new world beyond the digital technologies.
The three cases point to different generic messages for the design community. Reflecting back, I see these as strategies worth pursuing in the design teams that are increasingly dominated by techies. It will help designers to survive and thrive in the brave new world. It will also help design as a profession to get back into the pre-eminent position that it had during industrial age, when the designer understood and exploited the industrial age technologies.
Such a designer would be able to provide vision and reaffirm his expertise in taming the digital technologies to create new product/system ideas. He can watch communities and determine how people could effectively use digital technology and develop culture specific ideas and business models. The new age design needs new icons to initiate new iconic objects that are beyond the tangible. That explains why design community rightfully acknowledged the contributions of Steve Jobs. His work ideally fits into the current WTO definition of design.3 (REF)
Disruptive changes at the door step
So far we have dealt with the present and how we should catch up. To expect these changes to last may not be correct. There are disruptive changes that are round the corner.
We are already in the age of big data. We are also approaching the age of machine learning and artificial intelligence rapidly. These have already become a reality in some professions. (Medicine, Law and so on) These technologies are gradually entering creative fields. Thinking (and learning) products are already realities in some product categories. If so, what would be designing 5 and10 years from now on?
And lastly some local issues that we may all encounter. How will emerging countries like India respond to AI developments? Resisting such a development is pointless. Instead, should we not carve out a special role for designers to work with AI?
It is not that anyone has clear answers to this, nor is there a single correct answer. The author does not claim to have answers either. We need to promote experiments and debate the future course of actions in design education.
Few of the points will be focused on the next post.
Notes and references
1 Prahalad C K., (2006) The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid: Eradicating poverty through profits. Pearson Prentice Hall
2 WHO on gaming disorder.
http://www.who.int/features/qa/gaming-disorder/en/ Accessed on Sept 17, 2018
For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.
3 Source for definition of industrial design : http://www.icsid.org/about/definition/industrial-design-definition-history/