Design Edu 6: Case studies of hybrid products

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.

Caravaan 1

Caravaan 2

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.

Generic messages

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 vision

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.

Reposition design

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?

Next post

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. 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 :

Design Edu 5: Emerging product development landscape

Emerging product development landscape

This section deals with implications of rapidly developing technologies, particularly digital technologies that allow networking. Discussed are the possibilities of artifact connected to the networks, giving them a different role and power. It also explains the dichotomy of the brick-&-mortar and digital products by uniquely mapping of emerging product development landscape and using it as an innovation tool.

Also touched is the shift away from the focus on design of artifacts by responding to the broader context. It proposes that delivering value to users is a broader and more inclusive game. Also discussed are integration of newer areas like service design and development of innovative business models in the design process. In a way it justifies the new definition of industrial design that was accepted by WDO.



We will start by expanding on the questions that we had raised at the beginning of the series. They could include,

“Is the digital industry also a game changer for design as well as the way you approach design? Are the existing practices of conceptualizing and designing the artifacts obsolete now?” Added to that “Will the new artifacts not have the glamour associated with some of the iconic tangible artifacts that the famous designers created earlier?”

The other related questions are,

“With ICT and IOT dominating product innovation, have product designers lost the initiative that they once had in the design teams? How should design as a discipline and designers as professionals respond to the new challenges thrown by the digital industry?”

Technology has transformed the contexts in which the new artifacts have to function. It has duel influences. First, the technologies, digital or otherwise, that are behind the artifact performances have given new capabilities and occasionally intelligence to the stand-alone artifacts. For convenience, we have referred to these as artifact technologies. Second, artifacts through connectivity with the backend network/s, create new possibilities of delivering value. These are two somewhat independent and yet sometimes interconnected capabilities that the new products have been acquiring. For instance, wrist watches or role film cameras as categories have gone through artifact technology upgrades by using digital technologies, but all digital wristwatches or cameras are not necessarily connected to backends. (though eventually they might)

Mapping the landscape

For the purpose of analysis and conceptualization of the independent and interdependent influences of these two factors, they were treated as two separate scales and represented as two intersecting axes. It resulted in a two-by-two matrix. Such a map is able to show the separate as well as collective influences of these technologies on stand alone products as well as and networked systems. (See figure 1)


Figure 1: Axis X is a nominal scale where one half contains the stand-alone tangible artifacts and the other half shows networked artifacts. It displays connectivity of the product to the network. (Local, national, global or online, time shared etc.) The second axis Y is treated as ordinal scale and represents conceptual understanding of the level of technology.

Figure 1 is a mix of nominal and ordinal scales. Y axis refers to artifact dependent technologies. (like digital, nano tech etc. and with association of local intelligence) It would have been more appropriate and consistent to also treat Y axis as a nominal scale, classifying artifacts as belonging to industrial age and new technology age. Besides, actual measures of technology levels are cumbersome, nor was that intended. However, because most of us have some intuitive understanding of levels of technology, it makes sense to conceptually treat it as ordinal scale. Author is aware of the fact that such combinations of scales are theoretically wrong. However, they seem to be effective in communicating the idea. See case studies later in section 5 as explanation to the unusual combination.

The resultant four quadrants and the overlaps throw up interesting insights. Most natural directions for artifact upgrades are the vertical movements. When you upgrade tangible artifacts through new technologies, they move up. In a digital environment, some of them acquire intelligence to qualify as smart products.

Even traditional systems get an upgrade and move up when they are digitally networked. But that is not all. The top right quadrant shows that it is now possible to have artifacts that fulfill human needs and have no tangible existence. The impact of simultaneous influences of both the scales is reflected on the diagonal. We will touch this again later in this article.

Classifying the artifacts in four quadrants

The intersection of these two scales brings out the nuances of the new product development landscape and the challenges and the opportunities it offers. We can conceptually locate different products in the space based on the independent as well as collective influence of the two scales.

Bottom quadrants

Bottom left quadrant contains tangible stand-alone artifacts that have roots in the pre-digital era and the Brick-&-mortar industry. This quadrant includes domestic appliances (mixers, vacuum cleaners, refrigerator etc.), kitchenware, furniture, writing instruments, vending machines, photography equipment (and even machine tools). During the industrial revolution, these artifacts went through several influences, starting with arts and craft movement to modern movement, but the design focus was always on the artifacts.

Tangible artifact orientation indirectly influenced the philosophical foundations and the modern design approach. The two pioneering design schools, Bauhaus and later Ulm school, both in Germany, contributed much of the design(erly) thinking that prevailed then. Both the schools were also influenced by the artifact orientation. The ideas of design and processes were built on the foundation of artifact focus. We owe much of our recent design history to the bottom left quadrant.

Bottom right quadrant has conventional systems and artifacts that earlier functioned as part of conventional networks. Most of the infrastructure providers. (services like water, electricity etc.) Transporters like railways, bus and truck fleet operators and supply chains fall into this category. All of them are based on artifacts that were, physically or otherwise, connected to the system governed centrally, that control the field operations and field staff. Other examples include, telephones and telephone exchanges, radios and televisions with their broadcasting stations, walky-talkies with command units and so on. Most of these artifacts function as part of dedicated physical network.

The top two quadrants

The top left quadrant has been influenced by technologies that improve the performance of the artifact. The movement towards top right shows the influences of connectivity from the digital networking technology (Or ICT) by different degrees. As you will see later, both have critical and many times independent influences on the products. So, separation of the two is critical.


Figure 2: Shows how newer products tend to upgrade the technologies and go up towards top quadrants. Networking prompts movement towards right. Some of them work as hybrids, like ATM and smart phone (17,18 above). Technology gives them local as well as network capabilities. Dropping the perpendicular on the diagonal shows the location of the product on the continuum and indicates the combined influence of both the scales.  

The map is a conceptual idea. So are the scales conceptual. Attempt to physically locate the products is not easy, nor intended.

Smart artifacts

Top left quadrant shows how brick-&-mortar industries are moving up in the landscape increasingly incorporating new technologies, and more often digital technologies. It contains stand-alone tangible products, which are technologically updated versions in the artifacts in the quadrant below. Most of these artifacts now have a superior functionality and performance. They are more efficient, cost effective and more compact when compared to their predecessors. They are often safer and more sustainable. Thus digital cameras have pushed the roll film cameras to museums.

Using digital technology, some of these takeover the routine and non-routine cognitive functions of the human operator and qualify as smart artifacts with number of intuitive auto functions. However, new technologies need not be digital. Dyson’s innovative vacuum cleaners and table fans are contemporary stand-alone tangible artifacts with a strong new technology back up. Most modern kitchen appliances have limited digital functions. They are tangible and usually make the earlier versions obsolete, but some of them are connected to backend networks only if that offers new benefits. Refrigerator is one such candidate.

Where everything is connected

The top right quadrant shows the duel influence of artifact related technologies as well as the new power they acquire through connectivity and networking. This has challenged the very idea of the tangible products as a standalone value deliverers and also revolutionized the way number of artifacts function now.

This quadrant contains objects, which may look like and even appear to function like stand lone products, but in reality they are just touch points to the users. Their power and the way they deliver value to the user, comes from their backend connectivity with the ICT network/s.

The map must be treated as a dynamic entity. Movement towards the top quadrants is and has been the most natural way by which new tech products are created. (See figure 2 & 3 above) The artifacts in this quadrant have been responding to new needs, life styles and are increasingly coming under the spell of new technologies, which are largely, (but not necessarily) digital. The new technologies and the thinking prevalent in the digital technology and ICT industries are transforming the products and systems in the bottom two quadrants.

Integrating service through service design

Top right quadrant is significant because it has the potentials of integrating new ideas and thinking like service design. This is not a traditional service, like say agent booking and delivering airlines tickets or cashier dispensing cash in a bank. It is service design in its new avatar.

In digital environment, the networks empower the user to get the service he desires and whenever he wants. (often 24×7) Additionally, the backend also confirms the transaction through additional channels like SMS and email, assuring the user that the service is completed. For instance, ATM is no more a stand-alone artifact, but must be seen as a frontend touch point, that is powered by different backends to deliver services, and thus value to the users. It is just an element of the ‘designed’ ecosystems.

New services are driven by the backend networks that, besides serving the primary function, update data, coordinate with other networks, understand your choices, make recommendations, remind you and help you with the service routines.

New business models in connectivity era

Digital implementation of the transactions and/or connectivity has created number of new potentials. It is now possible to conceptualize business models that were too unwieldy to implement in the traditional processes. The reason for the popularity of mobile phones in India has as much to do with innovative business models, as with the tech capabilities.


Figure 4: We can add networking, service design and business model development as new elements in the model to complete it. Artifacts remain as one of the element I the design of product ecosystem. The new age design is definitely interdisciplinary. What role would the designer play in the team?

World Design Organization (WDO, previously ICSID) recognized this change by adopting the new definition of industrial design around 2015 AD. It captured the scope very well when it accepted the definition,

“Industrial Design is a strategic problem-solving process that drives innovation, builds business success and leads to a better quality of life through innovative products, systems, services and experiences

Key change is its equation with innovation and its inclusiveness ecosystem. My earlier posts had included discussion on the changing definitions of industrial design since 1959 AD. 1 Even Tim Brown’s book ‘Change by design’ proposes similar ideas.2

Notes and references

1 Source for definitions of industrial design :

2 Brown T., (2009) Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation, Harper Business.


Design Edu 4: About design, designers and design approach

This section is added for people who work with designers in developing new products. It also deals with scope of design and design practice. Those who have design background can skip this section

This section gives a quick overview of thinking that drove modern design. It will also explain the context in which the terms, design and designers, are used in these posts. This is intended to create a background to compare and contrast the changes that digital industries may have prompted.

The focus is in on the contributions by product designers, UX and visual designers as members of multi-disciplinary product development teams. These groups of designers visualize and create products that become the ‘face’ of the background thinking and ideas of these design teams. They transform ideas of product functions into endearing artifacts1 and memorable user experiences. We plan to start with a brief account of design and design approach that dominated in developing tangible artifacts from the brick-&-mortar industry.

Designers shape artifacts

Though it is not fashionable to talk of brick-&-mortar industries anymore, you cannot forget the facts that design and new artifact development has roots in these industries. Thinking in these industries was driven by three main factors. First, the then current industrialization and use of then new technologies to offer new artifact functions. That is why industrial design is called a product of industrial age. Second, understand and meet the aspirations of the potential users.Third, strive for the acceptance by the potential market and thus generate business.

When users encounter the artifacts in the real world, they develop the perceptions of the technical capabilities and company capabilities through appearance and interaction with these artifacts. Artifacts serve as a visible face of technology and business. It is but natural that the conventional understanding of design should have been ‘artifact’ focused, to include objects, machines, packaging, even architectural creations and so on.

It is through careful design of these artifacts that the designers find opportunities to deliver value to the users. Underlying this is the thought process based on empathy for users who use, interact and react to these products and benefits from them. Design efforts are concentrated on making the artifacts efficient and convenient to use, safer, cost effective, delightful, and in specific cases memorable.

Because this section is dealing with the past, the use of the term artifact is appropriate. Note that in the current design environment, product designer’s work goes beyond artifacts. The scope of the term ‘artifact’ is too limiting. Even the term product has become more inclusive. Design and design thinking can potentially touch ‘products’ that can include some aspects of software products and applications, even financial instruments and so on. The later sections of this article looks at the challenges that arise from the new meaning of the term ‘product’. More about it later in this series.

Designers give face to the technologies

In shaping artifact appearance, designers create visual expressions that develop public face of the technologies, functions and experiences. They also project quality and the culture of the company producing it. In doing that they influence the perception of the users and the society. Representative example would be Charles Eames lounge chair and juicer Juicy Salif by Phillippe Starck. So, the artifact-focused thinking often culminate   s into fashioning endearing and complex visual statements. In doing it is conventional for the designer to explore new materials and manufacturing processes to create appropriate artifact expressions.


Figure 1: Modeling of inputs that created tangible artifacts in the past. The relative importance of these three factors depends on the product category and the context in which the design is expected to function. To visualize their relative importance, think of artifact categories like chair, wrist watch, domestic appliances and machine tools.

There are conceptual differences between the science and technology driven, and user driven design approaches. The former is largely developed in laboratories and can fundamentally change the way artifacts work and deliver performance. Technologies like 3D printing of food or driverless car are likely to shape our future. So do wristwatches that also monitor health parameters and instruct us to change our behaviour and life styles. However, it is a different game when these technologies reach the market place as artifacts. Here is a good illustrative example. Technology driven robotic kitchen where customers can customize recipes, eventually needed a good chef!

Designers envision artifacts based on insights from the field and the market place. So, treating communities as their laboratories is natural. Learning from the communities and users is so critical for designers that it is built into their process of education. Most design schools use live design projects as learning material in their studios. Designers prefer to work directly with the users and co-create whenever possible.

This is where designers as well as UX experts come in. They transform these technologies into artifacts and systems that the users will aspire to buy and feel proud of. Because user is central to their actions, they prefer to spend time and efforts on the qualitative understanding of the potential users through systematic observations, contextual interviews and sometimes ethnography. Unlike lab-based approach of the technologists, people based and user driven approach is steered by the field, the users and the market place.

When all competitors share same technology in an artifact category, the way artifact and the UX is designed is a major differentiating factor and gives it the competitive edge in the market. The term design is used to talk of their contributions in the team and the term designer in this article refers only to this breed.

To the users, artifacts remain the visible and tangible face of the technology as well as the background thinking that has gone in creating the product idea. When they buy and use the product, they ‘feel’ the value that the product has attempted to deliver. It is no wonder that these designers have to share the credits as well as the blames.

Creating holistic experiences

Design contributions complement the inputs that come from technologies used in the artifact. So, effective communication between these two teams is critical. The latter provides the technical expertise to ensure performance of the product, the former converts these technologies into people centric artifacts that are appropriate for the intended use and are delightful to use. Technologies in the artifact are often opaque to the users who encounter these artifacts. So, in such encounters, users tend to take holistic judgments. For example, the judgment of the comfort of the chair depends as much on the extend to which it matches our perceptions of features that we associate with comfort, as on the effect of science of comfort and the sophisticated technologies that ensure fine adjustments in seat and back positions. For the users, the artifact appearance and its people oriented features remain the face of the technology.

Emotional connect

Designers know that the relationship of artifacts, people and society is complex. They know that people may buy the artifacts because of the function that they offer. But they also have emotional connect with number of artifacts they purchase and use. That explains why experience design is assuming greater importance. They carefully preserve them even after they have outlived their function. Such individual archival are full of stories associated with the artifact. Museums too serve this function for the society. They collect representative as well as iconic artifacts to show how they exploited technologies, how they functioned and what they looked like. These achieved artifacts become stories that need to be told to the scholars and next generation.

This is only a brief account of thinking on design as well as design approach that dominated development of artifacts. There were parallel developments in the design philosophies, theory and design process that informed these developments. For concise account of these developments the readers may want to refer to links for earlier posts on this topic. (1) (2)

The idea of design was never static and kept on evolving with time. Even the official definition of design has continued to evolve. (3) (4) Note that till 1990s the official definition of design remained rooted in the artifact orientation. It had already started becoming obsolete towards the end of last millennium. Accepting the transformation in the world technology scenario, the new official definition emerged recently (2015 AD). More about it in the next post of the series.

Notes and references

1 The use of the term artifact in the initial section is deliberate. It is a term that includes objects, tools or parts of it, all made by humans. Artifacts refer to objects either in use now, in the past or are part of museums. Later in this series, it will be contrasted with the use of term product.


Design Edu 3: Reimagining product design

Reimagining product design

Encounter with the connectivity era

Author’s note:

This series is based on my personal views and on experience of practice and teaching of design in India. It is an interesting country for the design professionals to function. As in most emerging economies, its different sectors are in desperately different stages of the development ladder and all these steps coexist. So theoretically, the scope for designers to function in such an environment may not have parallels.

Internationally, product design is already in the process of transition in several technologically advanced countries. In India, this process is catching up, though not fast enough. Through this series, I plan to; 1] Reflect on international and local trends and theorize; 2] Introduce mapping tool that attempts explain the past innovations and also serve as a tool to explore new directions of innovation in design.


Introduction to the series

Design profession is built on optimism. It believes that design intervention should improve quality of life on the earth. It always hoped to make the world a better place to live by bringing something new and useful in the world as new artifacts. This has always remained a motivation for most design actions in conventional brick-&-mortar industries, and now in new age digital industries. If so, why see them as separate entities from design point of view?

Brick-&-mortar vs digital industries

Digital industries, digital businesses and digital products are often treated as game changers. They have successfully altered the rules of how the new products are developed, promoted, consumed and how the new businesses are run. Quick innovation is the name of the game in these industries. The questions that we plan to address are,

“Is the digital industry also a game changer for design and the way you approach design? Can digital industry become a game changer for product design too?”

It is common to compare the digital industry with the brick-&-mortar industry that produced tangible artifacts, subtly suggesting how the digital and ICT industry is more contemporary and sophisticated. If you see in a broader context, there is definitely some truth in this. Digital industries have indeed created new breed of products. These products serve the same or similar functions like their predecessors, but are superior in their performance. In fact, in many cases they show how they can handle functions that are out of the range of tangible products.

In the digital and ICT dominated world of products, central question that you continue to address while designing is, “how do I improve the life/activities that the user is engaged in, or wants to get engaged in, using new and innovative products?” Digital technology and ICT are changing the world rapidly and that too in multiple ways. Critical to this article is the question,

“How is the design as a discipline as well as designers, particularly product designers as professionals, are responding to the new challenges?”

Designing and developing new products is a relatively less expensive root to innovation with visible benefits to the users. They are a result of designers continuously searching for opportunities to create and deliver new user oriented value propositions. In corporate world, designing these value propositions is balanced carefully with business goals.

How do we plan to approach these questions?

Plan of the series

This section introduces the topic and its scope.

Second section gives a quick overview of thinking that drove modern design. It will also explain the context in which the terms, design and designers, are used in these posts. This is intended to create a background to compare and contrast the changes that digital industries have prompted later. This section is added for people who work with designers in developing new products. It also deals with scope of design practice. Those who have design background can skip this section.

The third section deals with implications of rapidly developing technologies, particularly digital technologies that allow networking, Discussed are the possibilities of artifact connected to the networks, giving them a different role and power. It also explains the dichotomy of the brick-&-mortar and digital products by uniquely mapping of emerging product development landscape and using it as a innovation tool.

Also touched is the shift away from the focus on design of artifacts by responding to the broader context. It proposes that delivering value to users is a broader and more inclusive game. Also discussed are integration of newer areas like service design and development of innovative business models in the design process. In a way it justifies the new definition of industrial design that was accepted by WDO.

The forth section will discuss new opportunities emerging from the landscape and attempts to label some of the new age products as dematerialized and hybrids, and the implications of these new categories to design. It proposes strategies for innovation using landscape as a source of innovation available to designers.

The fifth section presents representative case studies that fit into the idea in retrospect, which suggest that delivering value to users is a broader and more inclusive game. It also revisits in idea of appropriate technology in the context of the digital world.

The sixth section looks at the pedagogic implications of these developments and argues how product design as a discipline should reposition itself to meet new challenges and it can stay relevant in the new context by becoming more inclusive. It ends with series of questions to reflect on.

The subsequent posts are not yet fully planned, but they will deal with the challenges that designers will face, particularly in the emerging markets like India .

Design edu 2: Has product design lost its sheen?

Has product design lost its sheen?

I am a product designer, taught and practice product design. Almost all of them were tangible products. (Link to portfolio) I am trying to understand the new world and the digital environment. I agree that some of my understanding may be incomplete, or even outdated. So, I am sure you may not agree with some of the comments I make. Do feel free to constructively critic the views and correct the mistakes.

Design community has always been reactive and has changed the course of IDC thinking through feedback. Other design schools too would have taken corrective steps. Call it personal rant based on inadequate information, but I thought I would present my perceptions anyway. May be I have missed a lot.

Do I send my child to product design? Or …

Parents call us to help choose between product design, visual communication, animation and so on. They call me too. Some years ago, I used to recommend product design as a first choice. Of late, I have second thoughts. Should I continue to recommend product design to the young aspirants?

I have also been looked at with suspicion for calling the current approach to product design as dated. I sincerely believe that the early initiation that it had is slipping out of PD hands. I now have a feeling that what I have believed in so far is grossly inadequate in the current Indian scenario. It is a mistake to continue to support it.

Did IDC began with a mistake in 1970?

When IDC started, the expertise expected from product designer had European flavour.

Was the European model appropriate as a starting point?

The focus was on ideas of developing products that industry could quickly take up and develop using in-house engineering design expertise. That kind of motivation and drive was absent in the Indian industry then, nor did they have the engineering expertise and infrastructure for developing products. With this the ‘hypothetical ideal designer’ remained a distant dream in India. Industry expected full service that included engineering and prototyping of ideas. Such a support system for designers never developed and continues to be very poor even now. (Industries even expect this now, but for different reasons) Most designers double their role as product developers.

Are designers equipped function as product developers?

Markets were not competitive then. (1) Besides, with most product design ideas coming from outside the country through industry collaboration, the scope of expert designer was limited.

IDC’s initial reaction was to balance this with social impact projects. Reflecting on it now, these projects look like originating from the urge to make design country and region specific.

Was that a blessing in disguise? or a mistake?

Do add your views and comments.

Notes and references

(1) Even now, in sectors where there is competition, design is not used as a competitive edge to capture markets. If there is a competition, it is between global companies. Amazon – WalMart; Sony – Panasonic; Honda and Toyota, Coke and Pepsi …

Design education 1

idc-50-colorAppeal to the design community

The design education scene in India is transforming rapidly in the last decade. Lots of Institutions involved are experimenting with new ideas, courses and syllabus. There is Design Education page on the face book. Everybody is in the process of discovering something that they want to share. All this is of course good news.

This is yet another invitation to collectively reflect on issues dealing with design education. The focus is on

“Has and how design education responded to the contextual changes? Does it need more changes? If so, why? And What?”

It is conceived as participatory effort and I request my design colleagues (Professional, educators and students), to comment, criticize, challenge and take each other’s ideas forward. Imagine this as a digital roundtable discussion.

None of this is new. Then what prompted me to pen this down now?

To me, it is the emotional connect with the Industrial Design Centre (IDC), now renamed IDC School of Design. Jan 1, 2020 is an important day for the School of Design. It is exactly 50 years from the day the first group of students entered IDC. Incidentally, that is the day I joined IDC as a faculty. IDC will be entering golden jubilee year soon.

These 49 years have been productive, but has it also created a baggage that we are not aware of? For those connected with IDC, the golden jubilee is an opportunity to reflect on the last 50 years. It may lead to create new initiative in design education for the new generation.

Why bog

It is deliberately conceived as a blog where everyone parks their ideas and questions for others to comment. The discussion will be always available to all. The participatory efforts will leave behind everyone’s ideas for others to brood on. For educators, it may form your ideas on education that you may want to introduce and ask others to reflect on.

I know blog is not an ideal answer for the idea of round table. Everybody should be able to put up their questions and seek answers. If you want to start new discussion thread, I will put that up on your behalf. I am a digitally challenged person. I do not know how else to do this.

On a lighter side, blog is a good idea, because it does not have a ‘like’ button! So you can’t use the ‘most clicked’ word anymore.


It is not the goal to reach an optimum or ideal solutions to the problems faced by design education, nor is it desirable. I believe that the diversity of India should reflect on its educational contents.

I hope to catalyze the interaction by occasionally raising issues that are intended to deliberately provoke reactions. But, I have a personal agenda too. I hope to develop a whitepaper to conclude with the golden jubilee events of IDC school of design.

Appeal to design community

Though this is planned as India specific initiative, I urge those not part of IDC school of design to participate in the discussions. There are two reasons for this. 1) Your views will be neutral and unbiased. Your constructive criticism will be helpful; 2) Your experiences would be varied and thus useful. This will make the contents richer; and lastly, 3) Some of the issues are generic enough for you to identify with; 4) You can contribute your experiences of how some of the challenges that design education is facing may have been tackled before. We need not reinvent the wheels again.

I am looking forward to active participation from IDCians, but also more from other the readers. They can bring fresh views.

So, do participate and interact. Can I request you to make sure that you and your colleagues participate and upload the issues that have been bugging them.

Uday Athavankar