Home / Opinion / Online-views /  The promise of ‘design thinking’

Now that the earnings season is upon us again, many Indian IT service providers will start to fluff up their earnings reports with flowery words and incomprehensible industry jargon to enunciate their future strategies in what is turning out to be an ever more challenging market for them. Many experienced people have a healthy tendency to dismiss new buzzwords. We have grown used to industries routinely adopting new nomenclature every once in a while in order to breathe life into old concepts, and our spam filter gets set on the highest setting at this time every quarter.

A refreshing exception is the concept of “design thinking", especially when used in relation to the enterprise software industry. While some industries have flirted with design thinking over the years, it has never really been mainstream except in a few. Design has been considered a creative endeavour, and not a commercial one, except of course, if you are a design firm like Ideo or an Internet portal for designers like Dexigner.

Generation Y is beginning to change this dated viewpoint. There is a groundswell movement at management schools worldwide that focuses on the concept of design thinking, which starts with putting the user first. I had a recent conversation with the young founders of TinkerLabs, a start-up that was founded as a training company to help foster this type of thinking at campuses in India. The conversation revealed that they have also worked on training programmes with a number of industries, and that even the world’s largest employer, the Indian Railways, has benefited from the application of design thinking. And no, I am not talking about former railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s introduction of clay cups for beverages on Indian trains, though that itself is an outstanding example of such design thinking.

For decades now, the development of software meant for business enterprises—whether for a new product or new versions of an old product—has followed methodologies where functionality (i.e., the process the software performs for a business) was paramount and the user was an afterthought. Many new methods of software development have been introduced over the years, such as waterfall development, use case development and now the latest—agile development. All these models are also used by myriad Internet start-ups. Most Internet start-ups are built with a particular business need in mind, such as retail (Amazon, Flipkart) and transportation (Uber, Ola). The user’s ergonomic experience of the software has always been left to “chemistry" which is a science different from computer programming. At best, the product has been updated for user-friendliness after it has launched.

I will not bore the reader with a laboured explanation of each of these methods of software development, but will dally long enough to point out that whatever the method of development, “user acceptance testing" was always the last and most hurried stage in the development of a new product meant for a business enterprise. This stage came much after the programming accuracy and the capability of the software to perform the business function were tested, and its robustness and integrity in an always-on “production" environment was established through an intricate process known as “regression testing". The process—such as logistics, supply chain, accounting, mortgage processing and so on—that the system was capable of automating was paramount and the user’s experience of using the system was secondary.

The concept of design thinking turns this process inside out. It begins with focusing on what users will want to experience, rather than on the commercial need the software will fulfil. This is a massive change, because it suddenly puts the thinking around ergonomics and pulchritude at the forefront—rather like Ferrari asking the famed automotive design house of Pininfarina to first design how its “bella macchinas" would look and feel, before working on the motor and drivetrain.

Even in the automotive world, where one would expect to see it more often, such extreme design thinking is rare. New models are usually conjured up by automotive engineers who keep at the forefront considerations like engine performance, fuel efficiency and manufacturing automation through robots. They then throw this new product over the wall to a design studio that attempts to put a skin on the automobile to make it appealing to buyers.

In a stunning piece of forward thinking, India’s house of Mahindra bought out the storied Pininfarina family business late last year. Assuming it’s as affordable as the rest of Mahindra’s stable, many would be more than willing to put down a security deposit on a Pininfarina-designed Mahindra car. Whether this acquisition benefits all parts of Mahindra—and especially its IT arm—is yet to be tested.

India’s second largest employer set, Indian software exporters, is now beginning to talk about design thinking as it relates to software in an attempt to get away from the “factory" model of software services that they themselves quickly adopted in order to tease out more efficiency in the projects outsourced to them. In essence, it is an attempt to break free from the “back office" tag that has been given to most Indian exporters of software services by attempting to occupy a space that promises to revolutionize software development the world over.

This shift is extreme, and is easier to talk about than accomplish. Many thousands of words will be wasted over the next few weeks on concepts such as automation, artificial intelligence, productization, cloud, digital—and design thinking. But if the Indians succeed, which I hope they will, this shift to design thinking will mark a pivotal moment in the evolution of India’s software juggernaut.

Siddharth Pai is a management and technology consultant.

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