Interested in Design Research?

We have an opportunity for you.

As part of the Design!Public conclave, the Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS) is organising field experiences in and around Bangalore on the 11th and 12th of October. We are looking for intelligent, talented, or just plain interested volunteers who want first-hand experience at ethnography and design research.

Together we want to understand some of the grand challenges that face our economy and society. These are

A: Online Higher Education
B: Quality Maternal and Child Healthcare
C: Toilet-training for All!

Findings from the field experiences will be shared at the Design!Public Conclave on the 14th of October at the NGMA. It’s your chance to be a part of the cycle of innovation.


Neha Ahlawat: +91 8095081400
Namrata Mehta: +91 9818073434

Read more about the Conclave here, and see the draft agenda.

Can Innovation be Routinized?

By Aditya Dev Sood

I am told by those who study these things that agriculture came about more or less by accident. Our early ancestors found fruits and berries, corn, edible plants and other vegetation and ate the good parts, discarding the seeds without thought, here and there, or in the garbage. In other cases they ate the seeds, which passed through them to find themselves in newly fertilized ground. In this early period, one would have to conclude, agriculture was not yet routinized, even though it came to be later on.

I have also heard, from several reliable authorities, that we have entered, or are entering the age of innovation. I am not entirely certain I know what this means, but I wonder if it might not mean that the dominant mode of production in these emerging times involves the creation of incrementally — or drastically — more valuable outputs given the same inputs. For some, this is the very definition of capitalism.

I find the parallel with the age of early agriculture compelling. Even though innovation is being practiced all around us, we are still in a very preliminary phase of being able to actually understand what is going on, how it yields us benefit, and what parts of the process are critical to its success in different climates, sectors of industry and world cultures.

[Read more…]

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: An Interview with Ekta Ohri

By Ayesha Vemuri

Ekta Ohri, the Head of Project Operations at CKS, recently attended a workshop organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) in Seattle. I spoke with Ekta about her experience there, and wanted to share some excerpts from our conversation.

Ayesha: Could you briefly describe the purpose of the workshop: why was it held, what was the agenda, who were the participants, and what was your role within it?

Ekta: The workshop was a four-day event organized by the Gates Foundation because they want to develop an integrated ICT platform in Bihar for all their grantees. They wanted to discuss how to set up the platform, what its component pieces would need to be, and for the grantees to come to a common understanding in order to work together to develop, deploy and manage the platform. My role – and CKS’s role – in this workshop was to bring in the knowledge around developing effective solutions for improving maternal and child healthcare in Bihar, acquired in the process of working on other Gates Foundation initiatives.

Ayesha: What did you learn by being at this workshop? Is there any one insight that really struck you?

Ekta: It was very interesting, naturally, to meet with the different participants and to learn about their different initiatives in Bihar. But I guess that one lesson to take away from the entire experience is that user-centered approach to innovation is really necessary for creating solutions that create an impact on ground.

For instance, it was discussed that to register beneficiaries into the health system one also needs to map their cultural background (religion, caste) besides recording other vitals. But on the other hand, I knew from the extensive shadowing of health workers we’ve done as part of ethnographic processes in the past in Bihar, that while Hindu workers do face resistance from Muslim communities, areas that are very remote or hard to reach tend to be more excluded as workers consciously avoid visiting such areas. Hence, it would be more useful for the registration tool to take both geography and terrain into account in addition to the cultural background of beneficiaries.

Also we learnt while conducting ethnographic research in Bihar that all the different frontline health workers have different roles, different motivation levels and varying literacy and knowledge levels. Therefore, a single service or application – or even a single type of mobile device – may not be appropriate or valuable for all. Many ASHAs, for instance, have only completed primary school, whereas ANMs may have studied until 12th grade. So if you give them all JAVA enabled mobile phones to support applications designed as job aids, for example, ASHAs may not benefit at all because they may not be able to effectively use the applications.

Ayesha: So I guess one size doesn’t fit all, and that’s where ethnography is really useful – to really investigate and understand what different people need…so that you can design solutions that really do cater to their needs.

Ekta: Yes, absolutely, and that’s where our work – and the work of organizations like CKS – can really add value. In order to design more effective solutions, the first step would be to conduct this kind of in-depth ethnographic research and analysis.

After this, the next very challenging step is to convince the government of the value of that solution. Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, is a sensible leader who has shown himself to be passionate and committed to developing the state. So to convince him of the value of a solution, that inherent value must be very apparent. Again, ethnographic research ensures that the solutions are based on the real needs of the people, and have been developed after much research and thought. Ultimately, the whole process may appear to take longer, but in fact it increases the efficacy of solutions creating a more lasting impact on the ground.

Our biggest failures and what they taught us

We’re putting together a book right now, and it’s got us looking back through old projects to explore what we’ve learned over the years.

This may not surprise everyone, but we’re finding that the greatest lessons we’ve learned over the years have come from our failures.

When we’d just started out, we got a project request from a huge American internet services company. They were curious about internet usage and the data needs of people in India. Specifically, they had discovered that many people in India owned computers, but were not connecting to the internet. They were confused as to why someone would be using a computer but be disinterested in the internet.

So they asked us to do ethnographic research on this demographic to find out how they were using computers. We focused on South India, and through research we found a number of people who owned computers and could afford internet access, but hadn’t adopted it yet…

[Read more…]

People Don’t Know Themselves (or Getting Beyond Market Research)

Ekta Ohri is the Head of Project Operations at CKS.

In the design field, there has been a long, slow change in our understanding of what makes for good design.

In the late 90’s, there was a shared understanding in the design industry that good design is all about creativity. The best designs were considered to be designs that displayed a great deal of creativity from its designer. But in the early 2000’s, Apple products like the iPod gained popularity in the Indian market. They were smart, sleek products that seemed to understand exactly how you used a device, and how to make using it simple and intuitive.

In an attempt to mimic this ease of use, many design practitioners in India shifted their focus to “user-centered design” – design that tried to understand the needs of the user. Frequently, this design process involved extensive market research, often based around doing one-on-one interviews with prospective customers about what they want and need.

But true user-centered design relies on something beyond simple market research. The work we do at CKS relies a great deal on observing people as they use a product or service. We observe people, interview them, shadow them at home, at work and in the world at large. These are research techniques that are more traditionally associated with ethnography or anthropology than with design, but they are invaluable to our work.

The reason that this is necessary is simple: people don’t know themselves all that well. If you ask someone a series of questions about how they use a product or service, they will try their best to answer your questions. But when you observe the way someone actually acts in their everyday life, you can observe them doing things in a way that they may not even be conscious of.

Truly good design works at this level, engaging people in their conscious and subconscious decisions. It steers them, whether they know it or not, towards a more efficient action or a smarter choice.

I believe that design has the potential to transform peoples’ lives for the better. But doing so requires that we understand the people that we are designing for. Maybe, even more than they know themselves.

-Ekta Ohri