It must be beautiful: on news product design

Product design workshop at India Internet Day.

Product design workshop at India Internet Day.

How to design a great tech product for news?  The United States has seen some great and lovely new products for digital news, all in the past 5-6 years.  In India, on the other hand, digital design (at least for news sites) remains a race to the bottom.  A quick glance at the websites for the two big English dailies suggests one thing above all: no one seems to give a flying fig about designing a unique UX.

What a tragic oversight.  UX forms the core of any tech product; in many cases it is the answer to the fundamental question: “why are people using my product?”  A great UX can make the difference between a standout, successful product and another defunct web domain.  It’s not what you do, it’s also how you do it.

Recently, I went to a two-hour product design workshop at India Internet Day, where Amit Somani of MakeMyTrip, Sree Unnikrishnan of Google and Satish Mani of held forth on all these themes.  Here’s what I took away from it.

Design by committee – in this case, the 80 people in the room – is inevitably a disaster.  The first hour of the workshop was a mock product design brainstorming session.  Amit asked us to invent a product that could tell the time better than the devices we currently have.  Here’s how the cycle went:

Question 1: What do we want from a time product?  Desires: ability to quickly see multiple time zones at once, a tool that quantifies the value of time.

Question 2: What is wrong with what we currently have? Problems: watches can be lost, cell phones and watches require charge.

So we already had an unwieldy brief: design something that does a whole lot of calculations and syncs with multiple time zones, but at the same time avoids all the pitfalls and minor inconveniences of a device.

We then had pitches.  Someone suggested an earring/piece of jewelry that vibrated according to the time.  Another suggested a brain implant (which we couldn’t design). The winning design – which just goes to show the importance of presentation – was a plate with 24 dots on it, worn on a strap on the wrist.

Exactly. We voted in favor of a product that was essentially a more stone-age watch, and addressed none of the desires mentioned initially.  So much for product design by committee.

But THEN Amit, Sree and Satish took us through their product design manifesto.  At this point I was paying only inadequate attention because my phone and pen were both dying, but I remember a few key things:

BRING USERS INTO THE UX DESIGN PROCESS.  Seems intuitive, and yet, does not always happen.

IT MUST BE BEAUTIFUL.  I stress this point because this concept – that users deserve lovely products – doesn’t exist in India.  The digital design situation is a big game of chicken, wherein media orgs keep waiting for users to start paying more for products while users keep holding out and waiting for a product that is actually worth the money.  Is India a frustratingly price-sensitive market?  Absolutely. But on the other hand, genius design often means giving people something they have yet to realize they want. The notion that Indians either don’t notice or don’t care about beauty is utterly, horribly flawed. Everyone cares about beauty.  But I guess not everyone can afford it? Indian media cos have to stop treating their audience as a second-class audience that doesn’t deserve the best.  That is no way to build relationships, trust, or products that withstand the test of time.  Comparing the revenue earned by the New Yorker on iPad with the revenue earned by Mint on iPad is apples to oranges, not just because Indians have less disposable income but because the New Yorker app on iPad is a far more robust and vibrant product (and they designed it on a flying hunch, btw, not off an existing user base).  Mint is an interesting example because much of their initial traction when they launched was due to the lovely design and layout of their product, both on and offline, which was a novelty for the Indian market at the time.

I don’t claim to have the answers, but whatever we design for India has to have the following at its heart: 1) Android. 2) Beauty 3) Internationally Competitive UX 4) Cheaper, somehow?

(All very easy to say when my money is not on the line.  But still.  Point me to ONE beautiful tech news product that has come out of India and FAILED.  Exactly.  There aren’t any. An investment is not the same thing as an idea.  Indian users are sophisticated enough that we have seen/used well-designed, beautiful products.  We’re not going to magically start settling for less in the world of news.)

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