Design in India: an interview with Apala Lahiri Chavan

Gerry Gaffney Global UX Leave a Comment

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Transcript

Gerry Gaffney:

Apala Lahiri Chavan is Managing Director of Human Factors International in India. She’s a highly experienced usability practitioner and has a special interest in cross-cultural design. She holds an MA from the University of Chennai and an MSc from London Guildhall University. Apala, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Apala Lahiri Chavan:

Thank you, it’s a great pleasure to be on the podcast.

Gerry:

You’ve done quite a bit of research on how Information Technology can assist people on very low incomes. Can you tell us a little about the challenges and opportunities of that sort of situation?.

Apala:

You know, we’ve got a problem with the amount of cash that can be spent, there’s a problem with the lack of education and literacy, so these have proved to be the major challenges. However, the opportunities arise from the fact that the population of the lower end of the economic pyramid are extremely motivated to go in for education at any cost, and so they will… you know, they are very receptive, and any innovation that one can drive towards fulfilling that need for education is accepted extremely easily.

Gerry:

And does that mean that most of the work you’re doing for those poorer or low income populations are in the educational field?.

Apala:

Interestingly it sort of has turned out that way. We’ve worked for several large multinational corporations in the technology sector who have come in into an emerging market space, that is, you know, India, China, Brazil, and have started by setting up their research their laboratories for new products in India, and after initial market research all of them have come down to the same conclusion, that it is the education sector which is the best area to go into with innovative products because there is a need which is overarching all other needs.

At this moment we are doing a project which is very different which is not in the area of education; this is for the slum population in Mumbai and two other cities in India which are not large cities like Mumbai. We are looking at what is the concept of home with for the slum population, where the tenure of staying is so unpredictable, nothing is legal, everything is sort of very mobile and fluid. What is home in that kind of an environment and can design solve any of the problems that exist given all the constraints? And so we are you know in the phase where we finished all the user research and now we are in the phase of coming up with concepts.

Gerry:

So how are those products going to be delivered? I mean I guess it’s hard for me to understand how a population which is you know in some cases unable to read and write if you’re talking about the very low income population, obviously doesn’t have regular access or even perhaps any access at all to internet connection, so does that mean in schools and community centres and places like that?.

Apala:

Correct. Absolutely. There’s a huge emphasis on community usage. There is an infrastructure in the country for community spaces, community usage in the government funded schools as well as in the smaller towns and villages there is infrastructure where the entire community can use certain products and or services that have been given by or funded by the government. That’s really proving to be a major advantage in reaching out to this population.

Gerry:

Okay. To change tack slightly now, Apala, I wanted to ask you about mobile phones or cell phones. They seem to be such a cultural indicator in most countries. How are mobile phones used in India?.

Apala:

Well, mobile phones in India are very much a mechanism a) to conduct business – that’s very important and that has, again it’s one of the reasons why penetration of mobile phones I think has been so huge, has leapfrogged beyond what was imagined. So we have a lot of small vendors who survive by doing their business using the mobile phone as well as the mobile phones are used to, interestingly, to sort of fill in the areas where there is a tension in the culture because of what is the cultural ideal for this culture and what is the actual cultural practice.

Now to explain that a bit better… so you’ve got, traditionally India, and even today perhaps if you leave the larger metropolitan areas like Mumbai and Delhi, in the second tier smaller towns and villages, differentiation in role between genders has always been very, very strongly emphasised and so that has also resulted in the whole custom of men and women being discouraged to have social interactions outside of, you know, once you know you are married and you have sort of friends you interact with etc, but it’s been very different from the way that men and women can interact freely in western societies.

Now, interestingly enough, that very cultural ideal of being a very masculine society and very, gender differentiation being a major aspect of the culture has created this tension where the actual practices that men and women do want to interact with each other, they do want to have relationships, they do want to be able to be free to you know talk to each other, and so suddenly, you know, bingo! there arrives the device which gave that freedom to everybody. It’s an individual device, the mobile phone, you carry it with you, you are not forced to talk to somebody. You know as on a land line, you are sort of inside the house, there are many people around, and so you don’t have that privacy always. But here you’ve got something that really suddenly frees you from this constraint, and that has again helped a lot in empowering and freeing particularly women in their ability to reach out and communicate and build social networks for themselves and this is I think not just India but it is a feature very prevalent as far as cell phone usage is concerned in the entire Asian region, but is certainly very important here. So it’s fascinating to see these two aspects, how small businesses who really are roadside vendors, plumbers and carpenters who otherwise are so very on the wrong side of the digital divide, suddenly they are so much more involved because of the cell phone.

Gerry:

Apala you were in China recently presenting at User Friendly 2006. Can you tell me what you think are the most immediate apparent cultural differences between China and India.

Apala:

Um.

Gerry:

I know that’s a difficult question. [Laughter].

Apala:

Yeah, it is. It’s also very interesting because sometimes at the surface sometimes it feels like that these two countries, these two cultures are very, very similar. But actually there are some very major differences and a couple of differences that really stand out if you observe closely. One is that India still continues to be more of a masculine society which means, as I said, still very strong role definitions, different role definitions for men and women. China, that is almost entirely gone, it’s much, much less than what maybe existed before the Cultural Revolution etc. That era of Chinese history has certainly made that old masculine Chinese society morph into a more feminine by cultural dimensions which means there is very little role differentiation, so men and women are sort of equally present in all sorts of vocations as well as in the house. It is common, and we have done a lot of ethnographic studies in China, it’s very common to see that the husband also if necessary cooks and the woman doesn’t have to always feel that if she is going out she must come back and she must come back and she is the one who has to provide all the food in the house. We found that is not the case whereas that is still very much the case in a similar kind of metropolitan area in India. So that’s a very big difference. The other very big difference we noticed was India continues to be a very hierarchical culture and you know again in cultural dimension terms you would term that as being very high power distance.

China, which was also at one point, hundreds of years ago, extremely high power distance now has changed completely from that to becoming much more flat in the way society is organised relative to India. And this is so very apparent if you go to a Chinese home where very much because of the again because of this whole internal history that they’ve had, the one child policy has led to the child suddenly becoming very, very powerful in the family dynamic, which even now is not entirely the case in India. So suddenly the rules of power and who is hierarchically superior has changed. It has also changed in very subtle ways because of the kind of political establishment that existed, so of course there is some hierarchy. There are political sort of functionaries who are more powerful. In every culture that happens, but it isn’t quite like India where there are many, many slots within the culture whether it is the income and the caste affiliations etc., etc. which still work, but in China it is much flatter now. It depends whether you’re in the government and you have a certain amount of power. Other than that everybody is much more homogenous and more equal than India, so these two we noticed are very major differences.

Gerry:

During your presentation at User Friendly 2006 you remarked on the fact that formal politeness differs from culture to culture and you were telling a very interesting story about the way your family reacted when you had spent time in the West. Can you tell me a little bit about that?.

Apala:

It’s interesting how what works very well in a certain culture actually works in completely the opposite way in another culture. In India, and that works very well in other Asian cultures, it’s true of China, too, if you introduce common conversational elements of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ which is very basic in any interaction, any interpersonal communication in a western country, here on the other hand it indicates a level of being formal, which is interpreted as a social distance that you are introducing between yourself and the person to whom you saying ‘thank you’ or ‘please’. Now when I lived in England I got completely into the habit of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and when I came back it just sort of became an involuntary reflex action till I noticed how everybody was aghast at all my ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ and I didn’t understand what was happening until a couple of my close friends said to me; ‘What’s wrong with you? You’ve become such a snob, why are you saying please and thank you all the time to us?’ And then I realised, Oh My God, I would say the same thing to anybody who came back, a close friend or a family member, and who started saying please and thank you all the time.

Gerry:

At least they told you what you were doing Apala so they didn’t leave you in the dark. [Laughter.]

Apala:

Yeah, that’s true.

Gerry:

On a recent diary study in fact something we use quite often is we use emoticons or smiley faces or smileys to get feedback from people on basic emotional responses. Now you’ve talked about using rasas in the Indian context and from what I can gather it’s a richer set of emotions or moods. Can you tell us a little bit about the rasas?.

Apala:

Sure. Yeah, so the rasas are exactly that. They are a richer set of emotions and they come from an ancient text that was written thousands of years ago. It’s called the Natya Shastra, which literally translated from Sanskrit would mean ‘the art of drama’. It’s really not just drama but it’s the art of any performance, and it lists out the whole theory that every performance, whether it is a book that is written which is also a performance, or it’s a play, or it’s poetry, everything must be a balance of nine different emotions, and if that balance is disturbed then that piece of work, that performance is incomplete and it will not satisfy the viewer or the listener. And those nine emotions are love, anger, courage, disgust, fear, joy, peace, sadness and wonder. Often I find you know friends from the West will say; ‘Your films are rather strange, there is suddenly there’ll be music and there’ll be all these happy elements we don’t understand why they need to be there.’ But interestingly that is the whole concept of the whole balance of emotions. You need to have all these emotions presented in a complete way.

And we found that when we try and solicit information from users in any user research about the kind of emotions they feel when they interact with a product or with an interface it’s very it’s much easier for Indian users to express their emotions in terms of these rasas because it’s such an intrinsic part of our lives and it’s so internalised and it just works better in any user study that we use.

Gerry:

Could they have an application outside the Indian context?.

Apala:

I think so because they are such universal emotions that… it is interesting there have been some studies that have been done particularly in the US where researchers have tried to see that across different cultures, is there a pattern of different emotions which are stronger triggers than in other cultures? Do people recall certain emotions in a certain culture whereas in another cultures people recall different emotions. There has been some work going on in that and so it is definitely a universal set of emotions and can be applied. It can also lead to us being able to understand if really there is a pattern a subset of emotions that works better for a certain culture. That would be very interesting to know.

Gerry:

So we could almost profile a culture based on the balance of those particular emotions.

Apala:

Yeah, exactly.

Gerry:

Apala, a lot of Western countries stumble when they try to enter growing markets and India and most of Asia come to mind I guess. What particular challenges face Western companies in designing for the Indian markets?

Apala:

I think one of the major sort of pitfalls is the feeling that because a large part of the Indian middle class population is familiar with English, and even fluent that it is easier to have the same design that works in other countries and just maybe tweak it a little bit if at all. But there is not such a need to tweak because after all, you know, India, they speak English, it’s sort of more western. But that’s such an incorrect conclusion because a) the language though, yes a large part of India is definitely conversant with English, but interestingly most of us still think in our native, in our mother tongue, which are vernacular languages. As well as the fact that even though we are exposed to a very British system of education, so on and so forth, but we do have a very strong Indian rootedness which makes it very, very different in the way we react to products that come from outside. And many companies have gone that route of coming in, introducing a product, same advertising campaign, same product same pitch and then they find out, Oh it doesn’t seem to work.

And then they’ve had to go and done the research and completely changed how they are trying to position the product, if it’s a consumer good and if it’s a service it’s even more complicated because you need to know whether that service really fits in. Insurance, for example. Insurance it’s is not such a big thing as in the US and you know what, if you are a cultural researcher it’s very easy to understand that because India is a very collective society. For a western insurance company if it feels like, OK there is enough money and if you know pitch the product and say that you cover your risks etc. people are going to immediately start buying more insurance. But that’s not true because being a collective country, insurance is our family, is our whole network much more than in, say, America which is one of the most individualist countries where as an individual you’re always, you have the fear that you got to insure, you’ve got to insure against risk because the collective doesn’t exist in the way the collective exists in India. So there are all these differences which sometimes get glossed over just because we speak English, and that can be such a major problem for companies coming from outside.

Gerry:

We’ve seen a lot of companies outsource IT and related services to India over the last few years. Can usability be outsourced in the same way?.

Apala:

Absolutely. It can and part of that is due to the sort of development in technology. So one of the major issues with usability outsourcing has been, you know, you’ve got to be in contact with the users, otherwise how can you design anything. And that has become easier now because with technology and connectivity being better one can with remote methods be in touch with users whether it’s a matter of iterating and testing the design or even initial brief that one needs. So it’s cut down the amount of time and travel one would need to do, and therefore the cost effectiveness would decrease, but now the amount of time just to physically travel to be in contact with the user is much less than it used to before and hence it’s becoming more and more possible to outsource usability.

Gerry:

Apala Lahiri Chavan, thank you very much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Apala:

Thank you so much for inviting me.

Published: December 2006

A note on the transcripts

We make verbatim transcripts of the User Experience podcast. We then edit the transcripts to remove speech-specific elements that interfere with meaning in print (primarily space-fillers such as “you know…”, “um…”).

Gerry GaffneyDesign in India: an interview with Apala Lahiri Chavan

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