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Product design — a tête-à-tête with Ashish Deshpande of Elephant Design



What does it mean to have a “well-designed product?” As a technology business incubator, we are certain that this is question that tech startups ask themselves quite often. Although we ask this question to our startups, we’re quite aware that the response is more complex than we can imagine. CIIE recently had the joy of speaking with Ashish Deshpande, Director — Product & Retail Experience at Elephant Design — one of India’s leading design consultancies. We spoke to Ashish on this topic, and are delighted to share the key excerpts of the interview with you:


What are some of the key design principles / philosophies that product (hardware) entrepreneurs/startups need to keep in mind / understand prior to product development? (assuming they are not from a design background)


Product development is a complex activity. There are several factors that contribute to the genesis of a new product development. At times these are business reasons and many times these are technology solutions which have found new applications. These are the most common factors for entrepreneurs to get on the Product development bandwagon. One of the key reasons that is usually forgotten is “ People Centred Development”. Most development teams forget to focus on needs of people who are going to use the product at the beginning of the development cycle. This leads to a condition of the tail wagging the dog with user concerns being force fitted to development solutions. When the context is people, their immediate needs, their expectations, business and technology falls into place. Very early into the development process of a product, people concerns must be articulated through the very people who will be using these products and a measurement matrix can be built to lay the brief for design & technology teams to follow. Involving design process early into the development cycle humanises the approach. Three questions an entrepreneur must ask at the beginning of a new product development cycle are;

  1. Is the product context relevant to people?

  2. Is the technology acceptable and does it optimise human effort?

  3. Is the final product proposition differentiated than other efforts which may exist ?

The answer to all the three questions leads through design intervention. If the start up raises these questions at an early stage, chances are they are already on the design path to product development. “Start with Design, don’t end with it”.


Where does the user and/or customer figure in the product design thinking? When and how can entrepreneurs/startups involve/work with their users and/or customers during the product design process?


All products that come into contact with people are meant for use by people. Such products must be built around their needs. So a user of a product figures right at the genesis of any product concept or process. If the product context is related to people then the development is also along with people. It helps to build in several User check points in the overall design development process. By involving users into the initial development process, taking cognisance of their pain and needs, taking their regular feedback will keep the development process relevant to the target users. Good design process always checks back with its users. Making quick mock ups, prototypes and keep checking one’s hypothesis with user profile ensures customer centricity to the development process. People may not directly give ideas but they will always reflect back if your idea will work for them or not.


Any great examples of well-designed products that involved user inputs?


Great products have always been shaped by people and the very reason they survive the test of time. Fiskars scissors is one such classical product. The product was borne out of an ardent need expressed by seamstresses that long hours of cloth cutting made their fingers sore. Design teams took this insight and applied a new material called plastics to the metal part to create soft, contoured grip handles that went on to create history for the company. 50 years since the new Fiskars were launched, we still use the scissors and they have defined the entire outcome of the scissor industry world over. We have a great example in India, that went on to affect the outcome for our billion citizens. The Electronic voting machine. The Electronic voting machine has completely revolutionised the electoral process for the common person, making it easy to comprehend, easy to use, easy to store and very difficult to misuse. The entire development by Design professors from IDC-IIT, Powai was based on acute inputs from common people. The Indian electoral process is a success story today and a big contribution to its success is the design incorporating people needs.


What specifically about Indian users/customers do you think startups/entrepreneurs that cater to the Indian market must keep in mind?


India is not the same as rest of the world. The fact is that even India within India is not the same. Cultural habits, ethnicity and geography differs remarkably between each region in the Indian Sub-continent. So, the question arises, for whom do you design? Socio-economic factors contribute heavily to purchase decisions. We are a price sensitive economy and people prefer more value for less. Our climatic conditions and infrastructure needs robust build for products. Products need to be adaptable to varied anthropometry, language and social acceptance levels. Now this may sound difficult, however a good human-centred design process and a locally sensitive design team will be able to find the common denominators of acceptance for the design.


What according to you, is the most well-designed product developed by an Indian startup? Why? What specific aspects of the product makes you think it is a well-designed product?


The Indian start-up scene is still in its infancy phase and has yet to see full product lifecycle to be able to point at success stories. There have been initial successes seen in applications, food & beverages, FMCG but fields like energy, healthcare, e governance need more time to demonstrate. Paperboat by Hector Beverages in the FMCG world and 3Nethra, pre screening ophthalmology device by Forus in the healthcare & diagnostics are good examples of relevant, well executed & user centred design that has created good people & business impact.


What according to you, is the most well-designed product developed by a non-Indian Indian startup (excluding Apple’s ofcourse)? Why? What specific aspects of the product makes you think it is a well-designed product?


Well designed products are the ones that serve millions of people, over several years and improve the quality of life of common people. They solve issues like energy, healthcare, food &water , education, shelter and help sustain precious resources on our Earth.


Phonebloks as a modular smartphone system consists of 20 to 30 third-party components called ‘bloks’ attached to a main board. Each blok serves a different purpose and users can build their own personalised smartphone according to their needs. When a blok is broken, simply replace it, or add on other components to expand the functionality. The Netherlands based startup Phonebloks has now partnered with Motorola. Aside from being an innovative product, Phonebloks is the beginning of a growing movement helping to steer the mobile phone industry into a new, and much more sustainable direction. From a flat to a circular economy, towards new production methods and products, it is a transformation to create longer-lasting, open source products with more transparency and less environmental impact.


The product structure, concept are well integrated and the design is very cutting edge employing smart design thinking and simplicity as principles. It creates multiple options , is adaptable and versatile.


Is there an example for a poorly designed product that you would like to specifically talk about? What went wrong, and how could these mistakes be rectified? What are some key DON’Ts to keep in mind during the product development/design process? Examples of design failures demonstrating these points would be great.


It is a well-known number that over 90% of the startups fail, since they make products that no one really wants. Many are not designed keeping people in mind. There are enough examples of bad design all around us. Take lifts for example. I have never managed to comprehend the floor numbering at first go. This is an example of poor design. Or cell phones that require multiple interactions to engage or cola bottles that hurt you while opening the cap.


Some poorly-designed products actually never see the light of the day with consumers. Products that don’t function well, are difficult to use, understand, as not value for the money, represent a tacky state of quality of build, are cumbersome and painful to service and add to the refuse in our eco system are all failure prone.


What are some key resources for entrepreneurs/startups to educate themselves on key aspects of product design (i.e., without having to enrol in a design school)? MOOCs, books, videos, etc.?


John Maeda, Design Partner, VC firm KPCB says, “To achieve great design, you need great business thinking/doing — to effectively invest in design — and you need great engineering — to achieve unflagging performance.” Startups must let design lead business. It is not important for everyone to know everything. It is not important to learn design. Steve Jobs did not go to a Design refresher course. However, it is important to have empathy for your users and belief in the process of design. Investing into design early has paid dividends.

Good read list for non-designers;

  • Change by Design, Tim Brown.

  • Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda.

  • Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek.

  • Film : Objectified by Gary Hustwit & Design & Thinking


Ashish’s profile

Ashish is an Industrial Designer from the National Institute of Design, Ahmadabad, India. He started his design entrepreneurship journey, 27 years ago, by co-founding one of India pioneering design practices, Elephant. Elephant is ranked as the top design consultancy in India by Brand equity ET consistently since 2008. Ashish leads the Product & Retail Experience Innovation group but believes that design must not be narrowed into disciplines and understanding users is a key component of any innovation activity.


Over the years he has lead several design projects ranging from consumer appliances related to air, water & energy, design of Common Wealth Youth Games baton, Medical diagnostic Equipment, wearable electronics, automotive, exhibitions and retail environments. He, his team at Elephant Design have been a recipient of several awards including 4 India Design Mark, believes that design & designer both need to be responsible and that the true success of a project lies in business, people connect & ecological success. He has experience consulting Indian start-ups, Corporates, MNC’s and international companies in South East Asia, Japan and Europe.


Ashish has been a speaker at various conventions, seminars & regularly conducts workshops on Growth by Design & Product Innovation Process. Recently, he was invited to speak at International Design Congress, Gwangju, Korea. He is a juror at CIIE, Power of Ideas 2105, IIM-A & mentor for several start up initiatives incubated by CIIE.


He is active member of the NEC, Association of Designers of India, the Design Alliance Asia and has been on the jury panel of the India Design Mark. He is also Board of Studies member at MIT-ID, Pune for Product Design.

Ashish is a member of the present India Design Council.

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