Effective Product designing – a lesson from Nick Tablot, Global Design Head at Tata Elxsi

nickDesign permeates all sections of the society today. As markets grow more competitive, design is the one powerful tool that can help improve profitability, change a brand or product’s perceptions and enhance businesses. In a market that is overflowing with several products with similar offerings priced neck to neck, design is the key differentiator to promote the product’s attributes and has become an integral part of the product experience altogether.

A well designed product will intuitively encourage the customer to explore new features and help him discover new abilities, but what are the effective product designing techniques? Lets understand that from the Global Design Head of Tata Elxsi, a global product designing company – Nick Talbot. In his current role, Nick is responsible for all design initiatives for the Industrial Design division of Tata Elxsi across the globe including India.

What are the three most important principles of good product design?

I think a good design cannot be measured in a finite way. However the three most important principles that qualify to be a good design are:

  1. A good design should be innovative
  2. It should not just be beautiful but it should be simple and enhance the ease of use for all
  3. It should address a certain need in the market or consumer requirement Thus a good design should therefore have vision, pragmatism, craft and communication.

Which product from last 10 years’ time-frame according to you, is the best example of a meeting between form and function?

Quite a few products come to mind which are a great representation of good design and a correct blend of form and function. One such is a flat screen television from Bose called VideoWave. Bose which is a ‘sound’ company created an absolutely stunning experience for their famed audio performance. Yet they managed to cleverly design this heavy hitting audio performance in a form factor of a television. They made any physical appearance of the speakers disappear, giving the full stage to the TV screen as is needed. Yet, when you actually see any movie, or play a game the sound delivery really takes over the experience. They have added a very innovative remote control and User Interface, which is the icing on the cake.

According to you, how good and bad product designing can possibly affect a consumer – for the technology products they buy?

A well designed product will deliver its promise consistently over time. You may have bought the product (say a printer), It needs to perform well, without breaking down for at least a few years. This surely is a basic expectation from the product. Yet, poorly designed products would not hold up to this simple test and you have a frustrated customer.

The customer may discover on this printer that he can easily print addresses on envelops. He may have been using the printer for many months and had never purchased it to print envelops. However, when he discovers this ability, there is delight and satisfaction of a product well designed. It’s very rare to feel ‘pride’ for a product. Pride develops when the customer builds relationships with the product. A great product design will ultimately deliver pride of ownership to the customer.

What key things, an early stage product startup should keep in mind, while designing their products?

Design is globally used to create a strong differentiator which Indian startups have to counter especially when they are operating across geographies. One crucial thing that start-ups should keep in mind is that the number one priority should be their product. Also one should incorporate design at the beginning to avoid problems in the end. Imagine an SUV without enough room for golf clubs, no headroom at the back. Who is going to buy that? Most entrepreneurs think they can’t afford design and that they can come back to the design element further down the line, when they’ve got some traction for their product. This approach is most cases leads to the downfall of the product. Therefore they need to make design an integral part of their product development lifecycle. The whole user experience and interface needs to be irresistible whether it is a soft product, an online product or a hard product. Therefore, design has to come first, at the concept stage itself.

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Also to start with, they should test the look and feel, the user interface with real people and elicit their views. This process of testing must happen phase by phase, until the whole product finally evolves. An early stage start-up should meet at least 10-15 real and potential users of their product and tweak their product designs accordingly based on real-time feedback.

Start-ups should keep in mind that the Products & services that they intend to develop must be useful before being usable. For instance is a watch with a video screen a useful product? They must have clear utility value by fulfilling a physical or a psychological human need.

Also User Experience is (UX) more than just beautiful looking interface but about being useful and meaningful to users. Hence a designer needs to understand the users of products to do meaningful product design.

What’s the best way for an amateur designer to turn a great idea into a reality?

Innovation is about making things better, not different and what’s important is for whom and for how many people a product is being designed. The next big product won’t be a completely original idea. It will be an original take on a dozen old ones. What was the first iPod: A portable CD player without the CD? What’s the iPhone: A phone that does more than other phones? What was the first light bulb: A candle without the candle.

What makes an idea good isn’t how original it is. It’s how good it is and how well it works.You go out into the world and get inspired by other things. To take bits and pieces of things that work somewhere else, and you adapt them to your needs, then piece them together to create something better. Great ideas, the real innovation and the next big thing, they’re all out there, waiting to be pieced together like a puzzle. Design is thus a process of looking into the future.

I think designers should be observant as everything out there is in the open and they can get great ideas by just observing people and the nature.

Some areas of industry, such as health-care, have greatly benefited from innovative design. Are there any industries – if talking of India – that you think are crying out for pioneering design solutions?

The design space has grown in relevance ever since organizations have started using design as a strategic tool to drive business innovation and growth. Until few years back it was only the automotive sector which was heavily design led. Today, design is being used across industries. Design is being used as a competitive weapon across industries to devise solutions and perform the fundamental function of a problem solver.

Be it FMCG, retail, telecom, consumer electronics, and every sector now uses design to get an edge over their competitors. One interesting thing to note is that not just big and established companies, but even relatively new companies are using design and branding to distinguish themselves in the market.

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Tata Elxsi, being one of the leading design companies in the country, has played a significant role in broadening the horizon in terms of developing design solutions that meet a diverse set of requirements/resolve issues.

What are the most common mistakes people make when designing a new product?

  1. Eschewing Simplicity– Designers tend to develop very complex stuff and overlook the fact that it is simplicity and ease of use that matters. Thus products should be kept simple.
  2. Losing Focus – Many designers have difficulty finding a focus. Thus they should be wary of design drift, keep true from the vision to final execution and don’t lose sight of the dream. Taking a proper and clear client brief is required in order to avoid interactions which not just save our time but client’s time as well.
  3. Getting distracted easily by feedback received is another fact that boggles down many designers. One should take feedback in a positive way to help improvise products in a user-friendly way. Infact feedback should be taken in every step as we go further up the design process.
  4. Not listening to current or future users/consumers- One of the common mistakes designers make is developing a product without enough input. As much as you’re executing on your vision, engaging potential customers early — even when it’s just a germ of an idea- can help put you on the right path. It also helps validate the demand for your product.

Any suggestions that would you like to give to product startups – in terms of designing?

Within India, there’s a huge diversity of attitudes, defining and designing them is important. Design is not a magic wand, if you think of design as just style and image, then you are massively under utilizing your resources. Unless Indian entrepreneurs are prepared to benchmark their products against the best there is around the globe, there is a strong chance they are not going to end up scaling to become the next billion dollar company. Benchmarking is thus the key, not just from a design point of view but from functionality point of view too. So, it is important for entrepreneurs to have a global mindset.

Secondly, they must have the courage to say, let’s look at the best of the best whether it is from Korea or California or elsewhere in the world and have the confidence and the ambition to know that they can compete and be better than them and not just be nearly like them or come up with me-too products.

The next step is to completely and objectively understand the customer. I have seen a person who comes up with an idea, thinks his idea is great, his mom and family and a few of their friends think it’s a great idea and that’s enough reason for them to steam ahead with the idea and create a product without actually checking if anybody would want to buy it. They don’t stop to think whether they can modify it, optimise it, polish it, so that when it’s finally shown to the world, it is mind blowing and irresistible. Setting the bar high enough in terms of ambition is the only way for them to beat the competition.

From an interface, experience and service point of view, global competition is unimaginable. Unless Indian entrepreneurs wake up to face it and find ways of bettering it, building a billion dollar company will remain a distant dream.

 To contact author, email devesh@wirefootindia.com