Notification overload

How many sounds or notifications do you have to deal with every day? Now let’s see. Every time a new email or text message lands on your mobile phone. Every time you start the car and turn on the headlights. When you don’t fasten your seatbelt. When you forget to switch off the headlights. When you leave the door unlocked. When the microwave finishes heating up the food. When the washing machine wraps up a load. When the download is done. When the alarm rings. When the ‘low on fuel’ light flashes. When your mobile battery beeps for recharging.

Imagine the people who have to design all these notifications. Do you make it a single beep or a series of short ones? How does a warning differ from a completion sound? How do you make it easy for people to comply? Digital cameras don’t need the sound of the shutter. But unless the sound is heard, people are not sure that the picture has been clicked. Turn off the ‘click’ sound on your camera and see how uncomfortable it feels. It’s also one of the issues that designers of electric bikes and cars have to tackle. The ‘engine’ is silent – there’s only a battery. The accelerator does not rev up when you travel faster. So people riding the car or the bike feel a sense of loss without the feedback.

When exactly do you need a notification sound? Everytime you press the keypad on your mobile to send a message? Or is it enough to replace the old familiar sounds? It’s a toss-up really. Like the blinking ads on websites, there is only a thin line separating the useful from the irritating. Facebook does it with a small series of red blurbs on the top bar. Not intruding, but enough to get your attention. There’s even jargon for it. User Experience Design.


Easy to read websites

Have you noticed how the Op-Ed section of the New York Times has a lot more spacing than some of the other sections like Technology? The experimentation is on as to whether larger type spaced generously keeps more people on the page.  The other recent innovation was ‘The Slider‘ at the New York Times. Every time you scroll down to the end of the article, the headline of another slides in, prompting you to click. It’s a nice way to attract your attention and keep you clicking on to the next page and the next article in the section. The New Yorker uniformly uses larger type for all its articles compared to the time when it offered three type size options.

These are clear signs that web design is aligning itself to the age of its audiences rather than the one size fits all that applied earlier. Column sizes have shrunk but the space between lines has increased. Both help to make reading a lot easier. Especially on a backlit screen. For all the advances, when we read off a monitor, it’s reading by staring into the light instead of from it. Even books now have editions aimed at older readers where the type is bigger, and line spacing is generous.

The tightly packed text is a lot more difficult to navigate. Take a look at this article from ‘The Atlantic‘. Now click on to a site called ‘Readability‘ that displays the page stripped of all the other articles and the advertising. Use Readability and see how the experience is much better.


Get your website on Cloudflare

Cloudflare is the service you didn’t know you needed until you understand what it does. Most small companies are glad to just have their websites up and running. They don’t worry about updates or about security because it’s either too expensive or time-consuming to implement. And then, when they are hit by spam or a trojan is installed without their knowledge leading to a blacklisting by search engines, they panic. Cloudlflare throws a protective envelope around your site. Keeping the spambots and the worthless traffic from hitting it. You don’t want your contact details to be harvested and be part of a spam network, right?

It also distributes your site across servers, ensuring it’s availability even if your web hosting provider is temporarily down. The basic service is free. And for most blogs and websites, it is more than enough. Started as a research project called Honey Pot by Matthew Prince and Lee Holloway in 2004,  Cloudflare won the Harvard Business School Business Plan in 2009. But security, seen as the biggest benefit had another consequence – faster loading time for the websites that it protected (as much as 30% faster)

The prominent web hosting providers already have Cloudflare as part of their control panel. But even if they didn’t, you would be well-advised to install it and then forget all about it. If you get a web developer who knows his way around, it won’t take more than a few minutes to set up. Yes, this website is protected by Cloudflare. And I have to thank Emily Chang’s eHub, where I first got to know that a service like this existed.


Half the Roads are wasted

Stuck in a traffic jam, I realised that one side of the road was completely blocked. Across the divider, it was almost empty. Which got me thinking. Traffic flows one way in the morning. And the other in the evenings. Effectively, only one side of the road is being utilised at any point in time. How is this an effective way to deal with traffic flow? Isn’t there an obvious solution? Or is it simply that people measure traffic flow and patterns but do not factor in the timing of the traffic jams as well. In most cases when roads get crowded, the first solution adopted is to reroute traffic or convert it into one way traffic. It’s all or nothing.

We ought to rethink road dividers. That’s the fixed point which should become a variable. Think about it. If we could move road dividers according to the way the traffic flows, we would have increased road utilisation by another 50 percent at least. Open the road 75 percent to traffic flow one way in the morning. And exactly the opposite during the evening. It has to be a process that is automatically controlled.

It would also mean that we have to change the way we build our roads. Not put dividers in the middle but be able to move it at will. Have controls for not just traffic signs but smart monitoring and movable dividers. Fewer flyovers will need to be built if we simply put our roads to better use.


Are Facebook friends for real?

With Facebook’s $50 billion valuation, the big word in online is social. But I find it hard to keep up with even a circle of 30-40 friends, people I have known for a really long time. On Facebook, Linked-in and Twitter, the game is to acquire friends, contacts and followers. For sure, the word friend is being used in the broadest context – someone you have heard of and exchanged a couple of comments with. In the days of snail mail, there were pen pals. But it was with a really small group or even a couple of people. It’s hard to keep up the letter writing over a consistent period. The interactions were deep and meaningful. It’s also interesting to see how this concept made the online transition – it hasn’t

I guess that is my grouse with Facebook. It’s so superficial. Five chat windows open and no one pays any more attention than is absolutely necessary – like the famous line from ‘The Social Network‘. It’s like working the remote. Say hi. Flip. Pass a comment. Flip. The same thing is happening on both ends. This isn’t interaction, it’s social pretense. I’ve heard the defense – it’s great how you can catch up with people you’ve lost contact with. Sure. But you rarely get to know how they are now. It’s a person you used to know or met in passing.

Recently, it happened. I got through to an old friend I had lost contact with, after decades. Through Facebook. Discovered we were in the same city and caught up. Spent over 2 hours and time flew. A hobby that he got into for his son – remote controlled airplanes is now his main business. We had no cell phone interruptions, no chat windows, just a series of updates on family, friends, and career. But they won’t be consigned to the virtual space but tucked away into our collective memory. I’ll take that over a daily Facebook interaction, any day.


Do celebrities harm brands they endorse?

It’s the crutch a lot of managers use. When a brand is on the skids and losing market share, bring in a celebrity. A new brand needs instant recognition? If the money is available, bring in a celebrity. It worked during a time when celebrities were few in number – major actors and sports achievers. In today’s media climate of churning celebrities from minor personalities, public memory is short. And unforgiving. This survey nails the lie on the easiest way to arrest brand somnolence. It’s the agency’s and client’s unthinking solution to a far more deep rooted problem.

There are enough brands doing the dance. I’ve lost count of the ones that Sachin and Amitabh are representing. Then, there’s this abomination – using Saina Nehwal. What good does it do to the brand to have a girl whose magic is in her badminton game and not the awkward way in which she eats vadas. There’s Maxx, and there’s Micromax. Which one uses Dhoni? If these brands have the budget to splurge, they will have far more success with a cut through idea.

How do you evaluate a cut through idea? It should scare you. It must appeal only to a few and alienate others. Otherwise, it’s like starting off with hot rasam and diluting it with copious amounts of cold water until the bite and the heat is long gone. Brands are camps you want to belong, not anonymous crowds to be lost in. But exclusion is scary. I’ve yet to meet a client who says ” Let’s turn some people off my brand”. Then, we’re talking.


Innovating the obvious

How innovative can you get with a shoe box? Rectangular, a roll of tissues wrapping the shoe inside, bright external design, it’s all been done before. And yet, Puma decided to rethink the box. So this is a story not about the design of the shoes but the outer package. In the process, the company saved a tremendous amount of money on transportation, shipping and handling and distribution costs, apart from building a sustainable shoe package.

It’s about innovating where there seems to be no need at all. This is the problem. We accept anything current as the gold standard. The client wants to launch a new product? Come up with a multimedia campaign. Build a website. Go social. The only innovation is how and where we choose to communicate. But can we do something uniquely local? Change the way people perceive the product or service the first time they hear about it? Those are the questions that rarely come up because there is always the pressure of deadlines and turnarounds. Besides, selling an idea that seems radical is always difficult.

True innovations come when we ask questions like – Can I change the way people use their shampoo? Or combine sharing and rental cars. Or make a vacuum cleaner where the dirt doesn’t get stuck in the bag?  And then get the not so obvious answers. These are not just ideas, they are solutions that build markets


Rice Husk as Power Source

Costs are often the biggest obstacle to overcome in establishing a market. In India, 400 million people have no access to power. When we look at broadband penetration, on one hand, we can see the gaping hole of denial in a basic need on the other – electricity. Or the billion dollar opportunity.

Four Indians saw the opportunity. The challenge was to provide consistent power at unheard of costs – about $2 a month. This right away makes it unattractive for the world’s largest power producers. So they tapped into a waste source – 1.8 billion kgs of rice bran that is no good for burning. The other challenge was to prevent power theft which is widespread because people need power but cannot pay for it. They innovated here by building a smart card system that cost less than $7 instead of the market rate of $40-$90.

Now, Husk Power Systems installs 2-3 power plants a week. And provides power to over 30,000 people. The innovations have raised the entry barrier for all competitors. It changes the market dynamics as well. Electricity being available opens up opportunities right down the line. It is just as important as building a road – access improves. Here, electricity escalates the number of productive hours – the ones that would be spent in complete darkness. I wouldn’t be surprised if this company becomes the growth story of this decade


Strict or Lenient – what is better parenting?

An article in the Wall Street Journal is evoking sharp responses – Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. The question is really one of the diametrically opposed views on parenting. Western parents will not criticize or condemn. They expect that their children will learn on their own at a pace they are comfortable with. Chinese mothers don’t care about their children’s self-esteem. It’s about inculcating the value of diligence.

So which is the right approach? Are you going to turn your children off something just because they don’t enjoy it as soon as they take it up? Learning mathematics is tremendously taxing in the early phases. Persistence is the only way to succeed. I’ve heard about the Kathakali dance classes at Kalamandalam. Children wake up at 4 in the morning and go through a rigorous regimen of exercise where they learn to control every single facial expression. It takes decades to master. And the teachers are stern and unforgiving.

But it is also true that you excel at what you enjoy. The bestsellers are full of quick fixes – for everything from losing weight to succeeding in business. There is a formula for success. Doggedness is underrated because it does not glamorise effort. And you can’t do it in 12 one hour episodes of a TV-saturated world like the reality shows would have you believe.


Dressed-up chairs

In any function at a ‘star’ hotel, these are the norm. Plain rusted iron chairs are made to look ‘premium’ with a dress stitched specially for them. Usually white, with a small padding for the back and the seat, they are slipped over the chairs in a matter of minutes. Premium chairs are hard to maintain in the Indian atmosphere of heat, dust and careless guests who drop curry. After the function is over, they go back into a stack and their dowdy selves.

It’s another one of India’s ‘jugaad‘ approaches to solving logistic, image and maintenance issues with a halfway solution that works. No trying to change guest behavior. Paying for laundry washes is much cheaper than paying for upholstery to be replaced. At the cheap hotels where there is no need to provide ‘pretend luxury’, the plastic chairs have taken over completely. They are light, easy to transport and can bear the collective weight of ample posteriors for several functions.

As a nation, we don’t look for the perfect solution. There is always an imperfect one that saves money and maintains face – two important factors that have to be kept in mind.