Designing Systems

The Mumbai domestic airport terminals are quite presentable. I like the way that the infrastructure has been done. Yesterday I was there to catch a flight to Hyderabad. I am in Hyderabad today as part of a working group which is looking into how the urbanization of India has to be managed. As Reuben said (quoting someone), urbanization is “the second green revolution”. More about that later.

Back to the airport. They got the hard infrastructure bits approximately right. I think it will be a while before they get the soft bits right. To my dismay and irritation, they continue with their mindless announcements, a matter I have ranted about before.

I had half a mind to go up to one of those airline announcers and instead of saying, “When is the scheduled departure of the Hyderabad flight?” say something like, “Good afternoon, dear lady. May I have your attention please. I am going to ask you a question. The answer that you give to the question that I will ask will be of use to me. I will take that information for deciding my further course of action. What I want to know is when is the flight to Hyderabad scheduled to depart. After you tell me the answer to that question, I will understand it and decide what I will do in the intervening time till the time that I will have to stop whatever I was doing and proceed through the gate to board the bus which will take me to the flight that will bring me to Hyderabad. Thank you for giving me the answer to the question and thank you for the service.”

I wonder whether this sort of verbiage (defined as a profusion of words usually of little or obscure content) bothers others as well. How can one spend the time one is forced to wait for a flight peacefully, if not productively, given a constant stream of utterly mindless intrusive announcements?

Fortunately for me, yesterday I was engrossed in a very interesting book on a borrowed Kindle, “The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved” by Todd Oppenheimer. The Kindle is not unlike reading a book in some respects and I would have bought one had it not been so expensive. The one I was using is the first version that came out over a year ago and I have one major complaint about it: it’s ergonomics is terrible. You have to handle it very gingerly, otherwise you are constantly inadvertently hitting the “previous” or “next” page bars. I must have done that about 30 times in the first hour itself. I believe it has been redesigned in the current version. It’s a shame that ergonomics of the first version is so retarded.

Funnily, last evening at the Indian School of Business, I briefly sat in on a design workshop. The instructor had a slide up on the screen which asked the design version of the hackneyed question, “How many designers does it take to change a light bulb?” Not the brightest idea I have seen.

Bad design, in my not so humble opinion, is what people who lack empathy and imagination achieve. Badly designed products and processes are inefficient and ineffective. Underdevelopment itself is the product of badly designed processes. Speaking broadly, if one gets the design of processes — processes that are followed millions of times a day for decades — wrong, underdevelopment is guaranteed. To do good design requires intelligence and empathy, which in our case we apparently have not got.