Our fifth episode of ‘designwise’ is an honest and raw conversation with Devyani M Lal. Devyani is a design researcher and author of a soon-to-be-launched book ‘Design Thinking, Beyond the Sticky Notes’. In this podcast, we unpack Devyani's attempt to refute a few prejudices we carry when it comes to design, highlight the ‘uncool practices’, and how we as practitioners can improve design practice, design mindfully, and be more responsible towards our decision making while we approach problems penetrating experiences, services, and products. Let's Listen!
"It doesn't matter which specialization, background, or expertise you have... it's about your ability to work together, tinker together, importantly fail together and get to a common ground and see from there. You build common expertise together. That was an eye-opener at the time...that's when I knew, it's entirely up to me to orient my design practice and hone my skills and even pick up new ones on the way".
— Devyani M. LaL
Design has been treated as a black box; it's been considered to be a closed group only for designers but, today design has traveled to various team members — from engineering, product management, marketing, sales, etc.
Designers should have uncomfortable discussions and face the tough questions about design and the responsibilities of their actions. The role of design amongst practitioners has evolved into the social model of creation that is hardly limited to just design on-screen practice today, through products and services, constantly striving to diversify and co-create with users and stakeholders. This means not only consider users’ needs, age, gender, and profession as primary design considerations but also multiple ranges of human diversity from ethnicity, disability, financial situation, education, sexual orientation, cultural motivations, religious affiliations, etc.
Priyanka: Hi and welcome to QED42's podcast, I am Priyanka Jeph and I'm a design writer at QED42. This is our fifth episode and the guest today on the podcast is Devyani M Lal. Devyani is a designer, she's a user researcher and author of a soon-to-be-launched book on design practices. Devyani has conducted many design thinking workshops and has traveled globally to carry out user research for various product and service designs. Today's episode will focus on Devyani's career journey and how she takes us through various notions of design thinking in her soon-to-be-launched book.
Priyanka: Hi, Devyani, welcome to the podcast. How are you?
Devyani: Hi, Priyanka. Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure. I'm doing well. How are you doing?
Priyanka: I'm good. I'm good. Um, I'm really excited to have this conversation with you today because, you know, um, I saw you, like, completely immersed in textiles and garments and surrounded with clothes, while we were like in NIFT, and now you're like a well-known user researcher. You've been traveling across the world and identifying user needs. And I mean, your book is getting launched soon. So how did you reach here? What is your story?
Devyani: I was introduced to design back in the late 90s when I was in high school, and design was synonymous to fashion design and all of its grandeur and that initial thought sort of shaped my journey into getting myself into a design school. And I got myself into fashion and textiles. But then out there during the foundation years, we were actually introduced to the origins of design and otherworldly art movements and how design started at Bahouth, even that translation of a basic inspiration into a concept. And that concept is molded into a prototype. That's when the meaning of design sort of changed for me. And when the specialization began, that sort of definition of design became too narrowed and focused. And that aspect of pigeonholing myself as a particular professional designer in textiles, I was not okay with that at the time. And that sort of realization happened very early that this is not my calling, which was very different from my other colleagues who were very certain what they really wanted to do. You know, post graduation like they would see themselves working with some designer or in some design studio. And so, yeah, I already knew that I was not fitting in at that time. So once that happened, I knew that I had to figure that figure my way out. Right. So once I was out there, I was literally like a headless chicken running everywhere. I was open to anything in any project that was coming my way. So I dabbled into graphic design. I dabbled into content development. I even did short films. And so, yeah, like I said, I was doing everything. And that sort of opened my mind at that time, even though they're like there like two schools of thought who do not appreciate this waywardness in a practice, as they appreciate a more focused approach in your practice. So so I didn't know better right at that time. What I felt was that I should just dive in and just see how it goes to figure out what it is I really that I want to do in life. And yeah. So during that experiment phase, I was also pursuing competitive exams for further studies, and that's when National Institute of Design happened, which was like a dream school for me. And it was like a major validation at the time to even get myself a seat there. And that that was that what I would say, that that phase was like a breakthrough in my design journey, because even though I was in a battle, again, like, you know, you would expect, oh, it's in the middle of a master's. She's right there.She would have figured it out. Right. But no, that didn't happen for me even then. So I was again clueless as to what was going to be my design practice. But then the foundation was a very, very, what should I say, mind-opening experience. They didn't just teach us about design foundations. They actually exposed us to the fact that designers really make a difference and they actually have a purpose. It's just not merely built around aesthetics and just functions and how to make things look appealing. It was beyond that we were actually solving problems. And that epiphany sort of built my next series of steps. So even though I was in a misguided specialization of an apparel designer,post that convocation, I again dabbled with some projects, but this time it was more oriented towards research. Because I knew that this is one area that fascinates me and so so so there was this project by my senior, she was heading a research study with Qualcomm and they had designed these series of educational games for children in the age group of four to eight years now, college at first. But at the time we didn't know that then. And she invited me to be part of that is the user study me despite being from an apparel design background. So I was all in I was little. Of course, you are a little nervous, right? But then I got exposed to new research techniques. I got to know more about ethnography, something I just broadly, you know, browse through back at NID. And I got to develop protocols on how to conduct yourself on a field study when you're interacting with such a young age group. So that experience sort of built my core foundation. And that's when the epiphany happened. I do this is something that I can really do and pursue for a long time. And that's how I got myself into user research. And with that experience and and a couple of my research stints, I got I got the opportunity to become a lead at Tata Elxsi. And that was also an interesting experience because I was not only doing broader research that was product or service area, you know, related. It was it was beyond that I was doing research that was targeting public transit systems, research that revolved around healthcare and which was itself a global reserve, which is not just based on an India-focused study. So it took me to China, took me to Egypt, took me to Turkey. That was also an interesting experience in itself. So, yeah, that's where I am today. And this is my design practice, which is design research.
Priyanka: Amazing. I mean, this is such an adventurous journey. And I didn't know all of this. I mean, learning about all of this and realizing the fact that, you know, when you are open to design anything and you understand the true notion of design, the design is for creating solutions and it's not limited to aesthetics. It can actually inspire you to reach levels that you otherwise would not have thought of. So so devyani what I really want to know more about is what is your book about? What's the name of the book firstly?
Devyani: Hmm, my book is Design Thinking Beyond the Sticky Notes,
Devyani: Okay, And it means,
Devyani: it means, So I'll tell you how I came up with the name, so that sort of that's an interesting story to the name sort of came very early to me during this stage of book proposal writing itself, because I was kind of wrapped up with the fact that what it is really that I'm trying to bring on the table that has not been already said on design thinking. And so when I was doing that, being a design practitioner myself who has led and designed many design thinking workshops, I knew that we tend to get attached to the paraphernalia of design thinking. For instance, if you Google design thinking, the first stop image that would pop up is a room full of people surrounded with sticky notes and post its and sharpies, right?
Priyanka: Yes, yes
Devyani: So that's the image I wanted to dissociate my book with. And that's how the name came in, which is design thinking beyond the sticky notes.
Priyanka: Nice that's like, that's like a whole another concept. It actually happens like we've been made to, you know, put sticky notes in everything that we do. Oh, nice. So you were telling me about various workshops that you've done. What kind of workshops? I mean, have you conducted any specific ones that you would like to point out for us?
Devyani: Yeah. So besides design thinking workshops that I would design and conduct for various clients like, let's say Mercedes and Panasonic, who would want to get introduced to the concept of design thinking and how they would be able to apply it during their different stages of their design process or any creative process. So besides that, so I have to tell you about this. So you in the conference, this happened back in 2018. So that sort of began when I met Shaurya Rastogi, he's a UX designer and Meru Vashisht. She used to be my rock star research intern, but now she is a design researcher herself. And I met them when I was a lead designer and researcher at Tata Elxsi. So on a typical coffee session, post work, we were discussing about design and design practices and its aftermath. So Shaurya being a UX designer, would share his thoughts on certain design interventions that have happened in the areas of UX. So, for instance, a more deep diving into human-computer interaction or navigation and interfaces, what really happens and what happens behind the scenes when you're actually designing or coming up with a solution? What is it? What is the idea? So the idea is to basically make life easy for a user, right. To design a solution that is convenient for them. But then but then he gave an example like, for instance, if you're accessing some data on your mobile interface, the idea of just scrolling through is just mind-blowing right. Like it is so easy and it makes you makes the accessible. You can just scroll from one side to the other. And but then he pointed out that over the years there's been a harmful implication of this brilliant design solution. And that sort of put a seed in my head that maybe maybe we can have this open dialogue on where the responsibility of a designer really lies. Does it end after designing a design solution or does it go beyond that? So that conversation triggered something in us, and that's when I pitched the idea of mindful and practices at this conference, so and we designed a workshop around it by developing a series of methods cards on mindful design that we would like to present to certain participants and give them a problem, space or design statement and help them if they can execute these cards in a specific.
Priyanka: So what are these specific mindful design cards? Like, could you give us some examples?
Devyani: Sure , So Post that UX conference thing. I sort of picked these cards up and made them more focused and aligned so that they can actually be utilized not just in a workshop scenario, but even in a workplace setting where you actually are designing and debating on an everyday basis. So I, I developed these cards into basic seven categories, starting with, let's say the context setting, context-setting is is is like a go to right you have to develop a context before you begin anything? So that that category has many prompts that will enable you to have that important dialogue with all your stakeholders, not just you and your design manager or your other teammates. You can actually involve your client to be part of it. So to understand their implicit as well as explicit needs. Right. So now, of course, it has to be beyond the project scope or project brief. So that's what these prompts offer. The next category is called framing. You obviously need to frame your problem space better. It has to you need to know your why?. You need to know your hows. You need to understand all the stakeholders involved. And then comes knowing your audience. Like it says the name, it is about knowing your audience. You need to understand your target group. You need to understand your personas better. You need to understand the current behaviors. You need to, of course, be able to do that journey mapping better. But there is one interesting card that I would like to talk about is called Consider Extreme. So this card prompt allows you to actually consider extreme users in extreme scenarios while you are framing your problems. So it can't be just focused on a specific target group that your client wants. It has to be other extreme users as well. So it basically heightens your sense of empathy. And of course, being a designer, you are somewhat qualified to introduce accessibility in your design solutions. I strongly believe that. So I feel this prompt is really important in your design process.
Priyanka: I am so excited to read the book. I mean. I am sorry to barge in like that this accessibility and the empathy part that we really need to add and the clients also need to understand a part of it you know. So I'm really looking forward to read your book.
Priyanka: So so what are these like? Do you have any live examples of a certain scenario placed like or does it just provide frameworks for different levels and phases of design or there are specific examples of different scenarios that a user is going through?
Devyani: So, for example, when we were mapping this out, so there is another category called impact, so this is where this is an important category because we wanted the role of the designer to go beyond just devising a specific solution or just figuring out areas of design intervention. So this does these categories sort of give you prompts. It gives you triggers. It, in fact, enables more arguments that you can actually have with. So I'll give you the areas that we are talking about. So there is something called. There's a card called Discourse, Debate, Dialogue, so this sort of reloops you back in a conversation. There is also an interesting call, The Conspirator. So, for instance, if you divide it into two and this one is batting for a certain solution or a certain direction and the other one is batting for the other, the conspirator gets the power to play the devil's advocate and sort of take both these solutions through and figured out the alternatives and, you know, discard them. So it's a very powerful card for that person. So, yeah, so if you actually allow designers to play that game. Ok, so the gameplay sort of enables you to deal with these important and tough questions more easily. And that is what I was trying to achieve with certain cards. And there's also another interesting card called the Pro for stigma. So you will know that we are currently going through a very difficult social dynamic Yeah, so so there are issues where dissent has become a problem where so so So what I did was I was tracing how dissent, dissent is happening in creative ways across the world. So I came across an artist who is a French artist. He was actually just on the streets of Paris and he was barking constantly. He was just barking like emulating the sound of a dog or a wolf. And I'm like, literally like who? And more exaggerated. And of course, the audiences didn't know what the purpose was. So his purpose really was at the time, he did not agree with their leaders of their country harping on and on how global warming doesn't exist. So he was equating that with someone who has no idea whatsoever. But then he was giving more. A very interesting twist to the dissent, so I found that very interesting and then I figured, why can't we do that when we are designing? Why can't we ask this tough question whether we are getting any sort of prejudice against a particular race or community or religion or color while we are designing? So we have to revisit our processes with such tough questions so that that was one of the cards that I felt has been applied. And it's being applied these days wherein we are constantly rechecking. And if you like, you are already aware of Black Lives Matter. So that global movement triggered the entire world to rethink its resources. So even at Airbnb, so at Airbnb here in the in the US. So there used to be a hidden racist movement that was going on. Like I'll tell you, for example, if the host figured out that the renters were not white, they would not rent them their house or would not open their homes to these other users. And Airbnb, figured it out when they realized that this discrimination was really happening and that's when they did the intervention of removing that filter of race from that
Priyanka: So, they had the race filter before?
Devyani: Ok, yes, there was a race filter because because you could see the image of the person. Right. So they removed that, that even if you don't put your picture, the host has to give you their apartment based on your ratings and nothing else. So that was a right intervention they did at the time. So it is definitely being applied.
Priyanka: So this is an eye opening sort of a conversation. And it was why I would say again that I'm really looking forward to your book. So is this book any different from are you talking about a specific process? Is it inspired by design thinking or is it any different from these processes that we follow in most of our design projects and everything.
Devyani: So it would be unfair for me to compare all the books with already existing frameworks. So I saw this book sort of compiled a series of different case studies, a series of personal experiences by different practitioners that I have interacted with for this book. They belong to the domains of technology, design, products, services and even education and learning. So I wanted to offer a multifaceted and nuanced discourse on design thinking through this book. And and mind you, it is not a book that presents a specific design theory that could be presented in a room full of academics. No, nor is it a book like a how to guide young practitioners to learn how to apply design thinking. We Know It is a book offering an open discourse on design practices, design, and the complex relationship of design with people. And eventually, after all these simplified arguments and critique, we should be able to arrive at a specific but open ended mindset on design thinking. So that's what this book intends to offer,
Priyanka: Which is really nice. I mean, I've not heard, I read a lot and I've not heard about a book which talks so much openly about so many things that have been hidden for a long time and tapping on so many different things that we really don't realize, you know, because we have submissions to do, we have projects to do and we have deadlines to meet. But this can really change a lot of things for upcoming design projects and for designers as well as for CXO and other people. So you were saying that you had a lot of people involved in the book while writing the book. So So any specific person that you would like to quote, how did that person help you or getting the right or. Getting the right objective for the book.
Devyani: So for this book, I interviewed close to 35 people.
Priyanka: That’s a lot of people.****
Devyani: and like I said, not just yes. So I took this book as an experiment because I didn't want to just harp on my point of view. I wanted to make sure that I get to offer multiple points of views here. And so, yeah, like I said, these were not just practitioners in the field of design. They were also creative thinkers in the field of management, in the field of data, privacy, technology, and, of course, education and learning. So so I should tell you about this so young privacy advocate and privacy expert I met. I met her in San Francisco at some Diwali party at a friend's place. And she she kind of told me about certain aspects, certain big giants. I wouldn't want to name some tech giants that like to indulge in just because they want to sharpen their products and they want to make their lives easier for the user. But there is a lot of privacy infringement that is happening. And so she actually took me through a series of examples as to how these tech giants are sort of taking advantage of their users. And that sort of led us to having this conversation called a panopticon. Yeah. So so what is Panopticon? Panopticon is actually an architecture concept. It basically it is that there is a prison compound and in the middle of that compound, there is a high-rise star, a tower where supposedly the warden of the prison is supposed to stay and he gets a proper panoramic eye view of the entire prison. So the idea was that the warden is sort of keeping an eye on the entire prison and prisoners and their movements. But then the fact was the warden wasn't there all the time. But this was sort of a mind play on the prisoners thinking that they were constantly being watched. OK, so so when you were having this discussion, technically we are living in a digital panopticon society wherein we are equally part of it, we are being watched or we think we are being watched. So that sort of was an eye-opening organization at the time and of course I predated her for her thoughts in the book.
Priyanka: It was really great, you know, getting to know everything that you just told us and so many of these things that I definitely didn't know about. It was a great learning experience for me, this entire recording of the podcast. i really want to thank you for taking time to be with us. Thank you.
Devyani: My pleasure Priyanka. It was lovely talking to you. Thank you for having me.
Priyanka: So that was the conversation with Devyani. Do look out for a book ‘Design Thinking, Beyond the Sticky Notes’. It's going to be launched in July. The book will be available in India, United States, U.K. and obviously on Amazon. You can get in touch with Devyani if you want to know more about her book on LinkedIn and thank you for listening to us. This is Priyanka jeph in DesignWise from QED42.