An evening in the summer of 1990
Udhampur, Jammu Province
I am sitting on the steps of a ghat. In front of me flows Devika, Ganga’s younger sister. The light is fading. A body has been burning on a pyre for a long time now. There are no people. Smoke from the burning pyre is rising to the sky, turning it black. The smell of burning flesh and the crackle of burning bones are the only trace of life.
The sun has set. The moon is out.
A flute tune flies from somewhere. My gaze doesn’t leave the burning pyre. The flames are dying, at last. Time lingers. Only a heap of ash is left with a crown of embers adorning the pyre. He who might have lived for almost a hundred years is gone and will never come again to the ghat as he might have every morning and evening to offer prayers and to take a holy dip in the waters of Devika. Devika, his only savior and the saviour of all those who live and die here. “All those who come to her and bathe in her waters are redeemed.” So goes the belief!
The tune comes nearer. In front of me stands a flute seller playing upon a flute. He plays a pahadi dhun. His gaze is fixed on me, his fingers tapping rhythmically on his flute. The melody is beguiling. Looking into my eyes, he stops playing and hands me his flute without saying a word. His expression conveys everything.
“I have no money,” I say to him.
“Don’t worry about the money,” he says. Keep the flute and pay me when I am around the next time.
By the time I place my fingers on the six holes of the flute, he is gone. The song comes to an end but the melody is still playing in my ears.
Some days later
Sitting in a corner, I try to play the flute. A jarring sound is all that I hear. I try again and again. Still the same jarring sound…
Some days later
My father takes me to meet ‘Masterji’, his friend and colleague who teaches music in his college. His name is Bushan Lal Kaul. He’s tuning his sitar when we enter his quarters. “My son wants to learn flute,” my father says. “Are you ready?” Masterji asks. “It will take years.” I nod. “Come tomorrow for the first lesson,” he says.
The next day, he teaches me how to hold the flute and produce sound. “We will get you a new flute sometime. This one is out of tune and not meant for serious learning,” he says, referring to the flute man’s flute.
One year later
The terrace of our rented house
I practice the alankaar Masterji has taught me. I begin my days with Ahir Bhairav and end them with Chandrakauns.
A day in the summer of 1992
Despite being blind (having lost his sight to small pox in his childhood), Masterji leads the way in the dark and dingy lanes of Delhi’s Chawri Bazaar. We are on a trip to the capital to get his sitar repaired at a music instruments shop. Buying a new flute is also on the cards.
Having nowhere else to stay, we spend the night at a makeshift camp for migrants in Delhi. The next day, we take the train back to Jammu. I am the proud owner of a new flute.
A day in the spring of 1993
Teaching me Raag Durga, Masterji says, “I will talk to Omkar Nath Raina’s son. Go to him to learn the nuances of flute.”
A day in the summer of 1993
A village on the outskirts of Udhampur
I am sitting by the roadside, waiting for my guru, Anil Raina, to return from his school where he teaches music. Two small girls are bathing a calf in a pond. The sound of splashing water and the laughter of the girls has me in trance. “Why are you sitting idle and wasting time?” my guru chides, breaking my reverie. “You should be doing riyaz even while waiting.”
A day in the winter of 1993
I am sitting on the terrace of our rented house. On the terrace of the adjacent house is a newly married woman combing her hair. She’s from Jaipur. Her husband is a fighter pilot and posted in the Udhampur Air Force Station. They are new arrivals in Udhampur.
She: Where have you been last few days?
Me: I have been around. Where else will I go?
She: Then why haven’t you been playing your flute?
Me: I was unwell.
She: If you are feeling better, can you play today?
Me: How about tomorrow? I still have cold and cough.
She: I haven’t been able to comb my hair properly ever since you stopped playing.
One day in the summer of 1994
Pandit Bholanath Prasanna’s house, Allahabad
I play a bandish in Raag Multani. Panditji listens quietly. Before leaving, I touch his feet and seek his blessings. He gives me three flutes. Two of the flutes bear his finger impressions. “Always sit at your guru’s feet,” he says. “Someday, music will save you.”
One day in the summer of 1995
Udhampur and Jammu
I visit my gurus for the last time. “I am going to Delhi. I got admission in JNU to do MA in Literature,” I say. I offer them gurudakshina—money I have earned by giving tuitions to Class 10 students. Both of them refuse. “A day will come you will know what gurudakshina is,” they say.
A day in November 2020
A deserted street
I am returning from a grocery store. I park my car by the sidewalk to sanitize my hands. Out of nowhere appears a flute seller with a bunch of flutes attached to a pole he’s carrying. Upon seeing me, he starts playing a film song. A familiar film song! I lose the track of time. He stops playing and hands me a flute, pleading me to buy it.
“Please, Sir, I have no money,” he says. “During the lockdown, I wasn’t able to earn even a single rupee. I will give you a good discount if you buy a flute.”
I inspect the flute and play a tune. The man looks at me with wonderment.
“Sir, you know how to play,” he whispers.
Me: Where are you from?
He: District Budaun, UP
Me: You should do something else to earn a living. No one is going to buy flutes these days.
He: Selling flutes is family tradition. I won’t do anything else even if the heavens fall. Please buy a few flutes since you know how to play.
I hand him some money and buy a flute. I play a film song. The same song I had heard on the ghat 30 years ago.
The man breaks down. “Sir, I know this song. I wish I knew how to play it.”
Me: You should learn how to play this song. It will take time but you will learn eventually. You will be the happiest man the moment you start playing it exactly the way it should be played.
He: Sir, I have no ration to feed my family. Can you buy me some rice and wheat flour?
Some days later
The flautist from Budaun appears in the street once again. He is playing the song I played. Apart from flutes, he’s also carrying a bunch of colourful balloons for sale.
Had that flute man not given me his flute that evening at the cremation ghat on the banks of Devika in Udhampur, I would not have known anything in life.
I am yet to repay him for his gift. I am still trying to play that song.
We spend our days engaging with prospects and customers to understand their problems in proper perspectives, capturing requirements and expectations, articulating our understanding to reiterate our capability and conviction to address problems, conceptualizing and proposing solutions, enabling success, improving experience, measuring value, generating delight, and ensuring expectations are met and visions realized. All of these, including everything else we do at work, have a purpose—to excel, not just individually, but collectively, too.
As you know, some of the pressing issues occupying the minds of business leaders of the world today are related to progress of society, advancement of culture and morality, preservation of environment, refinement of human values, and enrichment of human condition. Evolution in thought and not just in lifestyle is emerging as a new imperative. Businesses, therefore, are re-envisaging their role and vision, and aligning them not just with current human needs but also with the needs of a world they strive to create.
Consequently, understanding a problem and conveying the understanding through a technology or a business perspective alone can be myopic. In other words, a seemingly minor social or epistemological aspect, at times, is as vital and relevant as a complex technological or business aspect. (A technical requirement is fulfilled solely to realize a larger business objective.) You would concur that there are far more critical dimensions to business issues than are often imagined by traditionalist solution providers. Cognitive, social and ethical dimensions are often overlooked. Aren’t they?
Business engagement, thus, calls for an entirely different imagination. At the heart of this differentiated imagination is a crucial skill, namely articulation. After all, what good is even flawless understanding if it’s articulated poorly?
So what does articulation really encompass? Mastery over a language? Ability to speak and write well? Structured communication? Cognitive ability? The two key distinguishing elements of articulation are clarity and effectiveness. How do we then metricize articulation to determine and measure its quality and efficacy? What could be the criteria for its evaluation? How do we assess gaps in our articulation competency? Lastly, how do we refine?
This brings me to a more fundamental question. What’s the value of articulation in our lives? Don’t you think this question has an existential relevance, too? For instance, if we don’t possess articulation skills, then how do we establish who we are, what we do, how we’re perceived and why we must exist. In Descartian parlance, one could say, I articulate, therefore, I am.
After all, God is in the detail. And that detail, in context of our roles, is nothing else but an ability to articulate clearly, correctly and purposefully.
Is excellence in business or any field achievable without excellence in articulation? Isn’t it high time we looked at articulation and its importance differently? What do you think?
In 2002, I was on an assignment with a US-based pharmaceutical company. My work involved editing documents pertaining to drug development and manufacturing. The training I attended in the beginning helped me grasp the rudiments. ‘We are in the business of saving lives,’ the quality manager in charge said to me, sensing my diffidence in trying to position my capabilities in her project’s larger context. In that moment, my perspective changed completely. Editing documents sent to me for corrections was no longer an ordinary, solitary affair. As days went by, I got to learn more and more about the complexities of drug discovery and development. My exploration led me to the world of disease, of human anatomy, and of mortality. I read about Alzheimer’s and how pharma companies had been struggling for years to develop effective treatments for this dreadful condition afflicting millions of people in the world. I was reminded of my grandfather’s last days. Working on the assignment revived memories of how I had prayed for a cure for my grandfather’s incurable ailment.
One day, I got to attend a seminar on Good Documentation Practice (GDocP). The faculty — a retired director of USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — shared interesting facts about how poorly maintained documentation had resulted in multi-million dollar lawsuits and regulatory penalties for many pharma companies of repute. In some cases, manufacturing plant shutdowns were linked with failure to comply with documentation requirements. Good Documentation Practice forms a critical and non-negotiable aspect of FDA’s code of federal regulations for pharma companies. A slightest violation can trigger a disaster for a company in the business of making our lives better through medicines. Inevitably, the quality of documentation, too, determines a company’s right to operate, said the former director. ‘Always remember,’ the director said to me after the seminar, ‘that lives depend on the work you do, and your job is to make good documentation even better, not just because it’s required for compliance but because it’s the right thing to do.’ Hearing these words, I stopped thinking of myself as a mere editor of language. The value of not only correct grammar, but also improved clarity in articulation dawned on me. I could now see the whole importance of documentation, not just for compliance, but in the valuable act of saving lives.
Thereafter, I got to work on drug safety and clinical trial documentation. Imagine what’s at stake if you miss correcting a seemingly insignificant ambiguity in a sentence concerning an adverse event (untoward medical occurrence in a patent administered a drug during a clinical trial). For example: [Give subjects Mr. A and Mr. B two doses of CHP10 three times a day]
Even in other sectors such as aviation, telecommunication, healthcare, banking, etc., good documentation of products and services is indispensable for our well-being. The word ‘good’ simply signifies correctness, clarity, completeness, conciseness and consistency. Imagine taking off on a Dreamliner’s debut flight and stumbling upon verbosity and vagueness in its safety instructions. Or a confusing How-To in an internet banking app — quickest way to bankruptcy!
One shudders to even imagine the impact poor documentation quality may have on companies and, possibly, their customers—people like us. Somehow, the thought of even a single unhappy customer is unsettling to me.
Limiting the meaning of communication to speaking and writing alone would be to grossly misjudge its value and influence, socially as well as commercially, in the current times. Communication encompasses not just the command over a language, say, English, but comprehension, conceptualization and, most importantly, ordered thinking and its precise articulation. An idea or a product or a service, no matter how good, might not find easy acceptance among consumers if everything about it (use, relevance, benefits, etc.) is not communicated effectively. ‘When capability becomes commodity, competition becomes communication.’ Fine communication, therefore, is a key differentiator when it comes to business and individual success. It’s what sets great leaders apart from the rest.
Working across an array of documentation-intensive projects for two decades has given me rich insights into what goes wrong and why.
Mine has been an unwavering endeavor towards capability creation. To address inadequacies in technical and business communication, I have time-tested and proven remedies and practices that come with lasting benefits. If adopted earnestly, these practices can refine us personally as well as professionally. Besides, the resultant improvements will put smiles on the faces of our customers, particularly those whose have neither time nor resources to spare for authoring and training.
Do share any anecdotes or experiences that have remained with you and opened doors of perception. After all, saving lives and fostering happiness is a shared responsibility.
For more on the role of good documentation in the Pharma Industry, you can read my white paper here.
Ethics and the Tatas have been synonymous with each other ever since the first Tata Company came into existence more than a century ago. For more than half a million people who are part of the Tata Group, ethics is not just an obligation, but also a belief, a way of life. Doing the right thing isn’t just limited to how business is done, but also how one thinks and acts, and conducts oneself in society, and treats others. Following the law, the rules, and the regulations is easy. But doing the right thing requires altogether a different principle. It requires character and integrity and honesty, not just of the intellect, but also of the soul. It requires conscience.
Edward Thurlow, the famous British lawyer who also served as Lord Chancellor of Great Britain in the late eighteenth century, once said, ‘Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned; they therefore do as they like.’ This has often been misquoted as, ‘Did you ever expect a corporation to have a conscience, when it has no soul to be damned, and no body to be kicked?’
Conscience is a word that seems to have lost its meaning, its relevance in the modern world marred by petty rivalries and narrow-mindedness. In the corporate world, too, people play by the rules, though they may not agree with all of them, given their inherent prejudices and interests. Humans, by nature, are self-centered. They follow rules half-heartedly, partly because they don’t have a choice, and partly because they are fearful of the consequences of not abiding by them.
At the heart of the great rulebook of the business world lies the world of righteousness. Of the knowledge of right and wrong. Of humanism. Of compassion. Of goodness.
JRD Tata’s worldview is guided by the Zoroastrian philosophy of Humata (Good thoughts), Hukhta (Good words), and Hvarshta (Good deeds). These three beautiful words—the credo of the Tatas—are inscribed in the crest adorning the foyer of Bombay House.
What comes from people must go back to them is what JRD Tata believes. The acquisition of wealth, for him, is utterly meaningless if it doesn’t lead to the betterment of the human condition. His vision for the Tatas is precisely to be an enterprise with a conscience. This is what sets him apart from the rest. This is also the legacy of Jamsetji Tata. Real wealth is beyond earnings and assets. It multiplies. It’s immeasurable and undiminishing. All the good that’s reaped here can never be lost.
That such a vision continues to be cherished the world over for more than a century is a testament to its timelessness. Even today, it inspires us to dream of great things that will leave a lasting impression. The vision and philosophy of JRD Tata will shape the moral and intellectual outlook of future generations, too.
The question we must ask ourselves is how do we protect and uphold the legacy and the rich ethos of the Tatas? How do we call for the demolition of barriers that impede and prevent progress in thought and action? More importantly, how do we become better humans, and cultivate happiness so that we’re able to make others happy?
We must learn to raise the bar, set high standards, and never give up. We must learn how to be fearless. We must learn the meaning of courage and conviction. We learn the beauty of humility. We must learn the value of commitment. Commitment not just to the people we serve, but to a collective conscience, too. The conscience JRD Tata talks about.
First published on TCS Blogs:
The world today is in a state of dramatic technological transition. We are becoming more and more dependent on smart apps on a daily basis. Inevitably, the time we spend in front of software interfaces has gone up considerably. We have become immensely choosy, too. It’s the quality of experience alone that essentially dictates our choices and preferences.
In 2009, we hosted a high-ranking delegation of one of our customers in the airlines sector in our state-of-the-art User Experience Lab. Our mission was premised on the question: How do we make life simpler, easier, enjoyable, and more meaningful for our customers?
We decided to show the delegates why user experience matters. We were aware of the competition our customer was battling in the airline industry at the time. British Airways led a formidable pack that included Singapore Airlines, Air India, and others. We examined the websites of these airlines to glean their strengths and weaknesses from a user experience perspective. We set up a test environment with a clear test objective, identified a couple of test participants, and made them book tickets, first on our customer’s website, and then, on the website of its closest competitor. We recorded nearly everything using the equipment we had in the lab. The users’ keystrokes, their on-screen actions, gaze movements, facial expressions mapped to emotions such as delight, irritation, disgust, impatience, indifference, etc., gestures, verbal responses, and even physiological parameters like the galvanic skin response, heart-rate (ECG), and electric activity of the brain (EEG).
The purpose of the experiment was simple and clear. To record, observe, study, and measure the users’ behavior, reaction, response, and experience while they interacted with the websites of two competing airlines. We used the data to draw up a comparative analysis of the users’ overall experience with the two websites. We then arrived at certain indicators of the websites’ performance against the goals we had set at the outset. Our analysis was based on irrefutable data and reliable evidence, leaving no room for subjectivity. We employed the principles of ergonomics to interpret the findings and identify areas of improvement in design and interactivity of our customer’s website. “Your discovery is stunning,” affirmed a senior executive after reviewing our analysis and recommendations.
We had successfully drawn our customer’s attention to the fundamental question: Is the website helping the airline gain more customers and improve its market share? To us, a simple acknowledgment and recognition of the value of a discipline often accorded low priority in software design models mattered more than anything. We wanted to prove that user experience is not just an optional, good-to-have attribute of a product, but an ability of a product to free up the precious time of its users so that they are able to spend it on better and wonderful things—watching a game with friends, for instance.
Forrester reports that airline websites continue to score low in user experience. Why should booking a ticket or searching for deals be an ordeal or even a ‘task’? Why should we be forced to read verbose instructions, fill lengthy forms, make tedious selections, and navigate cluttered taskbars, menus, and screens? Why should a transaction be time-consuming? Why should we be made to endure fatigue by being forced to remember things, to labor over difficult decisions? We users are complex beings capable of extreme reactions and unreasonable demands and expectations.
The purpose of an IT solution should be to know its users, their needs, likes, dislikes, habits, compulsions, limitations, aspirations, etc. And, to give them exactly what they want without making them want it. With the Hippocrates app, for instance, MedCredits simplified doctor-patient interaction to such a degree that submitting a case file is as pleasurable as snapping a photo and sharing it with a doctor by the click of a button.
A 10% improvement in a company’s customer experience score can translate into more than USD 1 billion in revenue.
In today’s digitized and gamified world, where attention spans are increasingly shrinking, where users make a decision to ‘exit’ or to ‘stay’ in the first three or four seconds of their engagement with an interface, and where learning is an intuitive process with little dependency on human cognitive capacity, an engaging and compelling experience alone is the secret to customer loyalty and retention. After all, this is about winning our customers’ hearts and making good things happen for them.
We are witness to groundbreaking innovations in interface and interaction design. Interfaces have become behavior-oriented and persona-centered. Interactivity is minimalist. Communication is accomplished largely through visuals. Anticipatory Design is the in-thing.
In a few years from now, when physical entities like the monitor, the mouse, and the keypad become obsolete, and when our interaction with an interface will be solely through voice, motion, touch, or gaze, imagine the role Anticipatory Experience Design will play.
Some years ago, I was on an assignment with a global pharmaceutical company’s UK-based research center. My role entailed regulatory compliance. It was the time when Big Pharma was heavily investing in information technology (IT) to boost efficiency, streamline operations, and optimize costs. Even today, the spiraling costs of pharmaceutical R&D and the enormous risks involved in drug development continue to be the key drivers for IT adoption in Life Sciences.
There is, however, a peculiar challenge. Scientists, accustomed to working with pen and paper, are averse to using lab software. ‘It is disconcerting,’ a scientist working at the research center confided to me, complaining about the convoluted interface of an off-the-shelf drug safety system. Clearly, the concerned system fulfilled the business and regulatory needs, but failed to make its users happy.
Things haven’t changed much even now. At the heart of the software usability problem today is a poorly designed user interface, which assumes that its users—doctors and pharmacologists working in labs and clinics—would effortlessly be able to decipher how to use it.
The scientific community’s tacit disapproval of software with complex interfaces and cumbersome interaction isn’t completely unjustified. A lot is at stake if a design or interaction flaw in software used in Life Sciences is left uncorrected. Apart from causing comprehension problems for users, usability and design defects can impede R&D efforts. The present day scientists working in labs continue to be faced with productivity pressures. They deal with complex and humongous scientific data on a daily basis. Data entry and analysis forms an integral part of their research work. As such, they expect software apps to do almost everything that’s required to perform their roles. Furthermore, it is essential for them to be utterly focused on scientific research work without having to struggle with software usability issues. After all, they can ill-afford to spare any time for anything other than research.
User experience (UX) thus has come to assume an extremely vital role in case of software used by people working in Life Sciences. However, the approach to designing software ought to be far more user research-based if the software is to serve science and scientists better. The following aspects must be considered to achieve user-centredness in software design.
A human-oriented ‘design thinking’ approach to software development makes the software precisely empathetic to users’ physical and emotional needs. In real terms, it leads to user-centered visualization and better personalization of interface, information and interaction. The end-goal is simple: to empower users and to enrich their lives.
Towards the end of my stint at the research center, I got to attend a seminar on Good Clinical, Laboratory, and Manufacturing (GxP) Practices. The faculty—a retired director of USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—shared interesting insights about challenges and opportunities in the Life Sciences Industry. ‘Always remember,’ the director said, ‘we’re in the business of saving lives, and our job is to make good solutions even better, not just because it’s required for compliance but because it’s the right thing to do.’
The ‘user interface’ used in Life Sciences represents scientific knowledge. Its design should be so smart that understanding and application of knowledge are maximized. In the years to come, advanced innovations will revolutionize the way scientists and clinical research professionals will think and work. It’ll be all about precision in analytics, intelligence, and decision-making. Completely digitized and powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics, 3D Modeling, Internet of Things (IoT), and VR/AR, the ‘Laboratory of the Future’ is set to herald a new dawn in the world of genomics, and drug discovery and development. User experience will be a critical measure of its success.
One sees the whole significance of user experience design, not just for compliance, but also in the valuable act of ‘saving lives’.
Also published on TCS website.