College is a time for exploration and introspection, primarily to evaluate what drives us.
Prasad Sandbhor, our next pathbreaker, UX Designer, designs mobile apps and websites for Corporates and NGOS based on new product ideas or to improvise an existing product or service.
Prasad talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about initially taking up Electronics Engineering, and stumbling upon Toy and Game Design through extra-curricular and social activities in college which led him to NID.
For students, you might not make the right choice after school. But college gives you another opportunity to reinvent yourself to take another shot at what you truly want to do!
Prasad, tell us about your background?
I grew up in Pune where my parents and grandparents lived together. My father pursued his career in automation and telecommunication while my mother was a homemaker. My grandfather was a retired high school headmaster. His guidance, discipline and nurturing prepared me and my cousins to become who we are today.
I took up electronics engineering for graduation. However, studies quickly became manageable and I started experimenting with my personal interest areas. These were as diverse as theatre acting, robot making, volunteering for teaching, interning at IUCAA. I explored my academic interests in biomedical and embedded electronics. While in college I also became part of the process of Nirman, which made me aware about the social realities around me that I had hitherto not been aware of.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I studied Electronics Engineering for graduation and Toy and Game Design for post-graduation.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
My experiences from various extra-curricular activities gave me glimpses of what it meant to ‘be’ in the domains that intrigued me. I wished to continue my pursuits of trying out new things even after engineering. While exploring various possibilities to be able to do so, I stumbled upon the National Institute of Design (NID) and its masters course in Toy and Game Design. My extra-curricular activities helped me in putting together a portfolio for the entrance interview. To my surprise, I got through in my very first attempt!
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path.
My transition from being an engineering student to becoming a design practitioner happened via NID. Design education at NID propagated a ‘learning by doing’ approach, and followed a multidisciplinary approach. During my two years there, I dabbled with a range of topics, from designing multi sensory toys for toddlers, reusable packaging for kids’ stationery, to a concept of a reality TV game show. These hands-on projects taught me the detailed design process of user research, conceptualization, prototyping and user testing. I also learnt, how at each stage, designers converge and diverge within the topic in order to produce a good product or service.
Through these design studies and projects, I learnt that a good design practitioner needs to know everything – user’s psychology, patterns of human behaviour, evolutionary neurobiology, history, culture, arts, aesthetics, economics, science and technology. NID provided an open playground for experimentation of each of these aspects. It also prompted me to question things that I used to earlier take for granted – right from various societal concepts and systems, to my own biases and habits. I learnt to perceive the world both in parts and as a ‘whole’ at the same time, and understood how the whole is always greater than the sum of all parts.
After NID, I started working as a User Experience Designer – something that I had never even heard of earlier! I led and managed teams of designers and designed user interfaces for various educational mobile applications, games and websites for almost three years. After that I decided to leave the full-time job to join my friends at our own multidisciplinary design atelier. Working by myself / Being on my own has allowed me to create my own work schedule around client projects and still have time to focus on my personal projects, reading books, watching good movies, and periodically reflecting on myself.
How did you get your first break?
My first break came in the form of the industry project during my final year at NID.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: When I started my postgraduate studies in design, I was faced with the challenge of “unlearning” certain aspects of looking at things, something that I had acquired while studying engineering. Engineering follows a very focused, problem solving approach – it assumes that there exists a right answer or solution. It trains us to think in zeros and ones. Design, on the other hand, is an open-ended field where the answers may lie over a broad spectrum of possibilities. First step to address this difficulty was to be able to identify and accept it. My mentors at NID made it possible. After that, by following diverse practices of creative thinking and explorative conceptualization I was able to move towards a constructivist / holistic point of view.
Challenge 2: When I got out of the college, I was a ‘doer’ of design. I liked working hands-on / all by myself. When I started working, I was expected to transition into a design thinker, manager and leader. To address this, I started referring to the working styles of other design professionals across different domains. I also observed how other managers worked in the office. Along with periodic open feedback discussions with my bosses, an executive coaching program organized by one of my past employers, I was able to carve my own way of strategizing, managing and leading design tasks. It required me to first observe my own actions in the light of on-going work tasks and then design ways of dealing with them in the most optimized manner without taking any unnecessary mental pressure.
Challenge 3: Another challenge that I experienced while working as a design professional was to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. School and college functioned with set syllabi and timeframes but my workplaces lacked such structure. It took me some time and practice to be cool with it. Sometimes project briefs changed, sometimes timelines got altered. Initially such instances caused a lot of confusion and made me question my abilities. However, they also taught me that one cannot say that “I will start this task only after I learn everything about it.” Everything keeps evolving with time and clarity keeps coming along the way. One needs to be an active observer and quick learner to grasp it.
Tell us about your current role
Currently I work under a bunch of titles such as UX consultant, design manager, game designer and researcher. I work with a small team of multidisciplinary designers to design mobile apps and websites. We partner with corporate organizations as well as non-profits as their design consultants. Clients approach us with new product ideas or with an existing product that is facing certain problems. Each project comes with a dedicated timeline which varies between about 3 months to 1 year. I also collaborate with my friends to develop our own ideas of products and games.
Designing an app or a website follows a flexible process that gets customized based on the requirement. It starts with user research and domain study (for instance, if we are designing an app for working professionals to help improve their daily fitness habits, we conduct research with people from various backgrounds regarding their daily routines; in parallel, we study the related topics such as importance of daily fitness, human motivation, nature of exercises, existing products and services, common pitfalls, etc). We use a diverse set of design research methods for our research. The objective here is to find specific insights that will show us gaps and opportunities to design for. (For e.g. we may come across an observation that people find it difficult to plan their fitness routine by themselves) In the next phase, we conceptualize and work out a broad map of the app or the website – what features will it have, which of those features will be used or needed on priority, how will users move from one feature to another. (In the fitness app example – these will be workout routines and categories, ways for users to discover them – will they type and search a routine or would they like to surf through a few examples, etc). Along with this we also decide the right kind of colour palette, typefaces, iconography and forms of various interface components (buttons, cards, etc) for the app. If required we also work on the audio and haptic interactions related to the concept. We put all of this together to create mockups which are tested with few users and are discussed with the client. This is an iterative process which results in improving the concept to meet the exact requirements at hand. Once the designs are ready, we hand them over to the programming / engineering teams in the form of information architecture maps, guideline documents and other assets.
Designing a game may start with domain research or just with an idea about something. It immediately moves into prototyping – creating quick and dirty playable components that could be tested with players. Iterative playtests help in creating innovative and deep gameplay. Once we are sure that the gameplay is conveying the concept aptly, we work on fine tuning the visuals and other sensory aspects of design. The exact nature of these changes depend on whether the game is going to be a physical game or a digital game.
To work like this, one needs fundamental design skills, good observation skills, understanding of human behaviour and knowledge of latest technologies and trends in HCI (human computer interaction). The skill of efficient and effective communication is also of prime importance in my work. I receive work requirements from clients over calls or emails. Processing them into designs is a creative process which involves sketches, doodles and prototyping on paper and computer. Handover of design to development is again through emails and calls. One needs to be able to document every step and decision in order to function well in this space. There is also some paperwork involved – related to the legal stuff like NDAs, contracts, etc and of course about the financial stuff – budget estimations, raising invoices and managing taxes. I think that the best way to acquire these skills is through regular practice and periodic reflection of what went right and what can be improved.
My typical day starts with reading non-fiction books related to evolution, human behaviour, psychology, astronomy, history – anything that I find exciting and important to know. It is followed by a workout session accompanied by listening to podcasts. I like to work on the creative tasks (conceptualizing, brainstorming, etc) in the first half of the day. I check and respond to emails during the afternoon. I prefer scheduling client meetings and calls in the second half of the day. After that it is the time to relax and read casual fiction or watch something. Before going to bed, I try to plan and envision my tasks for the next day.
I love the way in which my current way of working not only requires me to keep learning new things but also gives me opportunities to apply them in reality.
How does your work benefit society?
Nature and magnitude of the impact of my work differs from project to project. Being at the creation point of the product or service lifecycle puts a huge responsibility on the shoulders of design professionals as their creations shape millions of behaviours and habits. Me and my team always keep this in mind and approach every action with a holistic and sustainable thought and make sure that it gets conveyed through the artefacts we create.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
At NID, I designed a tactile book for visually impaired (VI) children. I also worked on a year-long industry project of designing inclusive games that VI and sighted people could play together. As a part of it, I studied the lives of VI people across demographics. I observed how they use their computers and mobile phones. I inquired about the means of entertainment that are accessible to them. I also tried to understand the perception of visual impairment in our society and in turn, how it affects the VI. Beyond the required credits to complete my degree, this project introduced me to the field of accessible technology and universal design. It taught me research ethics, project management and designing under constraints. Most importantly, it made me a more empathetic and sensitive human being.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
While I was transitioning from school to college, I watched two biopics (October Sky and Into the Wild) for the first time and learnt about the fascinating life-stories of Homer Hickam and Chris McCandless. One showed the path of purposeful passion while the other challenged the very concept of choosing any one path – or choosing a career at all. I was equally enthralled by both and quite naturally, got confused about whom to follow. When I asked for help, my mentors asked me to simply keep going. To try out anything and everything. To stay curious and keep asking questions. That’s what I have been up to and I strongly recommend the same to you too.