India is one of the hottest tech markets for “top of the line” products. But India is also “the largest” market of those using smartphones and internet technologies in their entire families for the first time.

Neha Khandelwal, our next pathbreaker, Service Designer, works on Socially Impactful Design for low literacy Indian users to make sure literacy & distance is not a barrier to access technology.

Neha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about gravitating towards Human Centric Design, at the intersection of humans, design and technology, after realising the value that technology brings to the development sector.

For students, only the generation that understands technology can design better experiences for those who are accessing technology for the first time. So, question the way things are, and design experiences for the Indian audience on the internet.

Neha, tell us about your background?

My family is from Rajasthan where a girl child wasn’t treated equally to a boy. My father, being against this idea, gave us all the freedom to travel, learn and ask questions. To be encouraged to ask questions and not shy away from difficult conversations is a beautiful thing for a child. I was always a good studious kid, but I started questioning the traditional education system in 11th & 12th. While I scored 94% in 10th std I learned what it was to fail in 11th std. I was always a creative person, but because I did well in 10th I was placed in a school where the focus was on cracking IIT and AIEEE. There was an incident where my teacher looked at my sketches in the back of my notebook and told me I would never amount to anything. I crammed for 11-12th exams, scored 80% and never learned anything! I decided never to get into engineering because of this experience. My family encouraged my creativity, encouraged me to read books and learn. My sister became aware about NIFT as one of her classmates applied for it and hence encouraged me to apply as well.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

At NIFT, we were taught Design that is used to develop lifestyle products. And one thing I realised was that most of the learning is done by self and not from teachers. Design education further encouraged the idea that there are always multiple ways of looking at things and thus there isn’t anything that is ever completely wrong and right. When I finished my undergrad and started working, I realised I wasn’t happy making photo frames for Rs.5 lacs for families who could afford to spend that kinda money. I questioned the impact of my designs and pursued my masters in Product, Systems and Service design from Srishti institute of art, design and technology. The space made me meet faculties who became mentors and friends and taught me that Design itself can be used in any space I wanted to.

Side note: I have applied to many colleges outside India and have received an admission from California College of Arts with scholarship, but decided to not go because I realised I didn’t want to spend many years paying back my loan and be kept away from India and my family.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I switched careers to technology as I knew tech was an upcoming field and I had already developed an app for adopting dogs while I was figuring out which college to do my master’s in. While I was in Srishti, I learned a lot about developing a business as I continued working on the pet adoption platform. I realised that all the business models that I developed in Srishti as college projects, had their outcomes focused on social good. This made me realise that social impact is the space I would end up working in eventually. During my final thesis I worked on understanding what stops young women from having desires for self(aspirations) and thus learned more about patriarchy and our Indian culture. I developed games to do research on young people as I realised the power of creating spaces & tools to listen to people talk. I realised the power in communities in recognising their own needs and channelling them. Since then I have been working with various types of social impact organisations: NGOs, Enterprises, Consultancies etc. and have understood the value technology brings to the development sector as well as the various misunderstandings and my role in this system. I now work at the intersection of humans, design and technology for social Good. 

I work on technology products for people who are currently coming on the internet and using smartphones in their entire families for the first time. Everything that I learn is a challenge that changes the way I design and that’s what makes this dynamic space exciting. At the same time, the social sector brings the best people into the system because their interest is in questioning the way things are, and maybe by taking an action, they will change the world for the next generation! 

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

I started working with a social enterprise called “Enable India” that works for the Livelihood of persons with disabilities. Even though my profile is related to Service design, I entered as a User experience designer because that was the need of the organisation. At the same time, for someone to recommend your service design skills, you need to showcase the ability to understand the existing service and design for another.

I used my stint as a User experience designer to engage with the teams, offer my services, ask questions ( kudos to the organisation that allowed me to ask as many questions as I could), thus helping me understand the ecosystem. By the end of the first year I had moved on from being considered as a UX designer to a Service designer.

Thereafter I moved on to work as a consultant with various organisations because I wanted to learn what it took to pitch ideas to organisations. It is a lot about building your brand and offering your services. 

How did you get your first break? 

I gathered a group of friends in NIFT and we did a paper workshop at a winter carnival in a mall. We lost a lot of money and learned about calculating costs through this process. Through this 3 day activity we got an opportunity to develop educational robotics and as college students this was exciting for us! Learning wasn’t interesting for me in 11th and 12th. Thus, I got into developing educational robotics and that allowed me to practice the things we learnt in class as theory. At the same time, it made me travel and learn how to work with teams which is a very important skill to have.

I guess once you start, opportunities have a way of finding you. If you stay at one spot, opportunities might miss you.

What were the challenges you faced in your career? How did you address them?

Service design is about having an overview of systems, that requires you to be a participant in both management level discussions and on-field user research. Usually, people will understand the need for user research but management meetings is a new thing. At the same time, as a  Service designer, you are not the holder of knowledge but a facilitator of knowledge which requires you to have good people skills. You need to use systems thinking to connect various systems in action. In India, people understand Business design/ Business Analytics, which is a numbers play with economies of scale, but they don’t understand people centric business design. It’s like if you cannot do numbers, your skill sets are not valued. Another challenge I have faced is the lack of teams in most organisations that support a Service designer. A designer is  expected to play multiple roles and organisations undervalue the need for product managers, Service designers, UX & Visual designers. Thus, in small orgs, you end up doing a lot of things which dilutes the work you can do as a Service designer and promotes the stereotype that all designers do Visual design or Service designers are just UX designers.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work

I currently work as a freelance Design consultant. I help organisations identify user needs, modify business plans and design services using technology products to meet those needs. I feel like everything I learned and keep learning helps! 

When I  worked with Enable India, a social enterprise that works on the dignity of persons with disabilities, I learned about Inclusion and what you can do if a space lets a designer explore. The work culture and people there shaped my expectations from the development sector in india. I learned about language and its power and about people. Two years later I have carved my own expertise though and I know the value of the skills sets I have thus acquired. Now I am working as a consultant for a project with Google! 

What are the problems you solve? 

I help organizations identify user needs through design research – I use games to engage people and learn about them 

I also help design tech products: Tech isn’t about moving mountains but taking small incremental steps and that is what I help organisations do to get from where they are to where they want to get. I work with organisations to define clear goals and work collaboratively to set the objective.

Help define & implement services: The context and the user experience is crucial for any person to engage with your product because otherwise that app is going to get uninstalled or the website is not going to be used. The user experience  is present everywhere, from how did a user know about your product to when they are actually on the product! I work with teams to identify the path and the many steps involved for the desirable user experience.

What are the skills required?

Conducting User research: You need to know how to talk to people and engage them to be able to conduct research

Developing research tools: Know what you need to develop for the areas you want to conduct research in and have some basic visual skills

Secondary research: to understand the market and business goals and what does the landscape look like

Research analysis: Once you have gathered all the research, you need to analyse it to make recommendations and set the next course of action for an org/business 

Service design: Help define the service and what tech products will be used. This space also involves defining how the services will be used and therefore the user experience of it. This includes a lot of co-design workshops, as a lot of times as a designer, I don’t bring my own knowledge of the sector but gather and use the knowledge of the people on the field, teams in organisations etc.

Communication & Storytelling skills: Need some basic visual skills to present your ideas because most of what I do is convey ideas that don’t exist as yet. This requires an ability to build a vision around the idea and convince people to invest in it.

How does your work benefit society? 

Well, its technology for the next billion users and it opens up many avenues of access which wasn’t there before. I am currently working on a chatbot and learning about the ways people engage with the chatbot. The socio-cultural practices of a community affects the design of the chatbot and a lot of design has been western centric. Therefore, by developing these products we are also developing an understanding of an Indian audience on the internet!

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I think my thesis project will always stay close to me because that is the one space where I learn what it meant to listen to people from a community. As a designer, we are always an outsider and therefore what we think is good for a community isn’t necessarily going to be adopted by the community. I remember when I learned that a field worker’s family has got her daughters all married as a child while she worked on abolishing child marriages. This was a knowledge I acquired after becoming friends with the community and not as a designer. My current project is about Mental Health in a community and it’s the people who are leading the design of this space. It is quite powerful.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Work for India, use design. You will not regret it. : )

Future Plans?

Changing the narrative around Mental health in India through my initiative PagalHaiKya? with the community.