Learning through Questions, Saswati Saha Mitra with Nehal Shah

Learning through Questions: South Africa Edition Part 1

WRITTEN BY Saswati Saha Mitra, UX Research Manager at Uber. Past life Googler. Scope and scale of global, tech innovation excites me.

“So grateful for the opportunity to write with Saswati Saha Mitra! This was such fun and allowed me the time & space to reflect on the design industry, practice & discipline. Design research is always in my heart. I got overly excited and as Sas says, carried away, so check out part 1!” – Nehal Shah on co-writing this piece with Saswati Saha Mitra


Saswati: Nehal Shah was the first hire of my career. She set the bar very high for all those who followed. The one thing I still remember from that interview with her was how diverse her general level of knowledge was. She talked about youth culture, how she ran studies for her psyche course and threw in World of Warcraft, somewhere in there. I had no clue what she was talking about with World of Warcraft, so I thought good here’s something new. I knew she had the creativity, critical thinking and ability to get things done which we needed. The rest of user research was teachable.

The second thing which is very impressive about her is how she one day decided to change from being a researcher to designer and move to South Africa to do it. Goodbye the cool crowd of Goa and jump right into a whole new world. There is much to learn from her. I always feel very proud of who she is becoming. We can all be CEOs of something, maybe just not the Googles of the world. Without further ado, let’s do her own intros.

“There is much to learn from her. I always feel very proud of who she is becoming.” – Saswati Saha Mitra

Sas: Ok, Ms. Shah tell us a bit about your career journey so far?

Nehal: You are very kind! My career journey has been a bit schizophrenic to say the least. I started with writing scripts for production houses — for a reality singing competition and a TV show that documented luxury products in India. Soon, writing about skinny ties and toddler high-fashion became quite egregious. I then decided that being a print journalist for a popular newspaper daily was much more noble, until I experienced many creative deaths in the press club. It was very fulfilling to write features but I had and still have the attention span of a tse-tse fly.

Since I was 7, inspired by Jane Goodall, I knew I wanted to be an anthropologist. My education track didn’t work out to this outcome, but I did end up specialising in Culture Studies, which blew my mind. It was just the right amount of critical thinking, cultural and philosophical frameworks; and many an essay to think about. This inspired me to do some digging and found a very interesting company that tackled innovation through a deep sense of cultural understanding and empathy. That’s where I met Sas. She has since been and will forever be my mentor. I owe her who I am now, a more rounded human. She helped me understand the value of diverse people, informed influence and systematic rigour. I always think about the work we did together being so significant and impactful to emerging economies.

“That experience taught me the practice of scalable, institutionalised design; that design is engineered; that it is scientific.”

I then moved to Goa, dabbled in segmentation and marketing, realised very quickly that the experience of the user is the ultimate outcome any business can pin their success on. This took me to Bombay to work with one of the foremost companies in user experience and human factors around the world. That experience taught me the practice of scalable, institutionalised design; that design is engineered; that it is scientific.

I got to practice this in India, the Philippines and South Africa, and eventually ended up moving to the Rainbow Nation because I saw an incredible opportunity to make a difference to the community. In 2014, the founders and I started Immersion UX, now Immersion Group. Phew. And that’s my career journey.

Sas: You started as a researcher, then went to marketing, design and now you run a successful UX agency in South Africa. What were some of the key decisions, learnings and challenges you went through to be where you are today?

Nehal: This is such a classic question! Love it. I will answer this through the lenses of someone in a design research field and someone who is growth orientated.

  1. Chase opportunities. A few years ago I was living in Goa. It was New Year’s eve. A friend and I decided to go celebrate by eating my first lobster at our favourite local. An expensive lobster. We soon realised, neither of us had enough money. Our young server caught wind of it, came to us, and very thoughtfully and kindly said — “Don’t worry. No money today? Money will come tomorrow.” This has stuck with me. I am not condoning the naïveté of being risky or nonchalant with money, but rather caring about value orientation. When you start looking at circumstances with the perspective of opportunity, it changes what drives you. It urges you to have foresight even if you don’t know where you want to be in 5 years. A lot of my key decisions in life have been taken with this mantra in mind. When you chase opportunity and land it, even if you have no idea how to do it, you will be always, always be better for it. The effort you make because you want to succeed will be rewarded, in time, if not in the moment.
  2. Be concerned with fair value exchange. Over my long schizophrenic career, I’ve worked in and learnt from a variety of environments, where work simply happens to take place. Businesses, especially those that are small (<500 people), should care about 3 key drivers as a topline measurement for success — employee engagement (not happiness), cash flow and customer satisfaction. Focusing on the first, a lot has been said about employee engagement and culture — recognising the trade-offs of givers and takers, fitting in or standing out as a function of embeddedness, the chicken and the pig analogystemming from the philosophy of agile. All of this boils down to one simple deal breaker for me — fair value exchange. Fair value exchange is the concept of giving and taking in equal proportions in the frame of value. This means that every member of the circle honors all transactions as win-win scenarios. This also necessitates that the idea of value is the same for those engaging — also the biggest hurdle to jump over. Many organisations and people are not clear about what they deem to be value (vis-à-vis valuable or organisational values.) Be willing to have open dialogue for clarity towards outcome — not deliverable, not remuneration, not position, not reward, not designation. Ask the question — what matters and why? To yourself and to whoever you are conversing with. Be willing to put yourself and them in a difficult position. Be clear about what you have to offer and what its worth. Be prepared to negotiate, compromise and find common ground. Be fearless with giving value, and be fearless with taking it.
  3. Make good art — At Immersion, we work with a concept called Ikigai — simply put, it is your reason for being. Philosophical much? We use Ikigai to help with our personal and organisational development, helping us and our people identify big, hairy, ambitious goals and the path to get there. It is a continuously evolving piece of work but a big, hairy, ambitious goal in itself. It took me 2 years to “complete” mine. It boils down to one statement — “Make Good Art.” This was born out of a very inspirational watchby one of my personal heroes — Neil Gaiman. A commencement speech he made in 2012 to a bunch of arts graduates. As long as you’re walking towards your mountain, you’ll be alright. I don’t want to give away much more, but implore you to watch it. Whether art for you is making food, making prototypes, making icons, or children’s books or clothes! Make good art. You WILL go through impostor syndrome. You WILL worry if what you are doing is right. You WILL worry if this is going to pay-off. Remember, to make good art. Whatever make means to you, what good means to you and what art means to you. Most importantly, this has taught me to be thick-skinned, to have conviction, to trust myself, do what only I can do best — make good art 🙂

P.S: The impostor syndrome never goes away.

4. Be more T-shaped — When I was in university, I chose to do a triple major in a very diverse arts course — psychology, media studies and english literature. It afforded me a very generalist understanding of these fields before I decided to specialise in culture studies. It allowed me to play in a sandbox till I could figure out what deeply interested me and I’m very thankful for it. Choosing a career that you think is going to be yours for the next 40 years, when you are 18, is a bit far fetched. This is something that I have sought in my career journey. Try as many new things that make sense. It helps make you T-shaped, regardless of how old you are or how many years experience you have. More importantly though, learn how to cross-pollinate skills and learning from these different experiences.

Having generalist and specialist skills is a special combination that has served me well. It helps one be more marketable, cross-disciplinary and respond creatively to challenging situations which is a given in today’s world.

Sas: Now a more socio-political question to tempt you. An Indian running a UX agency in South Africa. How are you creating opportunities and value for the local ecosystem and talent? Do you ever think of this as second generation knowledge colonialism?

Nehal: As the South Africans would say — “Eish.” This is a loaded question. Here’s my outsider’s perspective without going into the political and economic quagmire.

I’ve been in South Africa for about 8 years now. The design industry here is fascinating. Even more so is design education. I often find myself comparing it to India — where we have more than 20 dedicated design schools, some of the best being government owned. They teach more than 50 different disciplines from design management, fashion, illustration, service, product, industrial, user experience, fine arts, applied arts, film and video, animation, furniture, textile, public space design, and more. The bodies of knowledge that exist and pedagogically disseminated blows my mind.

South Africa’s design education landscape hasn’t matured as much. Pockets of knowledge exist and are empowering the grassroots design community, but it isn’t a full-fledged movement just as yet. This also means that lots of people are self-taught or trying to consume skills from online courses, short diplomas, meet-ups and workshops. The consequences are that design often isn’t learnt as a discipline or practice, but rather as an applied skill. The trade-offs are a systematic understanding of the craft vs. skills gathered through experience. NB: Design schools exist, but aren’t as widely proliferated as in India.

“Pockets of knowledge exist and are empowering the grassroots design community, but it isn’t a full-fledged movement just as yet.”

As someone who hires on a day-to-day basis in the design domain, I struggle with identifying real skills in the field. Given that the nature of experience design is changing radically, this is even more problematic. User experience design as we see it, sits in this weird space of science, engineering and art; with a few principles:

  1. Experience design occupies its own intellectual culture with its bodies of knowledge
  2. It is concerned with social reality and as such deals in complexity
  3. The human condition is a central concern
  4. It employs synthetic cognition in problem-solving
  5. It follows a particular process

This means there are very specific things I look for as an aptitude or existing competence, and most times find lacking in the market. I term this “The Bubble.” The Bubble sees UX as the next big thing that can help them make positive career shifts. Although a necessary shift in mindset, it also means that that growth comes without much learning. This is an ecosystem problem. I would like to see young people entering the job market focus on growing their skills, truly growing them.

That is the essence of an arm of our business called ImmersionLearn, a modern design academy with career tracks that disseminate experience design skills across the local community. It uses a cross-disciplinary and experiential learning pedagogy to balance the continuum of dogma, tools and techniques; and being a practitioner.

“I would like to see young people entering the job market focus on growing their skills, truly growing them.”

With the premise that knowledge is power, true impact can be achieved when it starts at the bottom of the pyramid, not unlike Prahlad’s commentary. My ideal state is for the community to burst the bubble, not me or any organisation that wants to solve this grand challenge, but I would certainly love to catalyse this change.

Sas: I see your knowledge of discourse continues to be alive. Very impressed with that Prahlad reference btw 🙂

Now my last question, what suggestions do you have for global UX and business practitioners in terms of how best to engage with local UX providers? Specific tips around expectations setting, quality control and time management are very welcome.

Nehal: When I look back at the different organisations I’ve worked it, both global and local, both trying to engage and be local experience design providers, there are few things that stand out. The bottom line is to use the same principles you would when recruiting a permanent employee for your organisation:

  1. Engage well and engage often

a. Find the drivers of business behaviour in the local market and adapt to them. Work on crafting an approach in a collaborative way. Experience design is not a black hole where a brief goes in and great work comes out. It is as much about the working relationship you establish.

b. The way of work of execution and delivery needs to engage the right people and have them involved every step of the way. Agencies often get this wrong. Clients know their product best, help them enhance their understanding from a local perspective, don’t discount it. Insist on this collaboration.

c. Bring someone from your world and transfer them over to the local community. Don’t look for a bridging server provider — but a bridging human who is supported by the service provider. Pick the most adaptable person in your organisation and bring them over to understand the nuances and hold the essence of what you care about.

d. Don’t think you can do it from the home base. It is counter productive to run experience design programmes from your head office.

e. Be clear on the split between what expertise you can bring from an international perspective and local expertise you need. The strongest insights come not from the overlap of the markets that you conventionally play in and the local market, but the differences thereof.

“Pick the most adaptable person in your organisation and bring them over to understand the nuances and hold the essence of what you care about.”

2. Identify and trust the expertise

a. Be aware that designations, skills, processes may not be the same as what you are aware of in your world. Take the time to unpack this.

b. Make sure that the service provider has a solid, robust process, tools and templates to getting to an outcome. This is the first step to quality management. Make this your first priority in identifying a service provider worth their salt.

c. Past behaviour is a good indicator for future behaviour. Ask not for case studies, but a discussion in which they explain their process to you. Ensure that they are able to tie the process to an outcome you desire.

d. Ask them where they have taken short-cuts in the process and how this has affected their end product. Additionally, ask them what they are negotiable on — this tells you a lot about what they care about.

If you are happy with the above, trust in their expertise. It is most frustrating when you know what you are doing is right but not being allowed the opportunity to make it real.

e. Align yourself to influential and knowledgeable resources in the local context quickly and continuously. Leverage their context.

“Trust in their expertise. It is most frustrating when you know what you are doing is right but not being allowed the opportunity to make it real.”

3. Timeliness and Delivery, not Timeliness vs. Delivery

a. In the world where everything needed to be done yesterday, timely delivery is critical. Agile, lean ways of work and design sprints have become the norm. But it is important to understand that it can’t be used for everything. As any methodology, it has a direct relationship to the final outcome you are trying to achieve. Make sure you and your service provider know the difference on what to use and when, so no one gets shafted.

b. Project management is simply an outcome of risk management. Enforce stage gates at every possible turning point of the project. This helps manage risk from both sides.

c. Customers want fast delivery, always. That isn’t going to change. In an emerging economy like South Africa, avoid being purist. It’s about taking the lead from the local market and allowing it to determine your end game.

4. Engaging in Emerging Markets

I shouldn’t be preaching to the choir! Sas, you’ve been working in emerging markets for decades but this is a good place to find out if we are on the same page.

a. If you don’t know the culture don’t pretend to.

i. Identify your foreign value proposition early and drive it hard. Look for a partner provider who will walk with you on the journey rather than simply a service provider.

ii. If trying to break into a new market, don’t assume the service provider in the country knows its customers either, go primary and go quickly.

iii. Don’t be attached to the business practices, principles and ethics that hold true in your country. Contexts differ. For example in South Africa, the business dynamic is very different — they hate negotiation. South African businesses want outcome quickly. Negotiation is not worth the time or energy; but a lot of time is spent building personal relationships. Whereas in India, negotiation is a necessary precursor to any engagement, but a lot less time is spent building personal relationships. However there are social contracts. It’s complex!

“South African businesses want outcome quickly. Negotiation is not worth the time or energy; but a lot of time is spent building personal relationships.”

b. It’s not your country, never forget that.

i. Mental models are different and the joy of experience research and design is understanding this difference and identifying opportunities for impact. For e.g. the construct of safety for an Uber driver. The western world tries to make sure the rider is safe from the driver. In South Africa, it’s about protecting the drivers as much as the rider. My anecdotal talks with them give me insights such as they don’t take any cash based trips as that is a high-risk ride. High risk meaning they could be shot. They have to worry about the local metered taxi drivers trying to kill them for stealing their jobs and therefore adjust their pick up spots and routes to avoid them. Mental models ❤

ii. Social dynamics are crucial while doing business. E.g. South African business executives hate arrogance, tending towards foreign opinions or people that believe they have a deeper understanding of the South African landscape than they do. Especially if they come from the West.

iii. South Africans are a very proud people. Given their history, they have come so far and it is embedded in their ways of engagement. There are rituals and behavioural standards that focus on the rightful dignity you afford to everyone at the table.

“South Africans are a very proud people. Given their history, they have come so far and it is embedded in their ways of engagement.”

c. The socio-politico-economic ecosystem of emerging markets.

i. Emerging markets are riddled with wicked problems. Even simple solutions that may be proven in other markets are put to the test. For e.g. A large majority of consumers in South Africa buys from the same 6–7 brands but as a country it has one of the highest Gini Coefficients in the world. It becomes critical for the service provider to help you answer which salient parts of the ecosystem need to be balanced to ensure the solution’s success.

ii. This can’t be done without deeply embedding yourself in the ecosystem. User research is built on understanding these nuances, differences from an extended and extensible lens. The multiplicity of ethnic groups that exist here, immigrants from war-torn or politically unstable countries in Africa, their bloody and recent history, the imbalance in power, governments in turmoil, the surge of systemic support to the previously disempowered, all adds further complexity to the ecosystem. The diversity of people, thought, will and opportunities even within a small country like South Africa doesn’t cease to amaze me.

Sas: That was profound! Really enjoyed the meta theorizing. I can’t wait to see what you have got for me in our part two. Coming next week…

Link to original article: https://medium.com/@saswatisahamitra/learn-by-asking-south-africa-edition-bdedb500466e 

Image Courtesy: Martin Bekerman on Unsplash

If you’d like an opportunity to chat to or interview Nehal Shah, please contact shaunei@immersiongroup.co.za for more information.

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