Design for Servants

I have been thinking recently about how so many Indian household products and housework processes are badly designed. I am not talking about brands but entire product categories. Examples of badly designed products include beds which are difficult to move (not so common these days as twenty years ago), wire netting window covers which collect dust, mixies which are too noisy (especially if you compare a desi brand like Sumeet or Jaipan with a Philips or Morphy Richards), and entire houses which are badly laid out (I will elaborate on this later).Also, products which are well-designed and replace bad ways of doing things are not popular at all. In my building of sixteen flats, mine is the only one with an ironing board. Also, everyone hangs their laundry out on the balcony. Nobody uses a clotheshorse. (I myself am to blame in this respect, but only because I haven’t bought one yet. I’m planning to do it next month.) This is stupid for two reasons: first, Bangalore has a rainy climate, and drying your clothes outside could just mean that they get wet again. Second, a bird can come and crap on your laundry after you’ve washed it, wasting all the effort that went into washing it in the first place (yes, I’m bitter, so sue me).

The slow way in which well designed products are adopted is astonishing. Washing machine penetration is abysmal as it is. But even when there are washing machines, top-loading washing machines outsell front-loading machines. After ten years of frost-free technology, manual defrost refrigerators are still on the market even though the price difference is just about five thousand rupees. This makes a total mockery of motivational sales lectures about how price is irrelevant if you can offer a customer value.

So why isn’t the customer looking for value in design? I think the answer lies in domestic servants. The Indian servant culture (stretching from visiting bais to stay-at-home cooks) means that the person who buys the product (the householder) is completely different from the person who uses the product (the servant). Since the buyer is not going to use the product, he sees no value in usability, and so always chases value in terms of price reductions instead. This can have horrible consequences for the person who has to use the badly designed product.

Example one: mopping. If we’re the ones wet-cleaning our floors, we go out and buy a mop. As long as the maid is around, we expect her to do it with a pochha, her back bent at a completely uncomfortable angle. The extra price you pay to avoid that uncomfortable posture is only a hundred and twenty rupees, but the cost-benefit ratio doesn’t even enter your head until it’s you who has to bear the cost and benefit.

Example two: kitchens. Specifically, my kitchen. It is this kitchen which has got me so worked up about the whole subject and left me convinced that designing for servants is the reason usability in India is so crap. The problems with this kitchen include:

  1. It is too small. This makes ventilation a problem even with an exhaust fan. It also means ingredients and utensils have to be densely stacked. So to access one thing, you have to first remove five other things (and then put them back). It also makes cleaning it difficult.
  2. The cupboards have no shelves. There are no nails from which to hang utensils or utensil racks. Again, this causes problems when you need to move five things to get to the one thing you’re looking for.
  3. There are not enough power points for appliances. There isn’t enough shelf space or floor space for appliances for that matter. The floor space is all taken up by the master bedroom (which my flatmate only uses to sleep in), and the hall (which isn’t used at all).

This is a problem for me because when I’m fixing breakfast in the morning I want to do it as soon as possible so I can get to work. At that time having to remove three different plates and bartans to get to a frying pan is completely annoying. Of course, the person who designed the kitchen was doing it for a bai whose time was much less valuable, and so the cupboards have no shelves.

Unfortunately, the situation will not change until any of these four things happens:

  1. People realize that their domestic servants are human beings, and stop expecting them to do stuff that they wouldn’t do themselves. Ha ha ha. Good luck trying to change the attitude of three hundred million people.
  2. The government or industry associations step in and set minimum usability standards. Ha ha ha. Good luck trying to enforce the standards.
  3. Domestic help moves from a servant model to a service provider model, where servants are professionals who are hired and paid well by the hour. Ha ha ha. Good luck trying to set up a professional and premium maid service in India when there are half a billion Biharis, Bangladeshis, and Nepalians who’ll happily work for peanuts.
  4. More people start doing their own housework and start relying less on domestic help, and so start demanding better designed household appliances. This, I am actually optimistic about. Domestic help can be a value-destroyer in many cases: supervising servants takes up time, which you might as well use to do the work yourself. If there’s no grandmother/ jobless wife around to supervise the servant, the cost-benefit changes (which is why I’ve sacked my cook).

This post could lead to many other topics, such as why there are no ten-litre packs of juice in India, and why Praful Bidwai is an idiot, but I have no time to write them. So I’ll end it here.

0 Responses to Design for Servants

  1. Mihir says:

    I actually have a better explanation for manual defrost refreigerators. If you live in a place where you get 6/7/8 hour powercuts, frost free refrigerators are useless coz all your stuff inside will rot when the power is out and temperature is high. In case of manual defrost, the ice layer surrounding the freezer will help keep temp down for some time.

  2. Aadisht says:

    Didn’t think of that. But my crib with manual defrost is that the 7-8 hour powercut leads to huge puddles on the kitchen floor – totally pathetic.

  3. Nupur says:

    How about making housework fun–Tom Sawyer Whitewashes the Fence kind of a cenario–where housework is positioned as a stressbuster that is gender neutral and we move to a DIY way because it’s fun:) In moderation, and accompanied to music with the family being ivnvolved as a family that plays together stays together philosophy.

  4. Aadisht says:

    I think this is like the concept of making work fun. No matter how much fun it is, it’s still work. Similarly housework will always be a chore, though well designed appliances will make it less of a chore.

    And housework is not gender neutral. Ironing is Man’s Work. So is grocery shopping. And sorting laundry. And cooking. But not cleaning up. We suck at that.

  5. […] who I have annointed one of the smartest Cartelians, is on to something in this post. I think that we can generalize the problem. In India, we are poor at closing the design feedback […]

  6. Why we don't buy a mop…

    Here's Aadisht Khanna on why household products in India are so badly designed: [W]hy isn’t the customer looking for value in design? I think the answer lies in domestic servants. The Indian servant culture (stretching from visiting bais to …

  7. vatsan says:

    Link to an article on how Pril targeted maids and housewives simutaneously in their marketing

    and with regards to your kitchen, Could maximizing the number of apartments to maximise profit from the plot have played a role? A cook is typically not expected in a flat/apartment in india.

    (Comment edited to clothe a naked link)

  8. Aadisht says:

    Vatsan, about the article on Pril’s strategy: nice. Hopefully this will happen more going on. Incidentally, there was a Wall Street Journal article recently about Big Bazaar where Kishore Biyani said he wanted to target the domestic help who were given money to buy provisions. But there’s still the issue of whether the housewife will give the maid that much money or agree to let her upgrade.

    Incidentally, I never bought dishcleaning bars and got Pril/ Vim the first time. My maid demanded a Vim bar to begin with but then got used to Pril and is very happy with it now.

    About the apartment: it might have, but I don’t think so. The actual area of the kitchen is not as problematic as the way the cupboards are placed and the size/ absence of shelves and racks.

    Also, another reader mailed in and said that maximising the bedroom size at the cost of the kitchen is because we psychologically and irrationally base buying decisions on the bedroom size. It is aspirational. I think it is a signaling device, like buying booze: you show that you have enough money to spend on something that has no productive purpose.

  9. raag says:

    Must say a few things:
    1. I was thinking of starting a blog with the intention of addressing some of the very issues you already have been bringing up. So, there is no need for me to start a blog and the blogosphere can rest easy now 🙂
    2. Some of the worst designed things you missed out can be found in Indian bathrooms/toilets. You will have western-style (!?) toilets and no holders for toilet paper rolls. Then, the water taps will always be on the left side of the toilet seat. Maybe these are designed to introduce people to intricacies of various yoga postures. I can go on. The lesser said about the manufacturing quality of commodes, flush tanks, water taps etc., the better.
    3. Most of the apartments in Bangalore have the smallest areas dedicated to kitchens and toilets. In fact, the more expensive the apartment (from the likes of Mantri, Sobha etc.) is, smaller the kitchens and toilets become.

  10. Aditya Kuber says:

    Bangalore is still far better compared to Mumbai flats. I totally agree with the western toilets comment… and people like me who live in rented flats can’t drill through to install a paper holder since there are tiles all around.
    But I have to agree with Aadisht: no shelves in the kitchen cabinets totally sucks.
    Btw, why ins’t there enough platform space to keep all appliances like mixer, microwave… ?

  11. […] for servants… Posted August 24, 2007 Aadisht Khanna writes about why household products in India are poorly designed. Example one: mopping. If we’re the […]

  12. Aadisht says:

    OK, although I agree about toilets also being badly designed that example doesn’t really fit in here. Toilets after all are used and bought by the same person. This, we will have to blame on Indians being bad designers in general (possibly for the reason Ravikiran mentions: see pingback above).

    Raag: start, start. I will get distracted by some other topic and forget I had written about this. Please, have a fulltime blog on this topic.

    Aditya: because the platform is small. And also because bad shelving in the cupboard forces us to keep lots of stuff on the platform instead.

  13. KoPoS says:

    Good one. This one immediately reminds me of an article in BusinessWorld about 2-3 months ago about a specific case study of a marketing company’s adventures in trying to sell a new brand of detergent soap to the upper middle class.

    The detergent bar/powder/soap was as per its manufacturer much better compared to its existing contemporaries in the market, however it was on the heavier side of the pocket.

    The dilemma they faced while trying to get their message across was simple: the buyers of the product and the users of the product are two different people.

    Its the same case with your usecases too. The users have no significant stake in decision in the buying process of the product and the buyers didnt have anything to do with the using part of the same. So for such a given product you had two different target niche audiences and two different usecases.

    All the buyer needed was a product to get her work done (the quality was just a matter of repeating it more times) and to get the best paisa vasool product. The user on the other hand who was the actual customer did not have any say in the same. Only increasing significant stakes for each of the actors in this usecase can only solve the problem. Ergo, only if the buyer loses precious time or bad service because of badly designed products can we expect any substantial change. Quite simply a significant feedback loop needs to be established between the user and buyer, either through badly done work or delay in the buyers time.

    Take this hypothetical situation:
    a. Housemaids come (comparatively) cheap.
    b. Hence, maids have to work in many number of households to actually have some significant income to make their ends meet.
    c. Say out of sheer overwork, she begins to be absent for work.
    d. Households/Bachelorpads are forced to some of the work themselves.
    e. Ergo decide that its a cumbersome task and decide they will have to get some good item instead of the substandard ones they use.
    f. Maids begin to give reason to the buyers that only buying better designed products can they do better tasks => a simple feedback loop forms from the buyer to the user.

    Task Achieved.

    Apologies about writing a post in the comment box.

  14. […] estate deals. To handle their finances they employ an accountant. To handle their homes they have domestic servants who are trained by the women of the house and who generally stay with the family in a lifetime […]

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