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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- The government or industry associations step in and set minimum usability standards. Ha ha ha. Good luck trying to enforce the standards.
- 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.
- 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.