Brought user-centric skills to tech-centric Indian IT industry

1996-2007 Indian IT industry

In the 80s, organizations in the West found a way to bring down their software development costs: they offshored the work to India (and other countries), where labor has been a lot cheaper. They were generally happy with the quality of code they received from India. They were not happy though in one area they considered important. They were not happy with the user interface (UI) that came with the software.

Back then, the tech-centric Indian software community often trivialized anything that was not technical. To them, the user interface was merely a bunch of screens to access functionality. The design of the typical UI created in India could be termed flat or database-driven. Users struggled – took longer to learn, etc. If usability failed, the software was often considered a failure. In some cases, millions of dollars were spent redesigning to fix usability.

Trained in usability-driven (human-centric) user interface design at University of California, Berkeley (Extn), Pradeep Henry not only saw these issues in every software project his Indian employers executed, but decided to do something about it. He wanted to bring usability awareness and education into the country. Henry figured that “show results first” would be the best strategy to make change happen. So, he first brought the change into his employer Cognizant, and then used the results and credentials to reach the Indian IT industry.

First software usability lab (1999)

Back when it described itself as a “promising venture,” Cognizant hired Henry to profit from his experience setting up and leading the technical writing practice at TCS. Henry delivered on that expectation and in fact went on to help create the company’s first corporate website, the first employee newsletter, and the first intranet. However, he knew those were things many other folks in the country could have also done. What Cognizant (and India) did not have was a usability-driven user interface design practice. When he proposed setting up a usability practice and lab, top management knew their American customer organizations wanted it. But this initiative was not easy. Henry faced long delays in acquiring the needed lab equipment. More importantly, he faced the challenge of a lack of trained usability experts in the country.

Henry’s usability lab was finally inaugurated in January 1999 by Cognizant customer Walt Wikman, Vice President – Product Engineering, CCC Information Services, Chicago. Henry hired and trained usability experts. So India got its first software usability lab and practice. Thanks to ACM Lifetime Achievement Award winner Richard Anderson, who while discussing Henry’s weekly UC Berkeley assignment in the mid-90s suggested, “It could be you!”

Setting up the practice was only the beginning of a series of challenges. While Cognizant's then CEO and a few senior leaders loved it, there was pushback from software teams that needed the change. There was resistance to move from tech-focus to user-focus. Software teams back then thought it unnecessary to have usability experts in their teams – anyone can craft screens, they thought. They also thought the addition of usability experts would delay the delivery of their projects. And they did not want to “pay” more for this new expertise. In fact, they sounded like they spoke on behalf of customers when they said, “Customers will not pay for these services.” (Turns out, this is the biggest change-resisting tactic Henry experienced in his career.) So you see, they had a number of reasons to resist. Resistance came even in the form of a subtle personal attack, “Hey, you were a technical writer, no?”

Henry’s usability practice differentiated Cognizant from all the other software development companies operating out of India, customers demanded the services of Henry’s team, and a strange thing happened. Every one including his detractors wanted his team members to be in their software projects.

First usability course in MS program (2004)

For an engineering school, Henry proposed a usability course, designed it, trained the faculty, and guided his team at Cognizant to run it.

ACM chapter (2001)

Having set up a powerful usability practice at Cognizant, Henry wanted to use the results to bring usability to the rest of the country as well. The best way to do that, he figured, was through conferences and seminars. But rather than bring it as a Cognizant service offering, he wanted these events to be hosted by a non-profit professional association.

With Richard Anderson’s help, Henry got the world’s largest computing society ACM to charter a Chapter of their Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Communication (SIGCHI). The chapter Henry founded was called CHI-SI. While the corporate culture in India promised a good attendance at the planned national conferences, the non-profit nature of CHI-SI was going to make it hard to get Volunteers who must be willing to help run the association (people could not understand why they should work for an organization with no compensation). So when attempts to get volunteers from other companies failed, Henry offered the opportunity to his own team members. They grabbed it. Whereas he as their boss had the control he needed, his team’s volunteers gained a lot of new exposure and enjoyed it.

First 7 annual usability conferences (2001 to 2007)

At CHI-SI’s national usability conferences, Henry wanted to feature experts from abroad to make the education objective a reality. But he also wanted to encourage an emerging group of practitioners and enthusiasts across the country to present. However, only a few conference papers had original content and Henry decided to stick with experts from the West. CHI-SI’s last conference Easy7 had all four speakers from abroad and the participants enjoyed the rich content.

The annual conference had no useless formalities that you find in typical Indian events (like asking a well-known CEO to speak). Henry once did use then Cognizant CEO Lakshmi Narayanan, but that was because this CEO could talk about the important role of usability in his company.

People kept coming to the Easy conference year after year, from all over the country. The conference was consistently rated high. Good content was the primary reason. Besides, these events were held in 5-star hotels, making it a great experience for paticipants.

Thanks to Richard Anderson (3rd row from bottom in pic), who helped every step of the way – from starting up to finding speakers. Thanks to the speakers. Thanks to the sponsors. And thanks to the volunteers.

Impact: 1000+ practitioners in 100+ companies

You just read about a change initiative that lasted until 2007. To know the impact of this initiative, take one item: the annual usability conference. For some folks, the event created usability awareness. For others, it was skills-learning that they used in their own customer projects. Many approached Henry asking how to set up a usability lab or practice. Soon a lot of software companies in India picked up the capability to add the user perspective into their design.

Check out speakers, employers of attendees, companies that sponsored, and CHI-SI. Go to official website.