Hi Ashish! Thanks for taking out the time to speak with us. We are excited to learn about your world of design. So let's get started!
1. You recently quit your job as the Head of Product Design at Zomato. Tell us more about that experience?
I joined Zomato at an interesting moment in their journey. It had been a few months into the Urbanspoon acquisition and the team was still figuring out how to best transition the new markets we had acquired. The food ordering wars had started and Zomato had just launched online ordering (called “O2” internally). Meanwhile, the investment climate in India completely changed. Zomato found itself in a scenario where we were burning a crazy amount of money. That meant a lot had to change, and fast. This turn of events placed Zomato in a situation where it had to grow up as an organization.
Deepinder used a phrase, “What got us here, won’t get us there” to talk about how we had to change the way we did things. Being at Zomato at this time was challenging but also extremely educational.
In this vein, there were several experiences that stood out. Specific to my role, the product umbrella had ballooned from being just about restaurant discovery to food ordering, table reservations and several enterprise products. This meant major changes not just to the product, but also how we ran our product, design and engineering teams. Shepherding parts of this was a pretty great experience. More, for most of my career until Zomato, I didn’t really have to play the role of a manager. Doing that gave me a lot of empathy for the challenges of that role and insights into how I work with people.
2. Sounds like a great opportunity and an exceptional learning experience! Why did you quit then?
In the 2+ years, I was at Zomato, we successfully navigated the growing-up phase I described and I had been able to contribute. The products were more mature, the team was in place, and so on. To use a Netflix analogy, it felt like the end of a “season” :). Sure there is always a new set of challenges, but I felt like I could make the choice to move on if I wanted to. I was also a little burned out. Startup culture takes its toll.
I wanted to step out of the narrative I had crafted for myself until now. Go to IIT. Start a company. Go to “Amreeka” for an MBA. Become a part of the Indian startup madness.
Even though there had been twists and turns along this journey (for example, my aspirations to do an MBA morphed into a Masters of Design), there had been a conscious or unconscious plan. I wanted to change tracks a bit.
3. Sounds lovely! So what's keeping you busy at the moment?
I am currently figuring things out. I don’t know what to call it. It isn’t quite a sabbatical, it isn’t a break, it isn’t a mini-retirement as Stefan Sagmeister frames it in his amazing TED talk.
To stay plugged into the design space, I am doing a bit of design/product consulting for a couple of companies. One is Fitso - a health and fitness company, and another is FusionCharts - a data visualisation company. I was back at the Stanford d.school for a few weeks for a short project. But the rest if a mix. I am travelling a little bit. I am trying to write more. Of course, I am binge-watching Netflix. If you like shows like The Family Guy and South Park, Netflix released a show called “Big Mouth” which is pretty great.
4. We understand that the Design School at Stanford is the mecca of where great design happens! Tell us more about your experience of studying there?
First, let me clarify something that confuses people about the Stanford d.school. The official name of the d.school is "Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford". The moniker ‘d.school' is colloquial. So you can’t apply to the d.school for a master's degree. You apply for a master's at any one of the “real” schools at Stanford such as the School of Engineering or School of Business. Then, as students at Stanford, you can take electives at the d.school.
The School of Engineering does offer an MS in Product Design, which is what I pursued. Before I went for my masters, I had founded a company where I ended up shouldering most of the design responsibilities. But I was self-taught.
When you are self-taught, you get really good at some parts, but you don’t know the lay of the land. It’s like you are only working on one muscle group in the gym.
Studying design gave me an understanding of design as a discipline and allowed me to dabble in many things, even if I wasn’t going to use those professionally. The other great thing about Stanford is the people. There are books that I had read before going to Stanford, not realising they were written by Stanford faculty. One such book is Mindset by Carol Dweck which was transformative for me when I read it. All faculty members are required to have office hours if they are teaching a class, and any student can make use of that! Having that kind of access to some of the best minds in the world is rare. I also learnt as much from my peers (probably more) as I did from my teachers.
5. How did you first become excited about design and product?
I co-founded a company - iTasveer.com - an online photo printing store in 2005 with three friends from IIT Delhi. (Heads up: After we sold it in 2011, it has not been updated and looks dated. Digital design does not age well :P). The four of us picked up different aspects of the business to handle. I had played around a bit with Photoshop, so I offered to do the web design (The term “UX” or “Digital product design” or “Interaction design” were not mainstream at the time). The idea was to hire a “real” designer eventually. But, I ended up doing that role a lot longer than I planned to and realised that I both enjoyed it and had a knack for it.
After 4 years of trying, we realised our startup wasn’t going anywhere. I had to decide my next step. I wanted to study but wasn’t feeling excited about doing an MBA.
Doing a traditional design degree like MFA in Industrial Design or MFA in Interaction Design felt too narrow. This is when I discovered programs that had a broader outlook on design. They were not talking about designing “things” but designing businesses, services and experiences and more. They were talking about design as problem-solving. This is when I was able to fully sell myself on the idea of pursuing design as my core competency.
6. Do you have any favourites from a current lot of tech companies, in terms of design for their apps, products and services?
In terms of app design, I think we are still catching up with our western (or Chinese) counterparts. The overall quality bar has really gone up but I don’t feel like I have come across a breakthrough product or service in my everyday use. I was quite excited to see the announcement of PhonePe POS. That feels like something designed specifically for the Indian context.
I am a big fan of how PayTM did the groundwork to make every thela and parking area PayTM ready.
I attended an event recently where Anshuman Bapna, the head of product at MakeMyTrip shared some great examples of products and services that are being designed for the Indian reality. One example he shared is a missed call based radio station called “Kan Khajoora Tesan”. These kinds of products and services are exciting.
7. Do you think startups in India ignore design as they are too focused on other things such as monetisation?
I don’t think it is because of monetisation. One reason is the lack of awareness. We didn’t grow up with well-designed things. Most products we had growing up were just “good enough”. We are endlessly clever, but the craftsmanship is not in our blood. The folks who are running our startups (me included) grew up in this reality. So you cut corners to get it done. Every person on a company needs to have an internal quality standard if the products and services from that company are to be experienced as “well designed”.
Another reason could be the success metrics used by companies. Product managers at companies usually have a set of metrics that they are chasing, for example, something like “monthly engagement”. But metrics don’t always encapsulate the range of design choices.
A well-designed product often “feels” right - but if you get down to the specifics it is hundreds of little decisions that make a difference. So you have to pair metrics with good old judgment. And good judgment is hard.
8. You have had a fairly unconventional career for an IIT graduate. Tell us more about your journey as a child and what encouraged you to pursue this path of creativity?
I don’t think it is that unconventional, except perhaps the shift to design. My aspirations were fairly standard pretty much all through school and college. I took “non-med” in Class XI and XII. I wanted the “IIT ka thappa” so I took the JEE. My father’s a businessman so obviously, I had to start a company at some point. I planned on getting an MBA “from abroad” like many of my peers were doing.
iTasveer.com derailed (or re-railed) things and helped me discover the world of design.
But looking back, I can see signs that pointed to a design focused career. I was the kid in fourth grade participating in the “Camlin Color Contest”. I was the student over-formatting his resumé. I volunteered to design event posters for the college festivals and so on.
Let me tell you a fun little anecdote. When I applied to grad schools, you have to send your college transcript. I was a “seven-point someone” at IIT, which isn’t a great CGPA if are applying to a top school. Except, I have done well in the classes that would have mattered for a design degree. A selective reading of my college transcript would have revealed my biases, but I was only able to connect the dots looking back.
9. Final question, tell us what does the future look like for you? Are ideas that you're excited about, that you'd like to share with us?
For me, like I said earlier, I am in a bit of open space. It will evolve. My plan at least for a while is to not have a plan.
I’d love to share a couple of things I am excited about. One is the future of work. We are past the industrial model of the 9-5 (or 9-7) job. Coworking spaces are the fastest growing real estate asset, class. Wired published an article recently where they talk about how “digital nomadism” is becoming more mainstream. There are more and more companies sharing their stories of how they are shedding older models of work. The concept of summer hours at Basecamp. Or the fully remote work model of Wordpress. And it isn’t just about time and space, but also about how people work with each other. Our frameworks of leadership and management are changing. Ricardo Semler’s “The Seven Day Weekend” is a great read here.
I was speaking to an ex-colleague from the d.school who wants to start a “collective” and not a “company”. This is something I am excited to be trying on for size and curious to see how it evolves.
The other thing I am excited about it the generational switch. When I was in my early 20s I used to wonder how change happens, and how slowly might it happen when I am just a cog in the wheel. What power do I have? But once you are a decade out of college, you find yourself in a situation where your choices can change things. And I see my peers in equally impactful roles. So the cumulative effort of everyone trying new things will bring change (hopefully net positive). That’s exciting.