Posts tagged Design
What I learned from listening to 40 product leaders from South East Asia

Networking has become a bad word.

It means saying “So what do you do?” repeatedly and superficially at after work meetups while half-listening to a speaker talk about their work.

I’ve faced my share of superficial conversations. As a frequent outsider at these events, I spend at least 3 to 4 mins of a conversation looking at the puzzled face of the person I’m trying to talk to as they try to repeat my foreign-sounding name awkwardly or try to parse my accent.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Meeting people from your industry can be meaningful and conversations can be real.

Arriving in Ubud, Bali for a 3 day retreat with 40+ product people :D

Arriving in Ubud, Bali for a 3 day retreat with 40+ product people :D

I recently spent 3 days in Bali listening to personal work stories from 40 product leaders, founders and cofounders from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and HongKong.

This is what I learned:

Everyone is struggling to make their work meaningful

I met Dan and Jo from Hong Kong. They’ve been working on a solid, actionable framework for Making Meaningful Work or MMW for more than 20 years. It was inspiring to hear their story.

After three short sprints we came up with an initial framework of ideas for working with our teams with a lot more heart.

I found several people in the group who hate the term “soft skills” as much as I do. The term soft skills is just a horribly dismissive way of talking about the most important part of leading a team — being human, listening and caring.

The focus was on actionable, positive things to do for your team. And how to develop healthier, sustainable and more meaningful ways of working.

“It doesn’t have to be crazy at work.

It really doesn’t! We aren’t machines that can be equally productive every day, every week and every year.

You’re not a car that can always “go the extra mile.”

Level 4 listening is hard

Going from factual listening and downloading to deeper empathy and generative listening

Going from factual listening and downloading to deeper empathy and generative listening

We’re continuously distracted by smartphone notifications from our friends, family and work.

I’m frequently tapped on my wrist by my Apple Watch, reminding me to stand if I’ve been sitting too long.

Michael put up this sheet early on during the event, telling us to try and practise Level 4 Listening. With a stranger that’s tough, and in todays tech world, that’s even harder.

As a designer I’m formally trained in empathic listening. But listening and being empathic during a 2 hr usability interview and doing it constantly is a different thing.

Empathy only takes you to Level 3 listening

For example, I listened to a hiring manager talk about how they judged someone for leaving jobs every year or “job hopping.” And later regretted it.

Level 3 listening means you can hear their story with true empathy, leave your self and your judgements out of it, truly feel the other persons anxiety and point of view.

Level 4 listening is more generative. You build on base empathy with a deeper sharing of ideas and feelings. You swap stories. For example, I shared a story of my own personal bias during hiring, and when I realized it. It’s important to avoid jumping directly into solutioning during this level of discussion. Just reflect, share and listen.

I’m not the only one with Creative FOMO

Fear of missing out for creative people

Fear of missing out for creative people

What is creative #fomo? The feeling that out there, there is a better and sexier product and a more genius team that you can work with.

Where you can do better design things in a better way.

I’m always looking for people with good taste. I’m always in a #fomo about doing better and better work.

It was heartening and validating to hear similar self doubt from non-designers. Though it did take some time for people to open up about it.

It’s about people, not processes

After a number of years of experience, all leaders from all fields reach this same conclusion.

People are so important!

I think this tweet sums it up:

Deep, meaningful conversations means you cannot avoid the other persons politics

Comic by  Will McPhail

Comic by Will McPhail

Keeping things polite is impossible in a group of 40 people in Bali trying to practise level 4 listening and sharing and spending all their free time together.

It’s okay to have uncomfortable or even hurtful conversations or to be in groups of people where people have sexist or racist beliefs — that’s reality.

Really listening requires suspending your own impulse to correct, to dismiss, to shut down. Navigating this is a challenge, because you don’t want to betray your own values — but you want to give people enough space to open up and feel comfortable having their opinions challenged and scrutinized.

P.S. This is for work. This is putting other people’s feelings ahead of your own, and it’s important to be mindful of why you’re doing that. You are getting useful insights and you have a goal, but it shouldn’t become your default way of operating. That isn’t healthy.

Do by not doing

I learned a bunch of Chinese sayings during the retreat. The one that stands out is Wu wei or 无为 — which loosely translates as “Do by not doing.”


An important part of being a leader is to know when to let things resolve themselves.

Reacting constantly is probably going to make things worse.

A product manager from the retreat shared a personal story on Day 2. A problematic person in another department was making trouble and creating a negative atmosphere in that department, which was affecting his own work, his team and his timelines. Although he tried for weeks to “fix” this, eventually the problematic person left for unrelated reasons.

The problem resolved itself on it’s own.

A startup is like a sinusoidal wave pattern, just get to the next wave

(A fancy way of saying there are ups and downs and thats ok)

(A fancy way of saying there are ups and downs and thats ok)

Finally, reach out to your community and be open to people reaching out to you

A solid support system is key to thriving in your industry.

How do you reach out? A lot of people just aren’t sure.

We’re consumed by “busy-work” and miss out on real connections around us. It’s easier to just coast through meetups without having a deeper connection and its easier to avoid truly listening to the other person.

If you look around you, its amazing to see so many people willing to reallyhelp you and talk to you.

All you need to do is be open and vulnerable to that connection.


  • Networking can be genuinely and deeply connecting with people

  • Everyone is struggling to make their work meaningful

  • Deeply, truly listening is hard

  • It’s ok to be in uncomfortable or hurtful conversations — that’s reality

  • Do by not doing or 无为

  • Reach out and be vulnerable, it is super rewarding!

Thank you for reading! This was originally published in UX Collective on Medium in June 2018, so this is a repost.

P.S. The G&T Product Meetup in Bali was organized by Michael OngMike, and team. Huge thanks to them for having me :D

The Tubelight- How I learned things years after they were taught to me
In the 90s in India we used the word TubeLight as an insult. For someone who is slow or lights up too late. Basically the last person in the room to get the joke :)

Agencies, studios, startups and consultancies

I started off as a designer in India with a salary of about $450 per month, designing logos and artwork for brands.

That was 10 years ago.

Since then I’ve worked in ad agencies, mom & pop design studios, tech centric startups and consultancies.

I’ve worked in huge teams of 150+ and tiny teams of 2 and 3.

I’ve worked as a graphic designer in print, as an HCI researcher going door to door in India, as a UX designer in San Francisco and Bangalore.

And now I’m working with a product design team in Singapore.

I looked for a common thread in all this design experience.

The TubeLight Moment


What I found was that throughout my design career I learned amazing new things that only truly clicked much later. I either didn’t get it, got it for a moment and then it was gone, struggled to grasp or apply it in any practical way.

And when it did finally click it was usually months or years afterwards.

Let me illustrate this with a few examples.

Draw 200 trees


My first story is from the design school I attended before I became a graphic designer.

Day two of our five year course we were asked to draw two hundred trees.

My immediate response was “What?”

What was the deadline? How do we draw it? Should we use 2B pencils or something else? Is it supposed to be realistic? Or abstract? What course was this part of anyway? What paper should I use? Are we going to get grades for this?

And so we wandered about our beautiful campus with questions and more questions.

I completed the task along with my classmates, wondering what my teacher was upto. At the time I thought he was just testing us, trying to get us to break out of our usual idea of an assignment. We were coming straight out of a rigid education system and he wanted to throw us into another mindset.

Years later my TubeLight came on and I realised there were two main lessons here.

The first was — Explore, explore and explore some more.

Draw 200 trees was a great way to explore the campus for new students. You could explore different styles of drawing. You could do anything really.

The second lesson was — getting comfortable with ambiguity.

Draw 200 trees was a very vague brief. It was up to us to clarify it, come back to the first principles of it and deliberately interpret it as we wanted to.

Design a chair


I was talking to a close friend of mine about this and she remembered her own TubeLight moment from her design education.

They were told to design and build a chair out of corrugated cardboard.
It had to support the weight of a person and behave like a chair.

Like any design student she was super excited about this exercise. She worked on it for a long time with her classmates and eventually came up with something she was happy with.

However what she thought at the time was:

I’m going to be a graphic designer. That was a really fun exercise but I’m probably never going to design a chair. Oh well.

A few years later — she was working on making hygiene kits for underprivileged children in Mumbai. The goal was to encourage basic practices like washing your hands.

She remembered the material corrugated cardboard. 
How it was flexible, strong, affordable, and if done right, could look good. Suddenly she could show off her in depth knowledge of the material to her colleagues and her boss. They had found the perfect material for making hygiene kits.

That was her TubeLight moment — When she realised the exercise wasn’t just about designing a chair. It was about understanding materials. Not just understanding cardboard, but understanding the depth of how you could use a material in different ways.

Explore vs. Execute


Another TubeLight moment for me was when one of my first bosses said:

Your first option is probably the best one

In design school we were pushed to try 500 different options until we found the right one. The harsh reality of the design industry was execution.

You had to deliver results — sometimes on the same day.

Explore vs. Execute. So I thought, OK this was the balancing act we have to do as designers.

Then there’s Make and Ship


If you don’t have time for 500 explorations and to truly go in depth, you can make a quick prototype.

You can workshop and build test objects. This isn’t production quality execution. But you can still explore by making things: You can convince clients with a prototype if the explorations aren’t getting through to them.

Then I discovered- Shipping. Ship your product to production.

When I joined the startup world, this is where the whole explore vs. execute conflict really clicked for me.

While working at Postman, an API testing service for developers, we grew to more than 4 million developers. That means, 4 million developers were using our software in about a year and a half. That’s a really hectic growth curve.

I learned to ship a lot! We shipped to millions of users and learned which designs were actually working, live in the real world.

The moment we knew which designs weren’t working, we would update again to millions of people and keep iterating on the fly.

It was a great way to explore and execute at the same time.

TubeLight moments are not always aha! moments.
They are (sometimes) slow dawning realisations over months and years as you delve deeper into the things you’ve learned.

Learning moments depend on being in the right place at the right time.And having the precious opportunity to practise what you have learned.

Learning design like a TubeLight

1. Most of the time you don’t truly connect the dots until much later.

2. TubeLight moments click like aha! moments.

3. Sometimes TubeLight moments are (painfully) slow dawning realisations.

4. Without the right opportunity in the industry you may never truly learn — because you can’t apply what you’ve learned.

Thank you for reading ❤
I would love to hear your TubeLight moments in the comments :)

(This article is an excerpt from my talk at the IXDA Education Summit in France in Feb 2018).
Originally published on Medium.

Local Train Signage

Crudely painted stenciled signage from the relatively new Mumbai local trains. The 'Alarm' sign inside the compartment is pretty legible, but do the same in Marathi, and suddenly it is more difficult to read especially because it's partly scratched off. Alarm Signage Local Train

I can figure out the first and last word, it says apatkaleen (something) uplabdh. Then the arrow points to the footboard of the compartment door. A real puzzle, typical of the Indian government or should I say Railway authorities. I can guess it means 'In case of emergency (aapatkaleen) use this (uplabdh)' then the arrow pointing to the footboard. God only knows what it's supposed to point to.

It's an excellent example of the typical contradictions you face everyday in Bombay. The new trains have this cool new speaker system which announces the nearest station in three languages, and at the same time the emergency help services and signage are at this level.

Stray Factory

Check out the logo I've designed for Stray Factory. They're an entertainment collective, who're into a lot of awesome projects, a majority of which are contemporary theater experiments in Chennai.

Want to see more? Check out this poster for a play called Dystopia

Update: Stray Factory and Indiblogger are hosting The Great Indian Blogologues to take blogs onto the theater stage for the first time ever. Any post of yours, be it a rant or a rave will be converted into a performance if you win! > Stray Factory is also in the press here.

An absurd evening at The Office

* The sky was that dim dark blue that makes you realize its past seven and you're going to be at work for another hour easy. I was, predictably, still following up on things that were probably not my job due to the fact that we were under-staffed. Making sure the damned Finance department would pay my vendors on time became more important than design work, since without printers you can't get anything done anyway. In this case, 'on time' was long gone and it was quickly turning into paying my vendors 'ever'. Add to that the internet is down (again) and the emails are not working (again). So my numerous replies and follow ups must be done via phone. It was during this process that I had a very strange twlight-like conversation with the HOD of Finance.

[The Finance dept. lost all the bills, and I had sent them copies the second time].

"Hi, FM."

"Hi, yes Aditi"

"I just wanted to tell you that I have sent all the bill copies to the Purchase dept. again. My email is not working, so I just wanted to say that I gave it to them in the afternoon."

"Good, good. okay. Once Mahesh tells me he's recieved it, I will go ahead."

"But he has recieved it, I gave it to him in the afternoon."

"Yes but nowadays I don't trust anybody, not even you, not even Mahesh."


"I don't even trust myself. Finance dept. is such, the kind of work that we do. You can't be too careful. I don't even trust what I am saying and doing."

"(Laughter) You don't even trust yourself? But how...?"

"I'm telling you. You never know if the bills are recieved, with accounts, with purchase, finance or wherever. Once I know where they are, then I will take action."

"Okay, but I gave them to Purchase today."

"You already told me that. Are you telling me twice because you had to give copies of the bill twice?" (Laughter)

I forced a laugh out of myself. I don't think giving copies of bills again and again is funny at all. "But I'm just telling you FM, that's all."

"Good, good. And once I am certain of what's happening, I will definitely take action." At this point I gave up since I realized we were having a circular conversation.

"Enjoy!" FM continued. This was the most strangest part. I had never had such a long conversation with him, but this was definitely a weird way to hang up.

"Okay... Thanks then." (For nothing, I added in my head).

"Enjoy, enjoy!" he repeated merrily and then hung up. I stared at the phone for a couple of moments, wondering what just happened. Clearly someone was making a fool of me. I looked around, but everyone was seriously typing away at their cubicles. So I shrugged it off and got back to work.


Found Art: Entrance/Door

There are a lot of old Tamil and French houses in Pondicherry. Some of the houses have an interesting fusion of Tamil and french architecture. For example, one house I had lived in for about two weeks when I first landed up in Pondy has a ground floor in Tamil style, with a large central courtyard et al, and the first floor in French style with a ballroom to entertain French guests. It was owned by an Indian beurocrat in the days when Pondy was a French Colony. A lot of these houses are in the prime areas right next to the beach. They are taken up and redone as guesthouses and cafe's and restaurants, and they flourish because of all the tourists coming in, or at least, I think they flourish. Anyway, this is a photograph of one such place. This beautiful house has been bought up by a kitchen company!

It was weird, we were walking by and from the outside, we thought it was probably a cafe so we walked in. Instead, its been converted into a store to sell kitchen appliances. It was strange and uncomfortable for some reason, the mismatch between the old house and the commercial kitchen company.

Entrance Gate

Detail: A beautiful door knob at the entrance -

Door Knob

Tamil and French Fusion Architecture

I lived all alone in this old Tamil house for about two weeks while I was looking out for an apartment. Everyone told me it was haunted and all that, but I didn't have any scary experiences (what a surprise ^_^). The house itself was old, old and beautiful. The current owner told me an interesting story about the house.  Less than a hundred years ago it was owned by a hi-flying Tamil bureaucrat when Pondicherry was still a French Colony. According to an old cook who has worked in the house for more than sixty years, the name of the previous owner was Ramaswami Chettiyar, his daughters name was Rani and his wife's name was Maragadham. He built the ground floor in traditional Tamil style, with a courtyard and everything, while the first floor is built in French style, with chandeliers, high ceilings and a huge ballroom to entertain French guests. I lived on the first floor, but most of the rooms were closed off. Large parts of the house have been broken down over time to give space for roads and neighbours, only the smaller parts of it remain, and even those are badly maintained. That's probably why some people find it scary.

Main Room


My favourite part of the place; The bathroom door is completely stained glass:

Stained Glass Bathroom Door

mirror-detail Detail of the giant mirrors on both sides of the drawing room.

The stained glass windows really add to the overall effect, and conflict nicely with the traditional, and brightly painted carved wood and absence of glass on the ground floor:

courtyard tamil house

Only some of painted details remain, but these wooden columns were completely painted before falling into disrepair. Unfortunately, this part of the house has also not been maintained.

Here you can see an area where the bright colours are still visible and not completely faded:

Detail Tamil House

Related Posts:

> More about Pondicherry

> Architecture in Pondicherry