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If you thought, India is just about techies writing code and agents taking calls, think again!!! Indians with a diverse set of competencies are helping American technology firms make their products look better and feel smarter. While the tap of the keyboard marked the arrival of the previous Indian wave, the current wave is being drawn in the form of strokes of very fine Indian paint brush.

31 year old Rahul Ajmera lives in Bangalore, India. During High School, when most of his friends were solving calculus problems, Rahul was busy painting. His parents feared he would end up as a Fine Arts teacher in a Government School. After graduating, when most of his friends joined engineering schools across the country, Rahul sought admission at the National Institute of Design in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad. His parents feared he will return as a fashion designer with a ring dangling from his right ear. After a few years, when his friends were solving the greatest ‘post-cold war’ challenge facing mankind - Y2K, Rahul was trying to perfect a ‘mobile kiosk’ he designed and created to suit specific needs of rural India. He never learnt any programming language, nor acquired any specialized computer skills. But today, he is a valuable resource with the labs division of one of the world’s largest technology companies. He is a design and user researcher giving direction to development of future technologies.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Please welcome the next generation of Indian technology resources. Right brain oriented, and yet analytically sound; keen observers of individual and social behavior, with the ability to spot patterns, and a passion to innovate. This is a unique band of usability specialists.

Over the last few years, several US-based companies are increasingly looking to India for usability research. What might have started out as an experiment is fast becoming a practice. And with each success, the wave gathers momentum. India is now a destination of choice for usability.

Can usability be offshored?
Any new technology product development goes through a typical lifecycle. The first stage is design, with certain elements of usability. In the second stage, the design is handed over to specialists for usability research. The third stage is when technologists come into the fray. However, this stage is fairly iterative, requiring close interaction between technologists and usability practitioners. Since, a fair share of the technology work is already being done offshore in countries like India, it makes perfect sense for usability work in this stage to be done in India as well. The talent is already available here, and the fact that it is also cheaper is a bonus.

The field of usability is fast becoming a science. Companies such as Human Factors International (HFI) have already created mature processes, templates and frameworks for usability. Not surprisingly, HFI is one of the most successful usability companies leveraging Indian talent to service companies globally. With increasing standardization and repeatable processes, usability has become more offshoreable.

Is it all about money, honey?
The offshore movement of usability work is following a similar pattern as offshore IT work. The first factor, inevitably, is labor costs. As per Forrester research, US-based usability practitioners earn on an average $83,000 annually, while a comparable professional in India earns anywhere between $24,000 and $36,000. So, offshoring usability to India can lead to substantial cost savings.

But, a critical function such as usability can never be offshored purely for cost reasons. Indian usability professionals are proving themselves on parameters of skill and competence. Most Indian usability practitioners have a background in design and/or psychology. Although lacking formal training, many of them have honed their usability skills by dirtying their hands in a variety of projects. Rahul, for example, worked on diverse set of projects ranging from web design, product design, and space design, other than creating the mobile kiosk for rural India that got him an invitation from the Government of South Africa for a demonstration. Computer programmers with a creative bent of mind are also getting drawn towards a career in usability.

Educational institutions having noticed the trend have adapted their courses to meet future demand for usability professionals. National Institute of Design, India’s premier design school, has incorporated usability in several of their design courses. Even the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have developed masters programs in usability and human-computer interaction. Young designers in India are graduating armed with basic knowledge of usability.

What makes India so special?
There are several theories for why Indians make good usability professionals. Atithi Devo Bhavah is an age-old Indian proverb that literally means, ‘Guest is a form of God’, a belief that might have led to the, now famous, ‘Indian hospitality’. In order to make a guest as comfortable as possible, Indians have always tried to understand his/her specific needs and change the environment to meet those needs. This traditional belief may have led Indians to becoming more sensitive to others’ needs, a critical factor for a successful usability practitioner.

Life is India is a constant battle between needs and resources, with needs almost always being more than the resources available. In the chaos that signifies India, the only way to survive is to be creative and find simple solutions to life’s complex problems. Another important trait of usability practitioners.

And finally, India is by far the most diverse country in the world. Be it cultural, religious, linguistic, social, economic or political, there’s diversity all around. Indians are naturally sensitive to diversity, and develop the ability to find patterns in order to follow the ‘lowest common denominator’ principle, that of making things acceptable to maximum number of people. Thus, making Indians natural usability practitioners.

Irreversible, is it?.
While some may disagree with the socio-economic-cultural factors mentioned above, what is indisputable is that the shift of usability towards India is irreversible, at least in the foreseeable future. From technology products, to electronics, to consumer durables, it is India who will make them usable for people around the world.

Anupam Mukerji • Mumbai, India •