FF Insights #630: Design for the extremes

April 13, 2022: Teenage sadness; On Sevantibhai of Kolkata; No country for foodies

Founding Fuel

[From Pixabay]

Good morning,

Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much, apply the following test, Mahatma Gandhi famously said. “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her].”

When we think about it, Gandhi is not asking us to think about the mainstream—not the Aam Aadmi, not the common man, but the extreme, the poorest. 

That's not just an idealistic approach to taking decisions, but a pragmatic one too. (Idealism and pragmatism are much closer than we imagine.) 

In Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense, Rory Sutherland makes a case for designing things for the extreme. He writes:

“When Lieutenant Gilbert S. Daniels, a physical anthropologist, was hired by the US military to design a better cockpit for high-speed aircraft in the early 1950s, the assumption he had to challenge was that you should design a cockpit for ‘the average man’. The idea was that if you took an average of many pilots’ bodily dimensions, you would have a template around which you could design a cockpit—with the instruments visible to most people, and with the controls within easy reach of all but the most unusual physical specimens.

“However, Daniels already knew from his measurements of human hands that an average human hand is not a typical human hand, and in the same way he found that an average human body—that is one which is average in a range of dimensions—is surprisingly rare. When you designed a cockpit for an average man you were designing a cockpit not for everyone, but for a surprisingly rare, or even non-existent, body-type. Not a single pilot of the 4,000 measured was within the average range on all ten bodily measures.

“Metrics, and especially averages, encourage you to focus on the middle of a market, but innovation happens at the extremes. You are more likely to come up with a good idea focusing on one outlier than on ten average users. We were discussing this recently in a meeting when a round of sandwiches arrived. ‘This proves my point exactly,’ I said, pointing at the food. The sandwich was not invented by an average eater. The Earl of Sandwich was an obsessive gambler, and demanded food in a form that would not require him to leave the card table while he ate.

“Weird consumers drive more innovation than normal ones. By contrast, it is perfectly possible that conventional market research has, over the past fifty years, killed more good ideas than it has spawned, by obsessing with a false idea of representativeness.”

When you are designing don't think about the average user. Think about extreme use cases. 

Have a good day! 

Teenage sadness

Our conversations with psychologists across urban India have it that they are facing a deluge of troubled teens reporting feelings of loneliness. While it is tempting to conclude this has to do with the lockdown and the pandemic, Derek Thompson argues in The Atlantic that while that may be one reason, there are other reasons as well. On looking at research on the theme and speaking to practitioners in America, it turns out there are other issues as well teens must deal with. 

“Social media isn’t like rat poison, which is toxic to almost everyone. It’s more like alcohol: a mildly addictive substance that can enhance social situations but can also lead to dependency and depression among a minority of users.

“This is very close to the conclusion reached by none other than Instagram. The company’s internal research from 2020 found that, while most users had a positive relationship with the app, one-third of teen girls said ‘Instagram made them feel worse,’ even though these girls ‘feel unable to stop themselves’ from logging on.”

What happens as usage of social media goes up? Kids stay alone. “This is important to say clearly: Aloneness isn’t the same as loneliness, and loneliness isn’t the same as depression. But more aloneness (including from heavy smartphone use) and more loneliness (including from school closures) might have combined to push up sadness among teenagers who need sociality to protect them from the pressures of a stressful world.”

What happens to those who log off from the information stream? Thompson cites a 2019 experiment and “The study found that those who logged off spent more time hanging out with family and friends, consistent with the idea that social-media use displaces pro-social behaviours.”

This doesn’t sound very different from what most urban Indian kids are grappling with.

Dig deeper

On Sevantibhai of Kolkata

One thing we have a soft spot for are heartfelt tributes to mentors. Because inevitably, such pieces of writing capture slices of history that would otherwise go untold—such as this one on Sevantilal Shah who ruled the Kolkata equity market. It’s by Mudar Patherya who started life as a sports journalist and started to learn all about the markets in his early twenties under Shah who had taken a liking for the young man.

He writes: “So when it came to assistance for my Monday column, Sevantibhai’s diktat to me was ‘Sanivaarey aanth vaagey’, which meant that I had to present myself dutifully at his Bowbazar residence at 8am for stenographic dictation. I was 25; he was 57; he would be immersed in The Economic Times by the time I would reach; he would continue reading; eight minutes later, he would look up and say ‘Oh, tu aaivo chhey? (Oh, you have arrived?)’, motion me to sit, then turn to his wife (who at that moment would be somewhere in that vast home inspecting an unswept window ledge) with ‘Ay Krishna, jov kaun aaivyu chhey…kai laav? (See who has come, can you get him something?)’, before he would begin to dissect the market movement: ‘Tu lukh ke ‘Market was in overbought condition before clearing and high badla resulted in bull liquidation by Bombay operators that technically corrected market for next round of teji’… haan parn teji nahi lakhto, em lukh ke next round of bull phase.”

Patherya then goes on to describe what he learnt, his journey to set up an equity research outfit under Shah’s watchful gaze and why he will be forever grateful. “I was fortunate to have known in Sevantibhai someone who would consider a Muslim boy as one of his own, to the point that when I needed to grow the research team in space, he said ‘Aapru joonu Bowbazar nu ghar chhey ne! (Our old Bowbazar residence is there!)’ and that is how I came to set up my desk and typewriter in the same space where Sevantibhai would deliver his Saturday morning dictation.”

Dig deeper

No country for foodies

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Warm regards,

Team Founding Fuel

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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