- As the first designer to join Wadhwani AI, what challenges did you face in setting up the design team?
From the beginning, I envisioned establishing a strong and accountable design team who could take ownership of design work at the institute. When I joined Wadhwani AI in 2020, the institute was already creating a buzz in the AI world but there was very little room for designers. I began by contextualising the need and power of design for solution managers, engineers, ML scientists, doctors, and subject matter experts who constituted the various teams in the organisation keeping in mind our vision of making scalable AI for social impact. This was a complex task as all the teams were evolving dynamically. I started small and got just 1 designer to join me initially. Together, we worked hard with a focus on design for impact. The work done in this time set the tone for what design could achieve and opened the doors for us to ramp up and grow the design team. The organisation slowly started emphasising the need to build solutions keeping users at the centre of it all and acknowledged how designers were pivotal for this approach. Here onwards, we started seeing more user research study requests and UI/UX requirements come to us instead of us constantly having to pitch them earlier. The words design thinking, user needs, intuitive interfaces and usability were mentioned multiple times in town hall meetings by our CEO, Shekar Sivasubramanian and solution managers while sharing project updates. Today, we are a growing team of 7 designers and an active design intern program. This has been a journey of showing impact before making asks.
2. Can you give us an example of a project you’ve worked on at Wadhwani AI that you’re particularly proud of, and how did design play a role in its success?
Line Probe Assay (LPA) is a test used for the diagnosis of drug-resistance tuberculosis (TB). Wadhwani AI is building an AI tool to automate and improve the interpretation, and transmission of LPA results so that TB patients get accurate results and can start the right treatment regimen as soon as possible.
While building this product, we travelled to TB labs all across India to conduct user research. We observed lab technicians, microbiologists and data entry operators perform their tasks throughout the day and interviewed them to understand their current challenges. We discovered that the delay in communicating accurate results with the patient wasn’t caused by the LPA test analysis but rather by the entry of data into digital platforms. While we could improve the accuracy of test results through applied AI, the lab staff also required a system / solution to lighten their workload. The design research helped our teams to focus on building a more integrated and trustworthy AI-powered solution that would address the real issues faced by the lab staff. We custom-designed the user interface keeping in mind the digital confidence of end users who weren’t accustomed to typing on computers and lacked trust in AI systems. Soon, this solution will be deployed in TB labs all over India. I believe that we couldn’t have built a readily desirable solution for the end user without empathising with the real needs and challenges faced by them.
3.What do you see as the future of design for social impact, and how do you plan to contribute to that future?
Designing for social impact requires building solutions for systems that are often complex, which is never going to be easy. We first need to acknowledge that a system has many stakeholders and each one comes with its own motivations, challenges and aspirations. A good solution, one that will sustain the test of time and will be adopted by the system must be built keeping in mind all of the above characteristics of stakeholders. In a developing country like India, you face so many other challenges of building digital solutions for a vast population demographic too. I think design is and will always continue to play an integral role in building sustainable solutions because of its laser focus on users. My vision is to build solutions that have a real impact on people and by doing so set an example for other organisations on how to leverage design for impact. I along with 2 other ML scientists have also developed a framework of how to build Responsible AI solutions where the role of designers has been proven to be integral.
4.How do you ensure that your solutions are accessible and useful to the people who need them most?
Our users are usually from extremely diverse backgrounds, not tech-savvy, and often not extremely literate as well. Our design team members also come with rich experiences and diverse backgrounds. Shivi and Neha, our design researchers, have spent many years on the field understanding farmers, frontline healthcare workers and empathising with complex ecosystems. Fahad, our UI/UX designer, although early in his career has a keen eye for designing accessible interfaces which includes thinking about accessible colours, intuitive digital behaviours for new internet users and visual aspects of personalising iconography for social contexts and prioritising that over text since a large part of our users aren’t comfortable with reading fluently. A lot of us, including me, had spent most of our careers designing for a very different population that was inherently tech-savvy and literate so shifting to designing solutions for this audience required us to unlearn our personal design aesthetics and digital behaviours that we took for granted. Being aware of our inherent bias and constantly testing our solutions with users before deployment is one of the best ways for us to keep our biases in check.
5.Can you share some of the key skills and qualities that you think are essential for success in a career in UX design?
We live in an extremely fast-moving world. Products and services are built at a pace that has probably never been seen before. Designers can often feel discouraged in these environments due to the lack of time to do quality design work. Often this quality is defined by aesthetics, time spent on in-depth user research etc. For a world that is hyperfocused on impact and outcomes, designers that will succeed will be the ones that know how to work iteratively and aren’t afraid to put out ‘imperfect’ work. As UX designers, along with good skill sets of design, designers are expected to be extremely good communicators, and planners and have clarity in thought.
6.What advice do you have for designers and others in the tech industry who want to use their skills to positively impact society?
I’d say just do it. You don’t have to work in a company that works in the social impact space, although that would be nice. Start from where you are. Speak up when you believe requests from teams can harm or manipulate your users. We are directly responsible for those dark patterns in design where sometimes brands try to intentionally withhold important information from users for their own benefit or design interfaces for people who only understand English in a country as diverse as India. Think about differently-abled users; can you opt for larger font sizes even though it might not always be the most aesthetic choice? There is so much you can do; you just have to start and educate yourself.