“I don’t think India has enough minds thinking ahead"

See what Mileha Soneji, a strategic product designer has to say about the need for long-term strategic thinking, simplicity in design and her human-centric approach.

mileha Sonji

In a freewheeling chat, Mileha Soneji, a strategic product designer, who studied design at MIT, Pune, and earned a master's degree from Delft University in the Netherlands, talks about the need for long-term strategic thinking, simplicity in design, how her grandmother kindled the love of design in her, and her human-centric approach, among other things.

Here are the excerpts:

Do you think India has adequate talent to boost innovation?

I don’t think India has enough minds thinking ahead. India needs to start investing in its talent. Companies are thinking short-term and not beyond – what they want to do in the next five years, how the world is evolving, and whether they need to change. Strategic thinking is missing. Indian design is meant to be action-oriented. India’s strength lies in achieving more with the least amount of resources, and the country will leap ahead if it starts thinking long-term.

Paytm is a good example to cite here. In the Netherlands, we still use NFC or cards to pay; you cannot just pay with a phone number. India leaped some steps where it even moved beyond cards. You don’t even need anything tangible; you can make payments with your phone. But the way Paytm went about it raised a lot of problems. A lot more thinking would have made the execution easier.

What inspired you to make the lives of Parkinson’s patients easier?

My uncle was suffering from Parkinson’s. While I was studying at MIT, we had a course called ‘Design for Special Needs’, wherein we had to design products that helped people. That’s when I decided I wanted to make my uncle’s everyday life different. For Parkinson’s sufferers, acceptance is the first step; then comes changing people’s perceptions – such as telling them yes, I need help, but I’m the same strong person I used to be. My uncle inspired me to look into his life, at the problems he was facing, and devise solutions to solve the same. 

How can companies capitalise on the investments they make in innovation centres?

Sometimes companies work in silos, where different departments don’t share knowledge. They need to work together to solve consumers’ problems. The key is to break the silos and build teams that work across disciplines. For example, in most companies, researchers go to the market, talk to people, and create a report that is then sent to the innovation centre. 

What we shouldn’t forget is that the report is an interpretation of the researchers. So every time the report changes hands, its interpretation iterates. It is imperative for sales, marketing, and designing teams to speak to the consumers, ask questions, and see how they can help – not just the researchers. Yes, you can ask a million questions, but if you do not ask the right ones, it’s not going to take you anywhere.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if there is an idea, I say the first thing to do is test it. You don’t need much money to try something quickly. You may think the user would use a product in a certain way, but they may do it differently. You can then create new ideas or face new problems, and you can solve them much faster by just testing it.

Is there anything you are currently working on? What’s next on your innovation list?

I am toying with some ideas. But currently, my job is keeping me quite busy – I am mostly designing for FMCG companies and the healthcare industry. Other than that, I am working on spreading awareness about designs that help people affected by Parkinson’s. I am applying human-centric design principles everywhere. I am going to make simple products with human-centric ideas.

What are the challenges you have faced in your journey? Please share the lessons you have learned.

This is a tough question. I think the biggest challenge was the difference in work culture in India and the Netherlands. Like I said, India is very action-oriented, while here it is a more discussion-based strategic approach. So explaining why I do what I do and the way I do it has been a challenge. I believe I got to learn the best of both the worlds, but striking a balance between stepping back and thinking, and getting down to doing has been tough.

Another challenge is designing with simplicity. It is very easy to design complex solutions. But designing the best possible solution in a simple manner is tough.

Is there any other difference in the Indian and Dutch way of working?

The Dutch really think holistic. So they will think ahead and find solutions to probable problems. While in India, we find solutions to existing problems. Another difference is the flat hierarchy in the Netherlands. This helps people at every level to give opinions, which make it easy to work in a team. No one is scared to offend anyone. That’s why the best ideas come to the table. 

Do you have any advice for budding innovators in the design field?

Follow your passion and believe in your intuition. Use all the tools available but don’t forget to listen to your intuition as it helps you decide which way to go. 

Indian design taught me to be hands-on and action-oriented. In the Netherlands, I learnt the process of long-term thinking. This combination has helped me tremendously.

Can you single out any events in your life that define who you are today?

When I was small I would visit my grandmother every summer. She would always have art projects for me. It would be crochet dolls or making pots and painting them. She would help me create different things with different materials. My birthday would be right after the school vacation and whatever I made in the holidays (about 40 of them) would be my return gift for my friends. 

My grandmother really made me believe in design. Her support and that of my parents are the reason why I chose this career path. They made me who I am today. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the interview are personal and do not reflect the views of TomorrowMakers.


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