Product Design Demands Discomfort

AhaMoment

Take a careful look at the infographic titled The AHA Moments above.  Ranging from age 19 to 47, these people  have revolutionised how we communicate (Steve Jobs/iPhone), how we re-energize (Dietrich Mateschitz/ RedBull) and even workout (Chip Wilson/Lululemon Yoga Pants).

None of them set out to create a break between the old and new way of doing things. All they wanted to do was solve one particular source of discomfort. They zeroed in on that particular barrier and relentlessly worked to eliminate it.

Product design and system design demand discomfort. If a device or system seems broken, inadequate or even missing – that is your cue!  You do not require anyone’s permission to make a system or device more efficient. I think this is a reminder for myself as much as it is a blog for public consumption. 

Meet the Millennial Asian: Over-educated + Under-employed

If you are a Millennial Asian, the newspapers think you are pretty pathetic. Looking at the numbers, you have earned more degrees than anyone else in your family,  are up to your neck in education debt, you are chronically under-employed and will stay so for the foreseeable future.

Yes. Under-employed.

Investopedia defines this phenomenon like so:

Labor that falls under the underemployment classification includes those workers that are highly skilled but working in low paying jobs, workers that are highly skilled but work in low skill jobs and part-time workers that would prefer to be full-time.

The market has few jobs to offer the growing legions of fresh grads and the ones available fail to offer much of anything: little money, little career growth and little in terms of security. These handful of jobs are not what you aspired to back in college. It is highly likely you will be delivering goods ordered online or managing a social media campaign for the local non-profit organisation until a “Real Job” opportunity turns up.

Let’s suppose that you finally get a chance to interview for a “Real Job”.  As a fresh grad  you are facing competition from the people who graduated years before you and have relevant work experience to show for it.

Jobs available in the government sector are scarce, practically impossible to access unless one has a ‘link’ (how I loathe that practice)  and the benefits hardly ever compensate for the dismal pay.

Gordon Orr warns China’s fresh graduates that even the low-barrier, entry-level careers  in bank telling or insurance agencies are going obsolete. Technologies like AliPay and WeChat have streamlined basic banking tasks and banks will soon be a thing of the past – much like post offices.

…there may be new jobs but they are just not the jobs you set your heart on when you went to university: low pay and low security is a poisonous combination of many of the new jobs in China’s “rebalancing economy”.

Orr suggests brushing up on vocational skills that may come into play in the emerging sectors, like learning coding or other such I.T. wizardry. If nothing else, it is suggested that a fresh grad like you should start a business and embrace self-employment as your fate.

The fastest growth category of urban employment in recent years has been self-employment.  While some of this is likely a cute way of describing unemployed, the broader trend that it represents is the growth of small and mid-sized enterprises and their importance to job creation in the economy. 

Next up is the “Has Pakistan overeducated it’s middle class?” article that appeared on Dawn’s website about two days back.  The lack of congruency between the education Pakistani universities are churning out and the jobs available is painfully apparent for anyone who been through a hiring cycle. Not only is the quality of education suspect, the graduates are ill-prepared for the rigours of the job-search and interview process. I am in complete agreement that there need to be university-based career prep centres at both public and private universities. Private universities barely scratch the surface when it comes to preparing their students for the corporate/real world. A mandatory 2 hour workshop in the last week of university does not suffice.  I recommend universities to start students on mandatory courses that cover internship seeking, c.v. writing and interviewing skills from freshman year.

The author, Murtaza Haider,  makes a valid point about how loosely underemployment is tallied and also how faulty the premise is regarding what constitutes a ‘living wage’.

My primary concern is about how the state defines underemployment.

The state considers those working for fewer than 35 hours in a given week as underemployed. This definition assumes that those working for 35 hours or more in a given week are gainfully employed, i.e., they are earning enough to support their families.

The under and unemployment figures are quite meaningless for struggling economies like Pakistan. Even by the government’s estimates, 60 million Pakistanis, 29.5 per cent of the population, live below the poverty line. Experts at Oxford University estimate a much larger proportion of Pakistanis (44 per cent) to be poor.

Thus, boasting about low unemployment rates is rather futile because a large proportion of those considered employed by the government are not earning enough to feed and clothe their families.

Lastly, here is an article from the World Economic Forum warning us that for the millennials post-graduate degrees may be a waste of money.  Lux Alptraum shares that despite belonging to a family accustomed to collecting degrees (the way some collect shares) she ultimately decided not to seek a postgraduate degree.  For her, the math simply didn’t add up!

Every time I’ve considered going back to school, I’ve done a cost-benefit analysis—and for me, that analysis has never worked out in academia’s favor. My law school dreams died when it occurred to me that the kind of do-gooder law I was interested in would likely leave me in debt for the rest of my life (and also when I realized that “liking to argue” is but a small part of a law career). My potential public health degree stopped making sense when I realized the small salary bump I might secure wouldn’t balance out the money—and time–I’d spend getting the Master’s.

As a fellow Millennial Asian, I feel your anguish.

ice-cream-cry

I also sense your need to reach for the nearest tub of ice cream to drown your sorrows.   Hold off on that for a second.  There has to be a Plan B.

Will it be running our very own Food Truck? Maybe.

Can it be starting up a coaching centre for the chronically under-employed and helping them loosen up via improv sessions?  Could be.

The beacon of hope lies in our ability to carve out careers, create brands  and provide services in emerging markets – despite the nay-sayers and dismal statistics. 

Drop me a tweet @marsonearth.

I write about financial empowerment, digital literacy, and educational technology at my blog called Catalyst Woman.  Who am I? I once described myself as a Communications consultant who conducts trainings focused on Women’s Empowerment, Employability Skills and Educational Innovation.

Needed:Co-working Spaces in Lahore

My headphones are plugged in to what I imagine a shoreside picnic coupled with thunderclaps and slight rain shower sounds like. If you have ever wondered who is lame enough to actually use a rain sound app, that would be me. It can also be you, too, if you were camped out in a busy cafe in Lahore’s commercial district. 

hands-coffee-smartphone-technology.jpg

I’m attempting to stay focused on the upcoming meeting, while the couple at the table on the left has once again asked me for the wi-fi password.  Such interruptions, while normal if one is in the mood for people-watching or idle posturing in a swanky eatery, are frustrating if one is waiting to meet a client to finalize terms on a contract.

photo-1429681601148-75510b2cef43Office-less, officially, when it comes to our consulting work, my partners and I feel the need for a formal meeting room or conference room at least twice to three times a month. While that seems quite frequent, when we calculated the math, it still doesn’t make sense for us to invest in a permanent office in the near future.  Reasons being that some of us are still working traditional 9-5 jobs while others prefer the convenience of flex-time and telecommuting afforded by the consulting work-life.

What Lahore desperately needs is an affordable Co-working space which is open to all types of professional, techies and non-techies, entrepreneurs, freelancers, cottage-industry workers, bakers and yes, even musicians. 

What should the co-working space consist of? The usual, a conference room, a small kitchenette, desks or cubicles for hire by the hour or the day, reliable wi-fi/internet connection, a tv lounge/reception and a printer/fax machine corner to round off all the mundane necessities of grownup, office-life.

Let’s step beyond the vomit-inducing, Silicon Valley-esque marketing gibberish that immediately gets plastered upon the advent of a functional service idea.  This is not a recommendation for all of you sitting on your butts to open up 5 co-working spaces right across from each other in Bahria Town  and begin hosting ‘entrepreneurship workshops slash mentorship sessions slash fireside chats’  on the regular.  I am not claiming to be your guru for new-fangled business ideas.

What I am recommending is a more holistic, survey-based approach to solving challenges  your peers and neighbors are dealing with in your immediate vicinity. If you solve that challenge successfully, and lucratively, good on you!  If you fail to solve that challenge the first time around, no problem; you’ll have earned goodwill in the community. Rest your bruised ego, keep your eyes and ears open, and rise up tomorrow with the intent to put your education and initiative to good use.

Note: I have heard inklings of a co-w0rking space popping up in my hometown, but I’m curious if there are any others on the horizon. If you know of any, leave a comment or drop a tweet at @catalystwoman

 

 

Will Uber work in Pakistan?

Yep. You read that right. The taxi-hailing app service has confirmed opening operations in Pakistan. Before you go ahead and download the Uber app on your smartphone – let’s explore what this means for Pakistan’s fledgling e-commerce economy.

Uber, an online on-demand taxi- ride service provider, has been racked with notoriety since the very beginning of its operations. Some of the criticism has been directed at the lack of background checking before Uber signs on with drivers. Note the use of the word ‘signs’  and not ‘hires’; on-demand service economy has made parceling out work to contract workers common place.  This approach ignores many of the advances that have been attained since the 1st labor law set in place post the Industrial Revolution – including minimum wage, insurance, health care compensation, cap on working hours, etc.

There have also been numerous complaints of Uber drivers attempting kidnappings or worse, especially when women call for the ride service. Take for example the Delhi Uber Rape Case, where an Uber driver was accused and found guilty raping a female passenger last year in December.  Subsequently, all app-based taxi services were banned in Delhi.  To-date, the city has also rejected an application by Uber’s rival, the Indian-based OlaCabs to run it’s personal transportation services in the Indian capital.

What is worrisome is that when the executive responsible for Uber’s international launches was questioned by the Wall Street Journal in December 2014, he admitted that the company did not conduct independent background checks of it’s drivers at that time.

“According to Mr. Singhal, the basic requirement for a driver to partner with Uber is to have valid documents pertaining to third party vehicle insurance, a commercial permit to ply a taxi as well as a driving license. The company does not conduct background check on its drivers, Mr. Singhal said. Instead it relies on the background check the government does on drivers that it issues with commercial permits.”

CW Uber

Pre-existing concerns for the safety of  Pakistani women while using public transport has led to the creation of services such as Zar Aslam’s Pink Rickshaws. The Pink Rickshaws are driven by women for women so as to avoid potential harassment by male rickshaw drivers.   Uber’s head of communications has been reported saying that all drivers in Pakistan will undergo through screenings and background checks. To inspire confidence in the service, Uber (and other app-based taxi services like it) will need to prove that their fleet is reliable for use by all possible customers, men and women.

While earning an easy buck on the side is tempting, the safety concerns on a Uber ride  also applies to drivers,  such as when this unsuspecting driver was attacked by a drunken passenger. I must applaud the Uber driver’s smart move in mounting a camera facing the rear of the car; this led to the easy identification and arrest of the rowdy customer.  Could the lack of training of the driver be one of reasons for such an attack? Had the driver in question been sufficiently trained to spot a trouble-maker, could this situation have been avoided?  If the Uber driver was not on contract-basis, commission-giving model  but rather a salaried employee, could he have been more likely to refuse this customer from the outset? It can be argued that the feeling of a secure work arrangement would have enabled this Uber driver to act from a place of personal empowerment; he would have considered his own safety versus chasing dollars into risky situations.

Travly,  Savaree, Easy Taxi, and Careem – all names of local startups vying to provide alternative transportation solutions to Pakistanis in the recent years. Adoption of such services has been dismal to say the least. Barriers to success include the ever-present rickshaw, the reliance on cash payments by customers, negligible options when it comes to mobile payments, insistence on booking rides solely on the web apps and the slow adoption of technology for errands. Such realities had led newer entrants, such as Careem, to provide a phone-based bookings in addition to the web/mobile app as well as accepting cash payments from customers.

Is it too unreasonable to expect that some government institution take the initiative to protect the tech industry in this nascent stage? Can we avoid setting up our entrepreneurs for failure by not pitting them against an international heavy-weight and champion of disruptive business practices like Uber? How about a 2 year ban on any such foreign-based services-oriented technology company entering the Pakistani markets ? Give them a chance to educate the customer base, so when the competition begins, at least its on an even playing-field.

While identifying the possible problematic scenarios Uber can face while functioning in Pakistan, it is important to remember that these conclusions are based on how the company has conducted itself thus far. If Uber Inc. changes it’s organizational model by ensuring it’s drivers are thoroughly vetted or that drivers are hired as employees with all the perks of a job at a multinational, I am more than willing to roll out the welcome mat. As for the customer base, that is something that only time and a marketing campaign or two can tell.

 

 

Creative Chaos: Ethnic Crafts Fair in Lahore

A quick write-up following a visit to a local crafts fair in Lahore – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly!

CW CCThe Good

  • The Season-November in Lahore is the closest we get to Autumn around here, so it was quite comfortable while browsing through the crowds for the perfect handicraft fix.  The sun is bright enough for us Lahoris to bust out the designer sunglasses, breezy enough to dust off the devastatingly beautiful (read:expensive) pashminas to wrap around our shoulders and the air crisp enough that everyone is infused with an extra dash of joie de vivre -even the traffic policeman on the drive up were less adamant on issuing tickets!   20151107_151456
  • Large variety of crafts on display – From camel-skin lamps crafted in interior Sindh to embroidered leather pouches from Balochistan, there were many types of crafts represented at the fair.

The Bad

  • The LocationThe Mall is already the busiest road in the city, the organisers’ choice of Tollinton Market led to a parking nightmare.
  • The Time of the Year – There is too much going on! What with the Faiz Ghar folks rolling out a festival on literature and music then there is the Khayal ArtsFest with more of the same – November is pretty cramped. I would have probably picked late February/ early March as an alternate time of the year to hold this fair; somehow it seems like all the fairs and fests have been crammed in ahead of the impending ‘Shaadi’ season.  Pushing your limited target audience into a state of overwhelm is not favorable! 

The Ugly (or Missed Opportunities)

  • Products Unlabeled – No Back Story, No Instructions and No Contact info if you want to get in touch with the vendor.
  • Lack of Business Cards, Labels or Social Media presence  – Vendors need to provide some way for customers or potential business partnersto get in touch after the fair is over. If nothing else,  set up a basic Facebook page with the brand name and print a set of cards with the Facebook Page link on it.
  • Prices Aren’t Written in Plain Sight or  are Hard-to-Read – I wrote about this before here.

Win the Wallet: Cardinal Rules of Selling at a Local Fair

“Why do we fear pricing  products?” This is the one of many questions that came up recently.  Here is some background: That ring belonged on my finger.  I am at a local crafts and organic foodstuff fair in Lahore with a friend when this sparkly jewellery catches my eye.    There are a couple of people milling about behind the counter, but no price on the ring.  “Price Kidher Hai?” – “Where’s the price?” I ask in that general direction.  It’s a very busy stall, lots of potential buyers asking, tugging, expecting the wares – so it’s no surprise I don’t hear back until my interest is lost and I remember having a similar ring back home.    As we drift away towards the home-made cupcakes stand, the jewellery seller calls out ” Rs. 850 or your best offer!”.   SIGH!  This was all too little
and too late!

Here, for the benefit for all future and past merchants, cardinal rules for selling at a fair:

Rule #1: Please, oh, please don’t make ask you!

As a casual consumer strolling through a pop-up shop, I am here to enjoy myself. Make it easy for me to purchase your product or services.  Please, oh, please don’t make me ask you! That is such a chore and I am fearing a whole haggling situation, oftentimes I’d rather check out another shop/stall than struggle to get your attention.

Rule #2 : Price It    il_570xN.127037156

Have a set price written clearly.  The final price. No haggling. This is not a street side bazaar.

Rule #3:  Win the Wallet

“Win the Wallet” by lumping together the best-sellers with the slow-moving items – Offer  ‘Buy 2 and Get 1 free’ on your mini-notebooks crafted from hand-pressed paper.   Use Social Networks for your advantage AND offer a juicy discount to new customers- ” Refer our Facebook page to 10 friends and Check-in on Facebook – Get 20% on your current purchase”

Rule#4: Show Me What’s Special

When you have a unique or lesser-known product, you must educate the consumer. MUST.  Record a small demo video with your cell phone and play it on a laptop at the stall on loop.  Announce live demos every hour at the fair and make sure to include people who are watching in the demonstration.  If you want me to buy the latest innovation in organic honey – garlic-flavored- give me a taste!

Tell me what you think – Have you ever been frustrated by the lack of preparation by sellers at local fairs?