User-centred design can give S'pore edge in IT race

IT IS not often that a Singaporean engineer gets to dictate terms with Microsoft.

A product engineer with Hewlett-Packard for 14 years, Mr Alex Kang led a Singapore-based team that designed the first Windows CE palm-size PCs, developing the form factors and user interfaces that are now ubiquitous in the personal digital assistant market.

Instead of jostling with products at the low end, manufacturers could invest in putting a human touch to technology

Getting Microsoft to agree to certain features that would make its devices more user-friendly was like 'trying to push an elephant', recalls Mr Kang.

His team was also responsible for ground-breaking handheld products such as the HP Jornada and the HP Omnigo, the first palm-top to use the Graffiti handwriting recognition system that is still standard on Palm devices today.

That's right: Some of the IT industry's pioneering products were designed right here in Singapore, by local talent.

Mr Kang, who has five United States patents to his name, is an expert in Human Factors - the science of designing products, services and processes based on users' needs and behaviour. This broad-based field takes into account both hard and soft factors, including ergonomics, user psychology, aesthetics and ease of use. As a discipline, Human Factors is taught in engineering schools here but hardly ever applied systematically by local firms - in sharp contrast to multi-national companies from the US and Europe, where user-centred design is big business.

It is a situation Mr Kang hopes to address with Designius, perhaps the region's first independent Human Factors consultancy. As manufacturing moves to China and IT hubs like Taiwan and South Korea surge ahead with technological innovation, good design suited to users could well be the key differentiator for local products. But local firms have been slow to factor design into new product development.

Reservations are understandable: Technology products, in particular, are notoriously time-sensitive and based on novelty, so they have to reach the market as quickly as possible. Who has time to fiddle with the niceties while the competitors are catching up? And with profit margins tightening, is the additional cost of user-testing and design justifiable?

But the old mentality of 'invent first, design later' may be obsolete. Experts such as management dean Roger Martin, who considers design the 'new competitive weapon and key driver of innovation', see design and business skills converging. A British study published earlier this year even links design explicitly to commercial performance. It found that companies known for their effective designs have outperformed their peers by more than 200 per cent over the past 10 years.

Adding the human touch to technology works - and Apple, maker of iMacs and iPods, is a prime example. Sure, it has a great technological base to begin with, but look at how a soft touch, artistic flair and an intimate, painstakingly researched understanding of its users have transformed its brand and market position.

Even home-grown Creative Technologies is getting on the designer bandwagon, with its new device Zen Touch - a dead ringer for the iPod, (with better batteries and a lower price). But incremental, me-too design changes are not going to cut it. Retooling existing assembly lines or fixing code to iron out bugs simply add to the hidden costs behind badly designed products, without addressing fundamental shortcomings. As different functions converge into singular Swiss Army Knife devices, it becomes even more important that these are thoughtfully designed right from the start.

It is clear we have the talent in Singapore to make world-class products. So instead of jostling with products at the low end, perhaps local manufacturers could invest in putting a human touch to technology for the Asian market - after all, we have the technical knowledge and cultural know-how to start with. Add to that our strong ties to global industry and brands, we could be looking at a significant new competitive edge plus a vibrant design industry.

At the very least, our own products and services might become more attractive and accessible. And surely, if we do not make things we would love to use, we cannot expect the world to buy them.