Design for servants…

Aadisht Khanna writes about why household products in India are poorly designed.

Example one: mopping. If we’re the ones wet-cleaning our floors, we go out and buy a mop. As long as the maid is around, we expect her to do it with a pochha, her back bent at a completely uncomfortable angle. The extra price you pay to avoid that uncomfortable posture is only a hundred and twenty rupees, but the cost-benefit ratio doesn’t even enter your head until it’s you who has to bear the cost and benefit.

Hmmm… we do not think of cost-benefit if we are not the party that is affected. I mean, hmmm. Why is that so unnerving ?

When I first read this, I was driven to thinking: are we, the middle class, that heartless ?

Before going further with my argument, I must clarify that Aadisht was not making a point about the “soul” of the middle class. The point was solely about the motivations for good design. Like Aadisht says, the reasons for bad design is that the person paying for the product is not necessarily the one using it.

To carry on with my point, I believe that the people who come to our homes to do miscellaneous stuff like cleaning, washing dishes etc are an amateur lot. Now, I realize what I am saying sounds naive and cold (an uncommon combination). So, I will take an example to illustrate. The maids at most homes exhibit the following characteristics almost without fail: coming late, missing work days, cribbing about how tough work is, cribbing about unforeseen work (a few extra dishes because guests are staying)…the works. (Again, before you go for my throat, I am not saying all maids are like that. Most of them are, though)

Clearly, market forces are at work here. If you are worried about haggling with your maid first thing in the morning, she would be the last person you would be concerned about when you buy that next mop, no ? But, if on the other hand, you had a good maid, you would make sure you kept her at your service (even if it meant spending extra hundred bucks for a better mop). That, I believe, is the real cost-benefit analysis that “enters our head”.

Wouldn’t you agree Aadisht ?


4 Responses to “Design for servants…”

  1. Aadisht Says:

    Just burnt 400 calories in 35 minutes. Too exhausted to think straight. Will get back to you.

  2. Aadisht Says:

    Okay, point 1. Do you mean that you’re going to buy the mop and give it to the maid to keep? As long as the mop is in your house, whichever maid you have is going to use it.

    Point 2 is this: why are there no professional maids? I think this is because of three reasons:

    Cheap labour ensures that even a professional maid can always be undercut (but this again assumes that there is no value to professionalism – chicken and egg).
    Even if a maid is well-trained and professional, there are very few good ways for her to show this/ advertise this. So unprofessional maids can still swamp the market.
    This is about that throwaway reference to the one lakh rupee car I made at the end of my post. A maid is dependent on public transport, which limits her efficiency. Actually, she is so cash-poor and credit-unworthy, that she cannot afford a lot of fixed-assets which would improve her productivity. But this is a topic which is so large that I want to do a post on it.

    But I still don’t get your point. Even if your maid is mildly unprofessional, why not get her a mop if it makes her life easier/ makes her work faster?

  3. sridharvanka Says:

    Aadisht: thanks for the wonderful comments.

    Point 1:
    No, I am not going to give the mop to the maid to keep. However, the bottom line of what I am saying is that I do not expect to get a professional maid (based, of course, on my experience with maids) Plus, I never intend to use the mop myself anyway (OK, I am just too lazy, but that is another story altogether)

    Point 2:
    “Cheap labour ensures that even a professional maid can always be undercut” I beg to disagree. There are customers who look for low-cost service and there are customers who look for good quality service, even if it comes at a slightly higher cost. (I believe maids do not charge higher or lower, they make more or less money based on how many households they work for). It is my firm belief that an increase in the number of service providers in the market does not necessarily improve the quality of service being provided. There is an auto-rickshaw stand near my home with alteast 4-5 auto-rickshaws standing at any point in time. They just refuse to provide me service unless I agree to their terms (“cartel”, I believe is the word some people use for it.) Where we live, maids tell us (my wife and I) that they will charge so and so amount just because everyone else pays that amount, take it or leave it. And that is the story with every maid.
    Why am I going on like this ? I believe that these maids are losing out on a great business opportunity. All they have to do is come to the house (at the agreed time) do the agreed work without cribs and they will get a good name (and some referrals).

    That brings us to your last statement?
    “But I still don’t get your point. Even if your maid is mildly unprofessional, why not get her a mop if it makes her life easier/ makes her work faster?”
    Yes, there is no logic in not buying that mop. The mop, here, is just one example. The question I was trying to answer was: “why are we so heartless ?”. We are so because there is no incentive for us to think about all that. It is just a stupid decision, yes. But given the number of decisions I have to make on a daily basis, this decision will always get the lowest amount of thought. The day I get my mind off of how I can get my maid to do the agreed-upon work without haggling, I can start focusing on how to make it easier, more efficient for her. That is the bottom line.

    I had just taken your post and tried to build a completely different point, almost tangential to what you were saying. I do not believe I have answered your questions to your satisfaction…. but that’s have your viewpoint, I have mine.

  4. Aadisht Says:

    Oh okay. No, you mostly covered it. Except that I think you missed out my point about there being no really good referral/ rating infrastructure. WP stripped out bullet points when I posted the comment, so it’s kind of hidden.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: