Much has been written about India as an outsourcing destination for IT and BPO. Not so much about the offshoots these industries have spawned. One such stream that has evolved quietly, is the pureplay interaction design of Enterprise applications. While hardly new – the IT Services firms have offered it as part of their portfolio for decades– it is the unbundling of design and development services that is an interesting phenomenon. We decided to take a dive.

But First, a Primer

Enterprise UX Design (eUX to friends) involves the design of tools used by a company’s employees and partners, not their end customers. Examples are software for inventory management, CRM, billing, HR, intranets and specialized tools like EHRs for medical firms. Traditionally design has never been a strong focus here, but firms are now realising its benefits.

The Evolution of ‘Design-Only’ eUX in India

The genesis of eUX design can be traced back to 1998, when the Dutch ERP company, BaaN, set up operations in Hyderabad and trained designers in human-centred design. As the IT Services behemoths like Infosys and Cognizant evolved, they created and scaled “usability engineering” teams. This was amplified by multinational companies like IBM and Accenture.

From these teams within the IT Services majors, arose designers who decided to set up their own studios. As expected, these studios sprung up in IT hubs like Pune and Bangalore. In fact, the former is home to several of the country’s largest eUX design companies. One such firm is YUJ Designs founded by Samir Chabukswar (former Group Head, UX Design, Persistent Systems) in 2009.

“In most IT companies at the time, there was outright apathy about design. Unfortunately most of them did not understand the need for design within their services and products. And doing any design work sitting inside an Indian IT company was an uphill battle.”

Samir Chabukswar, Founder, YUJ Designs

Early work for such studios would come from old clients and personal networks. In fact, YUJ didn’t need a sales team for 6 years, bagging clients like PayPal, eBay, Cisco and Stubhub purely through their network and subsequent word-of-mouth. However, with growth, most studios have created a physical presence in client markets via sales reps, also taking frequent trips to client locations themselves.

Local, Global

The eUX studios typically did not undertake development work, believing that it distracts from the focus on design, but with scale this may change.

Most firms are focused on developed markets. Sumin Shah, co-founder of Pune-based experience design and development services company Copods, tells us that foreign clientele makes up around 80% of his enterprise design work.

Design of an Energy Management System for a US-based client by Copods

Global studios such as Argentina’s Globant and Switzerland’s Windmill, too, have set up in India. Globant is an interesting case study. It was founded in 2003 in Buenos Aires by four founders who were inspired by India’s IT Boom. It entered India in 2016 after acquiring eUX design firm, Clarice the year before, for an estimated $20m. Clarice was founded in 2008 by Sandeep Chawda, Anup Mehta and Shashank Deshpande (ex-Symantec, Mindtree, HFI respectively). Globant has plans to take its Indian headcount to 1200, which will account for 20% of its global employee base. Unsurprisingly, the firm was attracted to India for its vast talent pool and today its outpost in the country works on IOT, AI and mobility apart from UX work.

Captive teams of large global organisations are the third player in the Indian eUX ecosystem From Adobe to Walmart, OpenTable to Target, a fast-growing number of companies have large eUX teams in the country.

Indian firms themselves are slow to wake up to enterprise UX. One studio’s founder recounts how they pitched to almost every financial services company in the country but elicited a tepid response. “They don’t get design and its benefits. Leave alone enterprise, just look at the consumer-facing interfaces of some of these big banks”, he laments.

Beyond Cost

Whether it is outsourcing eUX design to independent studios or setting up in-house design teams, there is no doubt that India is a preferred destination. The list of reasons is compelling, and beyond cost.

While cost arbitrage does work at scale, experienced UX designers in India today, can cost close to their Western counterparts

Sridhar Dhulipalia, first design hire at Infosys, now product management and UX consultant.

1.Domain Expertise

Indians have a long legacy with domains like healthcare and financial services. Shashank Murali, CEO of talent matchmaking platform Tapchief says, “In healthcare and fintech, nobody has the scale of advancement and data of India”.

“Enterprise problems are highly complex, especially when we work on projects on healthcare or fintech – like a revised EMR that aids better and accurate diagnosis”

Bansi Mehta, CEO Koru UX, a studio focused exclusively on enterprise design since 2011.

2. Quality of Design

India is now increasingly known for good quality enterprise design work. Says YUJ’s Chabukswar, “It’s no longer about cost arbitrage, companies seek value. India has now started providing good design talent and clients recognize that”

3. Outsourcing Legacy

India checks many boxes – comfort with English, reputation for being a good outsourcing destination, access to forward-integration (with IT / UI). And of course, flexibility. “We are willing to stay up late and start early for meetings with clients”, says Copods’ Shah.

India now has a pool of mature designers, who have cut their teeth on enterprise applications, and are comfortable working across geographies and verticals. As industry and academia adapt to fill gaps in enterprise UX work, this space seems poised to grow.

Stable is Better than Sexy

To paraphrase one studio’s founder, the investor romance with consumer products is moving from passion to pragmatism. He sees investment flowing to improving enterprise efficiency and therefore driving up the value and valuations stemming from eUX capabilities. The future for eUX design firms is bright because to put it simply, ‘there’s always more work’.

“Take food delivery. There is a limit to how many apps the market can have. But if you see the entire value chain of the food industry – farmers, manufacturers, packaging, vendors – it can go very deep and there is lots of scope for enterprise work .”

Aashish Solanki, Founder, Netbrahma, a Bangalore-based design studio

Bumps in the Road?

Will this trend of outsourcing design of eUX to India burgeon into a significant industry? Will the studios currently serving this need scale into larger organisations, as their IT counterparts before them did? There are several challenges.

  1. Show Me the Talent: The biggest one of course, is the paucity of trained designers in India. While the number of design schools is increasing, the numbers are still too low.
  2. Growing Captive Teams: From Gurgaon to Bangalore, Pune to Hyderabad, all IT hubs are dotted with the signage of global corporations setting up development and now design teams here. They tend to poach talent and cannibalise the share of the independent studios.
  3. Remote is limiting: While enterprise design is definitely easier to outsource than consumer facing design, remote teams could still be an issue. Says Kaladhar Bapu, founder of UXIndia. “The first few stages of UX design – especially research and understanding user behaviour – are very important, and I think only a limited amount of it can be done remotely.”

If history is anything to go by, the outsourcing eUX wave looks likely to continue. Only this time, unlike the IT outsourcing era, design is coming out of the wings and taking centre-stage.

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