Building a stellar design org: In conversation with Dhruv Saxena



mins read

Dhruv Saxena

Building a stellar design org: In conversation with Dhruv Saxena



mins read

Dhruv Saxena

Building a stellar design org: In conversation with Dhruv Saxena



mins read

Dhruv Saxena

With thanks to the Indian Design Community, where this piece was originally published.

Dhruv heads the design practice at Obvious — a digital product design consultancy that has helped many of India’s and SE Asia’s unicorn startups — GoJek, Flipkart, Myntra and Swiggy to name a few—achieve rapid exponential growth through design.

At Obvious, Dhruv helps clients use design as a foundation alongside business and technology to build products that people actually want to use. In a previous life, Dhruv’s work focused on designing tangible interfaces, which he built through collaborations with designers and professors at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (his alma mater), MIT Media Lab and Stanford.

Dhruv, we would like to know about your journey building Obvious and also about rebranding Uncommon to Obvious.

It all started in 2012, when smartphones started seeing a meaningful participation in the Indian consumer market. They began penetrating the lives of people through the convenient services they supported. Access to products like maps and e-commerce was life changing, and it wasn’t long before everyone started realising the benefits of carrying a computer in their pocket. Around the same time, Uncommon was born.

Uncommon was the child of luck and intention. We were lucky that we started right at the beginning of the smartphone boom, but we made an intentional choice to focus only on building beautiful and performant mobile applications. This union of luck and intention, combined with the success of some of our early clients like Flipkart and Myntra, gave us a name. We were the new kids on the block, but we were playing with the big boys in the Indian startup ecosystem. Whatever we were doing was working, but we were quick to realise that it wasn’t going to last forever.

For a services business, a few stand-alone successes aren’t enough. If we were going to deliver successful outcomes to every client we worked with, we needed processes and frameworks that could reproduce success time and again. Uncommon could not operate merely through luck and intention anymore. It needed structure, it needed organisation.

We started creating processes around our design and engineering practice that could guarantee successful products. Very quickly we realised that a tight practice alone is not enough, the people who use it are equally important. So we started building strong people practices, which sent us down the rabbit hole of career frameworks, employment policies and more. Every-time we touched an area of work, we realised that the existing status quo needed to be challenged, so challenge it we did. With our heads down, we went ahead in full steam, inventing and reinventing methods until we were satisfied. Though completely worth it, the process took longer than we had imagined.

Fast forward to 2019, when we finally lifted our heads and looked around, a lot had changed. While we were now known for some of the best practices in the industry and had grown into a strong creative organisation filled with talented individuals, our small size still severely limited our ability to serve everyone who reached out to us. We were proud of what we had achieved, but dissatisfied with how much we were doing.

Turning down 9 out of 10 interesting businesses that wanted our help, and were even willing to wait a couple of quarters just for us, felt like we weren’t doing our part. It meant that we were undeserving of the very ecosystem that had made us successful. It meant that we weren’t investing enough into the machinery that was keeping us relevant. It meant that it was time to rethink our future.

If there was one thing that we were really confident about, it was that our methods and practices lead to the creation of successful digital products, and we wanted to see more of them in the market. By setting ourselves up as an alternative to mainstream ways of thinking about software — we wanted to be, and were, uncommon. But now, our mission was larger.

We asked ourselves — How might we serve not just our immediate clients, but the larger tech ecosystem we inhabit? How might we enable everyone to benefit from our practices and the ways in which we run our organisation? How might we stop challenging the current status quo of how digital products are built in the country, but instead become the new one?

The answer to all these questions boiled down to one key idea — it wasn’t enough to be just Uncommon anymore. We had to be more Obvious.

What are your processes and secret recipe for success?

Our recipe for success isn’t a secret, it’s well documented in our open source playbook.

We’ve written about everything: from our engineering and design processes, to the way we run our meetings, our one-on-ones, our feedback sessions and more. We know that we can’t serve the whole ecosystem, but if someone finds our way of working interesting, they can build on it and create an even greater impact than we have.

As a company what has been the hardest thing to do?

Scaling Obvious without compromising quality has been one of the hardest things we’ve had to do. In a market driven by startups that promise quick and disproportionate returns to talented people, convincing them to join a small mission-focused organisation is quite a challenge, but we haven’t done too badly for ourselves.

Our approach towards solving problems is both practical and academic. This mindset has helped us build scalable frameworks that deliver solutions which are quick, but at the same time have a lot of depth. None of this would be possible if it weren’t for the talented yet humble people at Obvious, who have consciously chosen to invest in long-term career growth and learning over short term success.

Could you tell us more about the hiring process at Obvious?

Most organisations hire people based on their previous role and compensation, but not us. Our salaries are fair and equitable, which means everyone delivering the same value gets paid the same. To fairly identify what value a new hire might bring to the table, we take them through a 3-month apprenticeship program where we immerse them in our ways of working. This helps both us and the new hire understand their value in our organization, based on which we offer them a position.

Not only does this process ensure that we don’t hire someone who looks good on paper but can’t deliver high quality work, it also helps fairly compensate people who do not have the negotiation skills to demand a salary they truly deserve.

How do you ensure people at Obvious keep growing in their careers?

We’ve borrowed quite a bit from tried and tested frameworks created by companies like Medium and Adaptive Path. Our career framework allows individuals to choose areas of growth for themselves. It is possible to grow in craft, management or both. People in our team are multi-faceted; forcefully reducing them to individual contributors or managers hampers their growth instead of boosting it.

We ensure that people are mentored and get help to not only think about work but also about how it fits within the larger picture of their whole life through regular one-on-one conversations. We also do career conversations every six months which help people gain clarity about their growth trajectory by developing a custom-tailored growth plan based on their medium and long-term aspirations.

For work-related feedback, we do feedback conversations which help create an opportunity for consistent growth as well as a chance to establish deep, credible relationships.

Do you have a remote-working system at Obvious?

Our work is very collaborative and requires a lot of context switching, which is better addressed when we don’t have artificial boundaries between us. We used to be a remote first company but over the years we’ve realized that collaborating with each other in person keeps us more excited about work.

Having said that, we do encourage people to be judicious and save whatever time they can by working remotely even when they’re in the same city. Saving just an hour in commute everyday is equivalent to saving over 30 working days every year. We want to ensure that our time is better spent, for which we’re constantly experimenting with remote collaboration. So yes, we do have a remote working system, but we deeply value coming together as a team every single day. It keeps us energised, it makes us tick.

As an organization, are there other companies you look up to?

We are lucky that we have a network of phenomenal people who’ve helped build amazing organisations of all scales and sizes. For instance, Daniel has helped us learn about culture and practices at organisations like Google Ventures. We’ve also been in conversations with some other design-first organisations like Netflix, Twitter and Grab. Each one of these conversations has positively influenced our direction.

We’ve also been a part of some amazing home-grown success stories like Flipkart, Myntra, Swiggy and GoJek, among others. We have strong relationships with the leadership in these organisations and their mentorship and support has contributed phenomenally to our growth and mindset.

To top it all, we also have strong relationships with some amazing minds in academia from world-class institutes like Stanford, MIT and CIID.

What is your criteria for taking up new projects?

We evaluate new projects on a 3x3 matrix of Challenge, Impact and Novelty. Projects which score highly on all three axes are the most exciting for us.

Constant learning is an important theme at Obvious; to support that we try to strike a healthy balance of projects from diverse domains. We’ve been lucky to have touched at least one successful product in almost every domain that exists in the market today. Our strength is that we’re able to cross-pollinate ideas from one domain to another, which has contributed tremendously to the success of the products we’ve helped build.The promise of building something new, that solves a hard problem, and can lead to amazing impact on the world we inhabit, is what makes us all come to work everyday.

Obvious has been trying to build communities and has been supporting and encouraging various community activities in tech and design. Could you talk more about that?

We started Obvious because we were all very craft-focussed and we wanted to prove that great digital products can come out of India, which is why most of our work was also very India centric in our early years. We soon realised that craft is meaningless unless its application suits the context within which it resides; so we worked within a lot of different contexts to deepen our own contextual understanding of design.

While we had built a strong practice at the intersection of craft and context, we realised it wasn’t enough. There was another key ingredient that needed to be added to the mix, and that was community.

Our work on community has just begun, and we hope to do a lot more. Last year alone, we gave 16 talks across 4 different countries. We’ve published all our methods and practices in our open source playbook. We’ve been running women-only tech events like Womendroid. We’ve been seriously considering investing in a strong fellowship program for design education. We’ve even created a huge space in our new office for free community events. Like I said, we’ve only scratched the surface of what can be done for the design and tech community; we hope to go much further.

What are other things that have shaped you in your career?

I don’t really have an inspirational story for you, but I might have a funny one. After a year of education in industrial design, I figured design wasn’t my cup of tea. I had made up my mind to quit school and join a friend’s startup. My then-girlfriend (now wife) talked some sense into me and convinced me to continue my education. That moment became the tipping point in my early career.

Up until then, I was reserved about my ideas, trying hard to meet the standards of my exceptional classmates. But the moment I decided to quit, I felt that I had nothing left to prove. I broke free of the impostor syndrome most young designers struggle with. Luckily, although I decided to stay, the feeling that I had nothing to prove also stayed with me. That made me far more inquisitive and far more experimental in my work.

I entered some not-so-hot domains like hardware and tangible media. Prototyping hardware is hard; you almost never get it right the first time. The mindset that failure is not really failure, it’s success because you now know what not to do, made me a very secure designer with an appetite for high risk.

I was very lucky to have found partners (Rahul and Pratul) who support this kind of thinking. Together, we’ve shaped Obvious into an org that has a very similar mindset towards failure and risk taking. That mindset makes Obvious a very unique place with very unique people, who further continue to shape me into a better designer and a better human everyday.

Tell us more about your experience at CIID?

CIID is great. It has very strong foundations, which is not surprising because people like the late Bill Morgridge, and Bill Verplank — the duo that coined the term interaction design — have been teachers at the school. The education model is very unique and pragmatic. The learning is externally focused, and is evaluated based on the real world response to prototyped ideas rather than written exams. The peer group is really inspiring, and is usually filled with people who have already done a lot in their careers. For example, the average age of my class was above 30, and the life experiences of my peers ranged from writing public policy at the UN, to winning an academy award for designing artwork for The Grand Budapest Hotel. I was definitely the least qualified person there!

Any daily practice that you have for yourself?

Life in a creative field can feel very disorganised, but it doesn’t have to be. To keep my sanity, I use a basic GTD framework — nothing super complex, although people who know me disagree!

I also believe very strongly in Deep Work, so I try to start early and get some deep work done in the first four hours of my day. After that I spend most of my time with the team doing collaborative work and problem solving.

What according to you are 3 ‘must-have’ skills in designers? Can you recommend some books that might help build those skills?

Apart from doing good design which involves things like great product thinking, a solid understanding of business, high production quality, etc., I ask designers at Obvious to focus on the following:

1. Articulate your design decisions

Doing good design alone is not enough. You also need to convince people of its value. If you can’t articulate why something works or doesn’t work in a convincing way, why put in the effort to build it in the first place? There’s a lot of great literature out there on the subject. One of my favourite books on the topic is Articulating Design Decisions.

2. Keep it obvious

Beauty lies in simplicity. Everyone can add something, but successful designers keep simplifying until there’s nothing left to take away. Dieter Rams mastered this art. Apple’s phenomenal success is also often attributed to this trait. However, most people miss that the combination of beauty and simplicity is extremely difficult to achieve. There’s a lot of writing on Rams that explains this idea. My favourite one is Ten Principles for Good Design.

3. Be ready to play more than a designer

The job of a designer isn’t just creation. Sometimes designers need to get out into the field to learn from users, sometimes they need to write documents or code up a prototype, sometimes they need to work with engineering to ensure designs go to the users as intended, sometimes they need to work with other business departments to create business alignment, and sometimes they need to crank out some good old fashioned design work. There isn’t a book that covers all of it, but for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the idea, Design is a Job is a great starting point.

Lastly, what challenges are you looking forward to in the future?

The list is long and never-ending, but in the near future, we’re focused on a few things.

  1. We want to ensure that we walk the talk, and continue to deliver on the promise of a creative workplace where we all come together to do deep, impactful work. Building great culture is hard, but sustaining it, even harder.

  2. We want to offer people the opportunity to grow well financially while doing the work they find exciting. As a small organisation, we can’t beat the short term financial promises made by hyper-growth startups, but we’re doing our best to ensure that the long-term benefits of working at Obvious are as much about financial growth, as they are about doing meaningful work.

  3. A lot of our work used to be focused on building things the right way, but now our larger focus has shifted to building the right things. To this effect, we’re running a lot of experiments. For example, we’re building a framework that can help us run qualitative user studies at scale. Rather than testing prototypes with a handful of users, can we build fully functional apps with real instrumentation that can be left with 20-50 users to learn about their behaviour for a few weeks, without investing the kind of effort required to engineer a real, scalable application. Building such frameworks that can be employed repeatedly is challenging, but exciting!

Overall, we’ve been able to get some great minds to work with us, and my sincere hope is that we lend great thought leadership to the field of design, technology and digital humanities in the country. We know that the future is filled with challenges, but given the kind of people who have joined the cause of Obvious, I am very positive that we will not just meet, but exceed our expectations.

At Obvious, we have an atypical hiring philosophy. We’re never hiring, but we always are. By doing this, we’ve not only ensured that we have small, tight teams that are capable of incredible work but also that we’re surrounded by people we love working with.

If you think that you and Obvious might be a good fit for each other, take a peek at our open job roles.