March 2016 | Richard Young

Design for life

With 4,000 employees and huge contracts for customer experience design in India, Tata Elxsi is a global force to be reckoned with. Now its new UK studio brings that design excellence to London. Global head of design and innovation Nick Talbot explains the secrets of Tata Elxsi's success.

People associate Tata with big industry and technology. How does Tata Elxsi fit in?
Elxsi is a design engineering and innovation company. We specialise in a number of areas — for example, working on the user experience of mobile devices. Another huge area for us is automotive, and we also have clients in medical, consumer electronics and transportation. We work on everything from industrial design to user experience. There's also a service design team, so we've clearly moved from the physical world into the virtual and digital space.

Digital is very fast-moving. It's all about 'the new', isn't it?
Entrepreneurialism and technology have to be built into our business. We employ around 4,000 people, and that can sometimes make it challenging to be fast and agile. But those are important elements, so we certainly prioritise them. Our design teams in all the different areas we support are backed by those thousands of people working on software and hardware to create solutions for our clients.

So design is more than just the way things look, then?
A great example of how it comes together is the future of healthcare. Take a device like an X-ray machine. There's clearly a benefit to great design in the hardware — it's going to get a lot of use, needs to be as stress-free as possible for the patient and the operator, and it must be safe and reliable. But then you think about how an X-ray department works — what data they're collecting, how it will be used. If you take a holistic view of the design and all the interfaces, you can start to make it a more seamless experience.

So it's not just coming up with an idea?
The projects we work on show how design as a discipline has evolved. Sometimes we work on entirely new business models, designing ways of delivering services that show the entrepreneurial side of our business. For example, we're working on a huge metro project for the city of Kochi on the west coast of India. We've been involved in designing every aspect of the customer experience, from working with rolling stock manufacturer Alstom on the trains themselves, to the livery for the service, the branding, the stations — even the name for the system. Design creates that singular vision which knits together all the different parts of the system to create an efficient and enjoyable customer experience.

We hear a lot about customer experience these days. How important is it?
The key to staying relevant is to be fanatical about customer experience. Our trends team is a key part of that. They help us spot new thinking that will engage our clients and their customers. And we have a consumer insights team, too. We can't design a world-class user experience unless we're inside the minds of consumers and seeing how they're changing.

For example, there's a lot of chatter about the internet of things. At it's most basic, that's just embedded devices swapping data. The real value comes from how that data is analysed and deployed — and that's where our holistic view of design comes in really useful. Yes, it's about the technology, but you need a use case for people in businesses, and consumers, if the investment is going to be worthwhile.

What do we know about consumer appetites, then?
People now expect things to be well designed, not just well engineered. That's a real global shift: new business models and the drive for value mean we have to think beyond the product to the context, and then how we deliver services. That's partly why we've seen so many management consultancies snap up design businesses. They can see that, without the design element, there's a limit to how complete any solution will be.

Take the future of the car. Connected and autonomous vehicles will soon be the norm — transportation is going to change radically in the next decade. That presents some fascinating design and user experience opportunities for us, but we also look further. What happens if owning a vehicle becomes less compelling for people in cities and we start to buy personal transportation as a service? We're already seeing the first signs of that with Uber [in which Tata Capital has a stake] and rent-bythe- hour vehicles that you can access on the street using your smartphone.

That's going to mean the whole service has to work seamlessly, taking you from door to door. It's not about an individual product. Great service design will be vital — how IT, the network, hardware and the proposition all come together. Vehicles can already talk to each other and interact dynamically with their environment. We're investing heavily in making those visions come to life.

Just how far does this need for great design go?
Even in agriculture, which has seen so many gains over the past 50 years, better design and innovation are creating big change. We're looking at this area holistically, too, asking how we can feed a growing population and make the most of advances in biochemistry without ruining the soil. Better design of the food supply chain will be critical to answering those questions.

How is Elxsi changing to meet this new demand?
We've been working hard to develop our own intellectual property — whether that's specific technologies or design approaches — and we're actively looking for opportunities to exploit what we call 'non-linear growth'. We're looking to fund ideas that will grow into something incredible.

That means, as well as delivering this great thinking to our clients, we're driving to be more entrepreneurial ourselves, looking over the horizon at how things will be disrupted. We aim to get our clients ahead of the game, as well as developing our own opportunities.

And in Europe? What's new?
We've recently launched a design studio in London. That's not been without its challenges. But, given the kind of proactive thinking we're delivering, it's important to be near the businesses we can help, many of which are in London. More of those clients are emerging in India, too. We've seen a real change in attitudes to design there, not least as Indian companies go global. Some of the larger IT companies — like Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys — have embraced design thinking to supercharge their offer in world markets. They know they need creative thinking to build new services and refine products to offer their clients.