Archive for March, 2010

Design Principle 9 — User Experience, Insights, Variety, New Knowledge

March 24, 2010

Tolstoy – Design


  1. How do we gain new knowledge by interacting with various events
  2. How the quality of a story or a process evolves by changing direction several times – the principle of bifurcation.

About the Author: (Leo Tolstoy)

Tolstoy designed a unique form of story telling for children – sometimes half a page (The Mother Eagle – the present case study) and at times even in four to five lines (‘The Indian Elephant’). Despite their unusual shortness, his stories are divided into three innate parts: Event à Reaction + Experience à New Knowledge à New Event…

The Mother Eagle

The mother eagle had built her nest atop a tree next to the highway, a long distance from the sea. Having laid the eggs, she started raising the little birds that hatched out of those.

One day, the mother eagle came flying back from the distant sea with an enormous fish hooked to her claws, and found some people busy doing something underneath the tree. Spotting the huge fish in the eagle’s claws, they surrounded the tree and started throwing stones at her, making a great noise all the while.

Eventually the fish slipped out of the eagle’s claws, and the people took it away.

As soon as the tired mother-eagle perched on the edge of her nest, the little ones raised their heads and began clamouring for food.

But the mother eagle was so tired that she no longer had the strength to return to the sea. So she hopped down into the nest and spreading here wings to cover her babies, started petting them. She carefully arranged and smoothened their tiny feathers, as though telling them – wait a little longer babies, just a little longer. But the more she tried to soothe them, the more they cried in their treble voices.

At last the mother fluttered her wings and swept away to a higher branch, away from her babies.

But the little birds kept crying out all the more piteously.

Suddenly the mother eagle let out a loud cry with all her strength.

Then she spread her wings and dragging her heavy body, flew off towards the sea. She came back well after nightfall, flying very low on slowly beating wings. But, like the last time, she had a big fish hooked to her claws.

Having reached the tree she looked around her carefully, checking for humans in the vicinity. Then she swiftly folded her wings and perched on the edge of her nest.

The eaglets parted their beaks and held up their open mouths. Their mother tore up the fish into little bits and fed them to their heart’s content.


  1. Notice that this short story has been told in three separate sections, which is structurally the strongest point of story telling or any process for that matter.
  2. The middle section contains the vital reaction of the mother eagle that leads to new knowledge. There lies the greatness of Tolstoy.
  3. In the middle portion, Tolstoy has inserted part of the eagle’s reactions with an account of her movements; how the exhausted mother eagle tries, for some time at least, to use affection as a substitute for food. The tired mother expects understanding from her children but the children do not realize their mother’s exhaustion.
  4. And then, the mother eagle seems to suddenly arrive at a moment of enlightenment. At the personal level, she realizes that she must meet her children’s primary need before she can expect understanding from them and that is her main and only responsibility. On the social plane, here mind blazes in protest against those torturers who have usurped the food she had procured, with great labour, for her children. Immediately, she cries out loudly. This cry expresses, not irritation with her children but the ecstasy of discovering two of life’s ultimate truths – one personal and the other social. Lesson for supervisors, officers and managers: primary responsibility – provision, and protest against wastages (social).
  5. The second section ends and the direction changes (sudden) – shown through a new movement. By now armed with new knowledge (by rejecting the older knowledge) the mother eagle’s character has undergone a change – it is marked by knowledge, inspiration and protest. Notice that this can’t be shown without bringing in the vital second section – the reaction part that leads to new knowledge. The story thus evolves and the quality changes.
  6. The secret of gaining new knowledge is revealed: Event à Reaction + Experience à New Knowledge à Try out à New Event à New reaction….
  7. We would also like the story because of the variety it provides – the mother eagle’s character is marked by variety. Variety is essential in whatever we do. But notice that the eaglets don’t provide variety. Therefore, the variety can only be provided by showing details as much as possible. The same principle applies to design thinking à focus on user experience to come up with new insights à new designs that help people to face and manage uncertainty. In fact, the principle might be applied to any human activity – providing variety. I leave it to you to reflect upon.

Achieving Balance of Opposites — Design Principle 8

March 24, 2010

Achieving the Balance of Opposites

As Design Thinkers, Consultants, Architects, Engineers and any profession that relates to people, our job is to strike a balance between opposites or contrasts. No motion is possible without the play of opposites. A car only moves forward because of the presence of the frictional force that tries to pull it back. The same is with human thought. That also moves. We can make someone happy by making his thoughts move.

Great writers and film directors are master of this game. They can make our thoughts move in a fashion that can create happiness and pleasure or provoke us to think deeper. That is why we remember their writings and movies.

Let us study through some examples taken from literature.

Here is an extremely short story (translated) from the famous Bengali writer Bonophool, who was also a doctor. He was a master of writing such half a page story.

The Illiterate Milkman

Bilashbabu is the most illustrious personage in the village. He is renowned figure both in the business and political worlds; he even posses a MA degree. His power and authority in the village knows no bounds. The other day, some of his friends had come to call on him. Every one had gathered in a room, behind closed doors. A melodious female voice was raised in Tagore-songs, liquor was flowing freely.

Suddenly the electric bell in the hall rang out. The servant opened the door to find Horu, the milkman, standing there.

‘No chance of meeting ‘babu’ today.’

‘But ‘babu’ had told me to come today.’

‘You can’t meet him today.’

Horu’s wife was waiting expectantly.

‘Got the money?’

‘Couldn’t meet him today.’

‘Their money has been outstanding for three months. How are we to manage?’

Horu was silent.

His wife said, ‘Let’s stop the milk from tomorrow.’

Horu smiled faintly and said, ‘Are you mad? That’s out of the question. There are three babies in that house, what are they to drink? Their mothers can’t provide for them..’

‘But how are we to manage if they don’t pay us what’s due…’

‘They’ll pay us sometime. What’s the point of getting worked up…’ Horu smiled at his wife.

The milkman is illiterate.


That’s it. How did you like it? Did it appeal to you in some way? Did your thought process move and left you wondering?

Even with such a short story it is possible to move our thoughts when we bring in contrasts or place apparently opposite things side by side or close by enabling our thoughts to move and produce emotions. Let us examine it further:

Some Contrasts in External or Physical Details:

  1. Despite being in a village Bilashbabu’s house possesses an electric bell: On the other hand, Horu is very poor and he hasn’t got his dues for three months.
  2. Bilash was a bright student at the university: Horu is illiterate.
  3. Ladies at Bilash’s house sing Rabindrasangeet: Horu’s wife eagerly awaits her husband, in the hope of a handful of money

Some Contrasts at Deeper Level: (contrasts of human values)

  1. Women in Bilash’s family refuse to breastfeed their children (possibly not deeply attached to their offsprings): Yet Horu, being an outsider, feels a humane responsibility and affection for the children – so can’t stop the milk supply – although not being paid
  2. Upper class men who has money but forgets to pay as if it is his right: penniless milkman who requests and begs for his dues though it is his right to get paid.

Here the contrasts/opposites are placed very close to each other and hence the story appeals to our senses since it enables the movement of our thought to take place quickly and subtly.

This apparent paradox of contrasts is the key to success in our profession.