As Polaris Financial Technologies moves beyond its roots as a service provider to the financial industry it is staking quite a lot on its ability to deliver innovative, design-centred products in a rapidly changing world.
The company has just opened a new design centre at its Chennai headquarters, putting the subject, and its capabilities, front and centre.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Arun Jain, chairman and chief executive of the company (right), is a great believer in the power of design to transcend ordinary development work and deliver superior results – results that pay.
“In most applications, 98% of the functionality can be done by anyone; it’s the last 2% that makes the difference,” says Jain. “An audio system from Samsung will be 98% as good as one from Bose, but it is that last 2% that means Samsung can charge $50 and Bose can charge $500.”
Such is the emphasis on design, Jain says, that the company has spent much of the last two years developing the concept behind the 8012 environment, studying examples of good design and best practice. “We spent 400 days planning it and 164 days on execution,” he says.
Jain said that the centre marks a new phase in the development of Polaris, which has focussed on financial technology since its beginnings in services and outsourcing in 1993.
A crucial earlier phase stemmed from its 2003 merger with OrbiTech, a subsidiary of Citi, which saw it increase in scale and move to become more intellectual property-oriented as part of a deliberate plan to have products across all aspects of banking systems. “To improve time-to-market and implementation, you need to have intellectual property so that you can re-use code,” said Jain. The main undertaking at this time was to break down the products into a service-oriented architecture model, a five year task involving 800 developers – something Jain said could only really have been done in India: “4,000 man-hours of development in the US would have cost us $400 million.”
Behind this approach was the belief that the next generation of products would be cross-market, and this led to further simplification of the product components into “apps”. At the same time, the financial crisis was at its height and this also fuelled the desire for simplicity in design. “We went back to the design table and saw that complexity was high – and we believe that complexity was why the crisis happened,” says Jain. The apps form the basis of Polaris’s Canvas environment, which allows applications to be built and configured on the fly, dramatically reducing both development and implementation time and costs.
Right at the beginning of the thinking, however, is a question that Jain puts like this: “How do you differentiate software experience and design experience? What does it look like?”
Everyone has different views of what design is, or even what is meant by good design, he says. “We experience it, but it is hard to define – where does it come from? How can we decompose it?”
After much thought, Polaris has come to the conclusion that good product design comes down to three elements: desirability, feasibility and viability. These are, respectively, the human, technological and business components of a well-designed product.
“When all three come together, that’s design,” says Jain, pointing out that Apple conceived the iPad tablet before the iPhone, but the technology to build touch screens of that size was not developed enough at the time, so the smaller device was launched first.
“There is always a bit of mystery, and solving that mystery is another element of good design – unearthing the blind spots is part of that 2% between Bose and Samsung.”
Jain goes further in his attempt to define the elusive qualities of what the 8012 facility is striving for. “Design is important in context; you have to think about the ecosystem,” he says. The model for the Polaris financial app store comes directly from Apple’s iStore, though the former is really a vehicle for delivering systems components rather than stand-alone applications.
Taking the componentisation of design further, Jain talks in terms of “clusters of knowledge, skill and depth of expertise” in different areas. A surgeon, for instance, could have the knowledge of a particular procedure, learn the skill of the techniques to carry it out, but will only develop the depth of expertise after many repetitions. Such clusters can be thought of as being reconfigurable – a surgeon’s depth of expertise will make it easier to learn a new procedure, for instance.
But there are also obstacles to implementing these lessons. Jain lists five “frictional forces” –ego, conflict, anger, fear and doubt – that can get in the way of new developments. People tend to suffer to greater or lesser extents from conditioning, which leads to “hardwiring of their knowledge clusters” and an unwillingness to adopt new approaches.
“People have blocks – a database must have an index, it has to be relational – then Big Data comes along and you have to think again,” he says. “Or they say, ‘this won’t ever happen in India.’”
If some of this sounds like mysticism, that’s perhaps because Jain has been looking widely for inspiration, including into Eastern scriptures; the contrast with Western culture is illuminating, he says. “Eastern scriptures tend to be more holistic, while the Western approach is deeper and narrower – combining the two can be very useful.”
It can also be difficult, “In Indian culture, conflict is not seen as positive, but it can be,” says Jain. “Friction can be a positive force – you can’t stand on ice without friction.”
At the other end of the scale, he sees other important lessons in areas such as industrial engineering, from which Polaris has borrowed time and motion study techniques. “The banking world doesn’t apply the principles of industrialisation because it thinks it’s different,” says Jain. “It’s not.”