Earlier this year, I delivered a talk at IIM Ahmedabad as part of a TEDx event. While the entire event was recorded, no videos have yet emerged (and given that nine months have gone by, I highly doubt we’ll get to see any videos). Luckily, I had written down my entire talk before delivering it. So enjoy!

Update: The video has arrived!

Lessons I Learnt from Crafting Experiences for Others

11th January 2015

When I was ten years old, I was crazy about puppets. So when my school announced its annual fete, a group of friends and I decided that we would put up a puppet show for our fellow students, their families and friends.

We spent our evenings and weekends creating stick puppets out of empty cigarette boxes (that I collected from a neighbour’s dad who smoked), coloured paper and pencils. The stage was made out of a large carton that we covered with red velvet. It even had a curtain that could be pulled back to indicate the beginning of a show.

We had written about 20 minutes worth of original material that we intended to perform a number of times over the day. We were planning to charge one rupee per person for seeing the show. We were going to be crore-pattis!

There were three of us. One was the puppeteer – controlling the stick puppets from under the stage. The second one was the musician – belting out tunes on his Casio synthesizer. And I was supposed to provide all the voices for all the different characters that we had created.

The day of the fete arrived. But there was a snag. The school had allotted us a small table in a corner of a large hall where the entire event was being organized. Different groups of students had put up various stalls across this hall. There was no way that all three of us could fit under the table. There was barely enough space for the puppeteer.

So we had to perform a puppet show where the audience could see the two people providing the voices for all the different characters and the music for the entire show. We were expecting the whole thing to be a disaster.

Ten kids showed up for our first performance. My friend on the piano and I received a few strange looks for the first couple of minutes. But then something magical happened. The kids started laughing at the antics of our puppets. They giggled at the cackling of the old queen. The king’s nasal voice had them in raptures. The drum roll that preceded the flatulent prince each time he passed gas brought the house down.

Word spread fast. We were a hit.

We collected four hundred rupees that day.

I only fully understood the lesson from that afternoon many years later: if you create a deep and powerful experience for your audiences, your users, your consumers – they will forgive and forget any other shortcomings that your offering has. That’s the first lesson I’d like to share.

A few years later, a group of friends and I were struck by the entrepreneurial bug. Our summer vacation was going on and we were feeling a little bored. We decided to pool in our pocket money (about two hundred rupees) and host a small carnival in the ground of the colony that we lived in.

The prime attraction of this carnival was a ring toss game. The player had to stand behind a line and throw a thick ring made out of electric copper wire towards a table that had a lot of different goodies on it. The player could only win an item if the ring completely encircled it. It wasn’t a very easy game.

Because our budget was limited we had purchased about twenty items worth between 2 and 15 rupees each. These were items of various shapes and sizes – a plastic ball, a chocolate, a pack of gums and even a small toy car.

We decided to gift wrap each item so that our players wouldn’t know what the goodies were worth. But they could make an educated guess based on their shape.

A ring toss was worth one rupee. Four tosses were worth three. (We believed in giving discounts.) Some players ended up spending five rupees to win an item worth ten. Others ended up spending over ten rupees and were able to win nothing. Overall, we were doing well.

And then the strangest thing happened. A little kid, who had his eye on what he perceived to be a big chocolate bar, was able to land the ring on it on his very first try. Everyone broke into a spontaneous applause. The kid was a champion!

As we handed the gift-wrapped item to the kid, his triumphant expression changed. Something was off about the weight of the item. It was heavier than what a chocolate bar should have been. He unwrapped the item and realized that it was a bar of soap – the costliest item we had purchased for the game.

He began to cry uncontrollably. He felt cheated. He wanted a chocolate – worth only five rupees – and ended up winning a bar of soap – worth fifteen? The math did not add up for us thirteen year olds. Why was he so disappointed?

And this is where I learnt another important lesson: the extrinsic – in this case monetary – value of a reward cannot compare to the intrinsic value for a player, a user or a customer. While people care for rewards – it is the reward’s intrinsic value that they truly care about.

We decided to give the kid a chocolate instead of the soap. His father wasn’t very happy. Clearly, the bar of soap had more value for him.

About five years ago I spent 6 months travelling around the country, visiting over 100 schools on a tour organized by my publisher to promote books that I had written for children.

At the beginning, this seemed very foolish to me. It wasn’t scalable – going from state to state, school to school, talking to children, telling them about my book – with the eventual hope that this would lead to actual sales.

The books sold well. Had a few re-prints. But the biggest takeaway for me – especially one that I have applied over the last few years as a product developer has been the importance of creating a community around anything that I create. It is not scalable as it requires a lot of one on one interaction – even if the interaction happens on social channels like Facebook and Twitter. But the power of this community is undeniable. If you are someone who makes things, products or services – spend effort in creating a community.

The last two lessons that I want to share with you contradict each other in a lot of ways. And yet the only way to truly succeed is to apply both of them simultaneously.

A while back I was tasked with teaching a week-long science fiction and fantasy writing course to a group of 10 to 12-year-olds. I had previously taught this course as part of a creative writing class for college students.

This was not an easy course – it covered topics like subjective vs objective reality, the internal consistency of rules while creating a new universe and a fairly mature reading list of short stories and novels. It was the kind of course I would have loved to attend at their age.

The organizers of the workshop were very supportive but a bit hesitant about the difficulty of the course. “Would the children understand these concepts?” “What would the parents think?”

I am so glad that I taught the exact same college course to these children, without dumbing it down in any way. The stories written by these children at the end of the course were masterful and original.

The lesson here is a tricky one: sometimes a fairly large chunk of your users will be closer to the average user you had originally envisioned – someone like you.

The previous lesson was completely turned on its head over the last few years as I dived into the world of app and game development for the Indian market.

We made some wonderful games that millions of people were playing. But we discovered a staggering fact. Only a small percentage of users who visited our game’s page actually downloaded the game. The game was free to play and download. It was smaller in size than the other games available in the market. It had an Indian theme and we expected it to appeal to a large chunk of Indian players – after all we enjoyed these games and we represented the average Indian.

And then it hit us. On crappy 2G and 3G connections in India these games were not free – because data is not free. Not everyone is on a wifi connection. The larger your game the more costly it was to download – and sometimes those downloads failed.

Ours was a 20 MB game. We optimized the size of our game further – reduced it by half. And our downloads more than doubled.

But here is the weird thing – the #1 game in India is still close to 50 MB and in fact there are games as large as half a GB that do very well in India.

The lesson: there is no such thing as an average user and you definitely do not represent your product’s average user. In fact they couldn’t be more different than you.

So how do we solve this contradiction – sometimes you represent your average user and other times your average user couldn’t be more different than you.

The only way to solve this dichotomy is to combine the last two lessons – respect your users, do not worry about the ideal of an average user. They are similar and more different than you than you can imagine. The only way to succeed is to deeply understand both the similarities and the differences.

These are some of the lessons I have learnt while crafting experiences for others:

  • Create deep and powerful experiences and your users will forgive the shortcomings that exist in your offering
  • People care more for the intrinsic value of a reward than its extrinsic value – and sometimes these two can be the same
  • Put in the effort to create a community around anything you create – it is hugely powerful
  • Your users are more similar to you than you can imagine – understand these similarities
  • Your users are more different from you than you can imagine – understand these differences
TEDx IIM Ahmedabad 2015 – Lessons I Learnt from Crafting Experiences for Others
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