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29 Apr

How efficient the system is depends on where you stand.

How efficient you feel the system is, depends on your place in the system.

Let me use this simple analogy to illustrate my point. If you’re a resident of Mumbai, or any other city with a thriving railway system or metro, you will get it.

Let’s take the example of the local railways in Mumbai.

If you’re living close to Dadar Junction and wish to go to Thane, you take the central line. Simple.

If you wish to go to Andheri, you take the western line. Again, simple.

If you wish to travel to Panvel, you go to Thane and take the harbour line. You can also go to Sandhurst Road or Kurla for the same.

The point I’m making here is that the railways feel like the most efficient system for you. Every place is just a single train journey away.

Now compare that to a person who lives somewhere near the periphery, say in Dombivli, and wants to travel to Jogeshwari by train.

She has to first come all the way to Dadar. Switch to the western line. Then board a fast train to Andheri. Then get down at Andheri and board a slow train to Jogeshwari. And if she's travelling there for a job, she has to repeat this same feat twice a day.

This is a common occurrence in all systems:

You tend to overestimate the efficiency of the system when you measure it from the centre.

If you're a young gen-z product designer, many features, gestures, icons, and language you design into your product might feel quite intuitive and straightforward to you. Simply because you were raised in the era of the internet and are at its metaphorical centre. But a boomer who was born and brought up in a different era without having access to the internet for a majority of his or her life might not be able to grasp it as intuitively as you do.

If you’re a manager at your workplace, standing at the centre, you may overestimate the value your decisions add and overestimate the inefficiencies you create with those decisions and how those decisions ripple across the organisation. For e.g., you may overestimate the benefits of that report you demand and underestimate the effort to complete it, especially if it takes getting data from multiple stakeholders who might be closer to the periphery than the centre.

If you’re from an affluent background — someone who can take the liberty of sitting at home and preparing for CAT — you may overestimate the efficiency of getting an MBA degree versus someone who has to work a 10-hour job to feed her family. This person might also be physically away from the periphery — living in a Tier-3 city, far away from any reputed college — and may not be able to afford to leave her family alone.

If you were born and raised in a Tier-1 city, you may see the country as much more efficient and peaceful than it really is. Everything is available at a stone throw's distance, and consequently, the perception you build about the system is very different from someone who lives in a remote village.

This is not to say that people who see things from the centre are necessarily wrong or misguided; they just tend to overestimate the benefits of what has been designed from the centre, because they are more similar than average to those having designed it. They benefit from the same things and are oblivious to the same costs.

So, the next time you're designing a system not meant for a niche but for a mass audience, involve people who aren't from where you currently stand. They might help you correctly estimate the costs and benefits of your solution.

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