Friday, March 23, 2012

The Art of Choosing with @Sheena_Iyengar

This afternoon in the closing session we have the very accomplished Sheena Iyengar - author of The Art of Choosing. I haven't read her book but I hear she's pretty awesome. I'll believe it - I'm all ears.  

Sheena has been studying choice for several years and her book explores several questions. Why do we choose? What affects our choices? How can we improve our choosing experience and outcomes? Sheena asks the audience if they're having a good time - loud resounding clap!

Sheena takes us into a story about the Draeger's Grocery Store. They had 75 different kinds of olive oils from all sorts of places. Awesome eh? Sheena went there several times but bought nothing! She asked the manager if the choice was actually working for them as a business. They didn't know. So they set up 24 Jams in one place and then another place with 6 Jams. Which place would people buy more jam? While 60% stopped at the 24 Jam store, 40% stopped at the 6 Jam store. However, 30% bought from the latter while 3% from the former. This - if you do the math is a 6 time increase in sales. The paradox of choice documents this phenomenon. Turns out that more choice usually ends up confusing people enough to postpone the decision.

Today you have more choice than ever before. You are confronted by 3 trillion bits of information in the air! 15 million possibilities for a soulmate on - brilliant eh? Not so much. This is choice overload. There are three main consequences of too much choices:

  1. People usually stick with the status quo - people choose not to choose. No one wants to commit to one choice. Let's look at 401k plans in the US - more fund choices seemed lead to less people participating and hence less savings. 
  2. It reduces decision quality. Medicare - it's the same story; people are unhappy with the choices they make and a lot of people want to buy directly from Medicare and would love fewer choices. I have the same problem with the new age of social media platforms. The market is so saturated with choices that it's making life worse and fragmented.
  3. We're less satisfied with our choices. Think of how much TV programming that's available. You watch a program and then you're unhappy with what you missed. 
So what's going on here? George Miller (psychologist) came up with the notion of a magic number 7 (+/-) 2. The paraphrasing of the law is that the average person can usually hold 7 (+/-) 2 objects in working memory. So more choice than that is usually a detriment to decision making and choosing. Think about it - when you start a game of chess, you have more choice available (as combinations) than stars in the galaxy. If you have expertise then you can chunk this information and break it down into specific lines of attack. So do you have enough information available to you to make a decision? For example the car you want to buy? SUV, cruise control, automatic transmission, etc - will narrow down your choices and make life easier. Unfortunately you're not an expert and the market is designed for experts.

So here are four choosing techniques that help:
  1. Cut: Remove the choices. When P&G reduced the number of their shampoo choices, they increased their profits and this is the case with several product lines. Think of Apple - the only choice you have is the iPhone! Don't boggle the mind with extraneous choices. Sheena tells us about leadership perceptions. When a manager gives no choice, the engineer group surveyed rates them badly. When the manager gives them two choices they rate them highly. When the same engineers get 6 choices they again rate the manager badly. You want to give people choices but you don't want to overwhelm them. If you only had one option what would it be? If you can't justify the options then don't put it in there. 
  2. Concretise: How can you make the consequences of your decision explicit? Why is my credit card always maxed out? Potentially because it doesn't feel as real as spending real money from the bank. To make decisions what you need is not only information but also a feeling of the consequences. It's like in Indecent Proposal when Robert Redford offers a million dollars in return for a night with Demi Moore and it's a hypothesis the reaction is different from when the money becomes actually real. Good example, eh? I came up with that all by myself.
  3. Categorisation: Experts are able to categorise information. That being said, a choice provider can be the expert and categorise for the consumer or decision maker. After all, it's perhaps in your interest to help people make a choice. Think of a magazine rack. If 400 magazines were laid out in front of you in 25 different categories you'd be more likely to make a choice. As it turns out our brains are also more equipped to handle categories than choices. So you're more likely to make choices from 25 categories than say five.

    For example look at the wine categorisation technique that specific cellars use to categorise the hundreds of wines that are available to us.
  4. Condition: If we can approach things in a methodical fashion, we're more likely to arrive at a choice than by just the accident of finding 'the right furniture' in Joe's used furniture store. Sheena gives us the example of a German car manufacturer that allow users to custom make their car by breaking down various choices available ranging from certain decisions that have low choice (4) to high (56). Now people that advance from high choice to low make less purchases than those that advance from low to high. Also satisfaction is higher for those that move from low to high choice. People's excitement for choice usually increases with each step and the fact that you build up the condition makes them more excited about the product itself. Start shallow and get deeper. Why does Apple do so well (something I wrote earlier)? Small choice vs heavy choice and people understand their choices much better.

Wow, this was a great session on design though not so apparent on the surface. I think there's a lot of meat in there for community managers, leaders, marketeers, sales-people, designers and anyone offering an experience to take a lot out of this session. This lady is brilliant. Sheena maybe blind, but she is helping us see. If you need to use the learnings from this session in practice then check out GLEAM - Global Leadership Matrix (coming soon). This will include several tools with video clips alongside - this'll help you learn about yourself and design solutions that actually make sense. Also, everyone who comes to the website, you'll be able to participate in Sheena's research. Be choosy about choosing. Follow Sheena on twitter and check out her website!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

All the amazing stuff that @JKUnrein shared in her talk today

This woman is a star and while not everything was new for me, she's an inspiration to see how much ground you can cover in 60 minutes.

Here's just a compilation of the tweets I put out just during here session. And just so we don't lose this in a year's time, here's a list of the tweets from the talk:

The Art of Vision with @ErikWahl

This morning at LSConf, the our speaker is Erik Wahl of Art of Vision fame. The conference site describes him thus, "By breaking apart traditional thinking, Erik challenges and inspires his audiences to redefine commonly held assumptions and misconceptions about “creativity," "goals," "success,” and "vision.” Discover how you can sharpen your creative skills and identify a personal style for inspiring yourself and others to rethink vision and purpose." Very exciting, let's see what he has to say.

I can't tell you how awesome this guy's start is. Check out this video to get an idea or maybe this video as a teaser. What a masterpiece this guy creates in just about 5-6 minutes! His hands are dirty, he is in the thick of work within a room of at least a 1000 people. I am in awe. Erik is saying that if we go to a school, and we ask "Who can draw?" everyone raises their hands and now when he asks that question in this room only a few hands go up. Every child is an artist - how do you remain an artist as you grow up?

Erik talks about the most important meetings and he wants you to take those meeting notes using Crayola crayons - one of the most recognisable smells amongst adults. Apparently it reduces blood pressure. Drawing is a learned skill like anything else - math, science, design, what have you. He's seeking out the courageous, colourful ideas that are hidden amongst all of us. He's talking about breaking out of our comfort zone - business as usual or technology as usual.

We move on to the show "Fear Factor". Erik picks a member of the audience by just throwing a ball and picking the guy who catches the ball. This guy is now going to lead or will delegate to someone else to lead with Erik. And of course, this guy puts his boss on the line! Erik is giving everyone an opportunity to pull out their iPhone because this will be great YouTube material. Surprise, surprise! The guy on stage wins the brilliant painting that Erik drew up live. Taking a risk got this guy a dividend he didn't expect. Fear kills performance - embracing risk creates unexpected results. FEAR = False Evidence Appearing Real.

Do we have the ability to focus, to then commmit but most importantly to adapt? What is the ROI on creativity? What is the ROI to have a differentiation? What's a creative idea worth? In today's market the strongest currency isn't the Euro or the Dollar. The strongest currency is trust. The question to ask is that if we were to start from scratch today what would we paint on our blank canvas? How can we leverage the currency of trust and community to spread our ideas? Our greatest innovations in this world take place on the border of chaos and order. Our mind is a machine that never sleeps. We need to unlock the potential of that mind by combining left brain thinking and right brain thinking. We're getting conditioned to think in a one dimensional way that is about a single right answer. We were taught to be increasingly risk averse, increasingly operationally excellent. Too much focus on the left brain.

Time = Money? If we allow money to equal time, we cheapen the value of life. We turn great interactions into transactions. Instead of thinking of ways to ignite our passion or work smarter, we're looking at how many dollars and how many checkmarks we got. Where will the vision for the future come from if we go logically, linearly with the equation of Time=Money? Today we're bombarded with ideas and stimulus in ways than never before. We try to generalise and predict what might arrive by using only a part of our brains to deal with this stimuli. Is there a way we can unlock the potential of our minds when we can look at this stimuli and build emotional connections that'll drive future thoughts?

Erik wasn't always an artist. He was told he didn't do things right. And then 9/11 happened and his business collapsed. And by luck or accident he went to a local art store at that point when he touched the canvas, his perception of himself as an artist changed. And that changed his life. He stopped selling his artwork seven years work to raise money for charity. Creativity is now the corporate capital. He will now hide his Monroe painting and he'll drop clues on twitter for people to find it. This is his way of engaging differently! Can we think of ways to engage differently? Do we really need to think like everyone does? We need different ways to experience the world. Most people will see a challenge - can we look at the same challenge as an opportunity?

As a finale, Erik does things differently. To the brilliant music in the background and to a standing ovation, Erik draws up Steve Jobs - upside down. Just take a look at the video above (hopefully it'll process by the time you see it). Great talk. It's tough to think of whether you have 10 things to take away from this talk. Was it inspirational to feel that everyone of us is creative at some level? Was it about questions than answers? Was it goose-bump-generating? Was it something that tells me that I can be different? Does it tell us all that we can break free? Hell yeah!

To call Erik Wahl “another speaker” is the equivalent of calling the Mona Lisa “another painting.” - from his website, but true. It's not often that I have to video sections of a talk to share the emotion it evoked for me - this is one of those talks. I had goose-bumps watching this guy draw to the music and his passion, for art and his brush strokes was palpable. There's an artist in all of us - we got educated, we grew up. We have the opportunity to paint a canvas for the future - free of constraints, free of inhibitions. We need to believe in the currency of trust, believe that the future will be what we'll make it to be regardless of who we are. And that future won't be wonderful and beautiful if we continue to think exactly the same way as we did yesterday. That future needs us to think in ways that we haven't thought before. Thank you Erik - I had to stay back and miss the next talk if only to shake your hand for this inspirational morning. The conference was worth it to just feel your energy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Designing Mobile Performance Support Apps - @elearningcoach

I'm sitting in a Mobile Learning session with one of my favourite people and authors - Connie Malamed, so forgive me for being extremely nice with my write up if that's what happens by the end of this talk. Connie's had a journey learning about apps on Mobile. She wanted to create a performance support app for instructional designers. It's called Instructional Design Guru. You should check it out. In today's talk she's going to tell us how you can walk through the design experience before you hand it over to a programmer. As instructional designers we have the skills to do this, it's just a question of thinking through each of the decisions that we're going to be party to.

When designing for mobile it's important to think of the context. Connie talks about the journey in a few steps:

1. Define the problem
2. Research and Ideate
3. Define the Solution
4. Develop the App

Everyone has ideas about apps! 5.9 billion mobile subscribers in the world. 1.2 billion of them are mobile web users. 63% more smartphone users in 2011 whereas laptop growth has been just 15%. So why mobile? First things first - it's convenient. People almost always have their phones with them. It's very relevant and contextual to the experience that someone's having at the time. People are always out there with their phones and helps with content generation. There are varied devices and mobiles do reduce friction by bringing down barriers. There are mobile collaboration tools and mobile is a far reaching phenomenon. In Africa for example mobile penetration is far ahead in comparision to computers. And lastly, mobile gives you the ability to design for either push or pull. Which is a great thing for learning design.

There are several approaches for learning on mobile:

* micro-learning: self paced mini lessons in varied media. eg podcasts
* synchronous: virtual classrooms using mobile webinar tools
* assessments: tests, surveys, polls
* social media learning: enabling networks for learning
* learning games: challenges and simulations
* performance support apps: references, job aids, collaboration, social, augmented reality

We'll focus on performance support. The key here is a few interesting things:

* it's just in time - the ability to quickly get information in the context of work
* it's part of the workflow and is seamless with the act of doing something
* it occurs when needed
* it uses a pull model
* the learners can apply the skills immediately - great for cognitive load since you don't need to remember heaps before you perform a task.

There's a fair range of things you can do with mobile learning and mobile performance support:

* queries to PLN - no need for an app here
* QR codes - used widely in marketing, but you can get people to get to information in context here
* Automatic text message reminders can be great as in context prompts
* Checklists, references, job aids are also interesting tool - that's the territory Connie's explored
* Augmented reality is a good in context training approach

Connie talks about a doctor receiving surgery advice on SMS. Quite amazing when you think that it saved someone's life. It's performance support too! Mobile performance support needs to fit within the overall learning and mobile strategy for your organisation.

In any case when you think of performance support, you've got to address the 5 moments of need:

1. When learning for the first time
2. When wanting to learn more
3. When trying to remember or apply
4. When things change
5. When something goes wrong

Mobile helps in particular with the last three situations! Think of tools like HVAC calculator. Or iBartender to make fun drinks when you don't know how. eMocha is another interesting data collection app for healthcare.

Design Considerations

Now how do people use phones? People mostly use them on the go. They're usually distracted - so remember they don't have your full attention. People use it in context - eg: Maps, Layar, Foursquare. 40% people use phones in the bathroom. People use phones when they're bored! People use them at their desks - it's a good way to impress them. People use them for micro-tasks - running an errand, paying a bill, watching a video. People use phones when they're relaxed and in a varying set of emptional states.

So the conclusion is:

* Short bursts of activity
* One handed
* Simple features first and complex next
* Text messages are hugely popular!

So what tools do you want to use? You want to figure out the use case scenarios. eg: You're at a museum you want to look up information about the artist and the painting. Or you're doing repairs - you have a complicated situation you need help with.

Second, you want to research similar apps. What other apps are out there that do similar things like your app? It can be fairly time consuming and by the way you need to spend money!

Third, what gestures will you need? This is not your grandma's mouse! The mouse is an intermediatary while playing with touch devices is quite intuitive. Even a kid can do it as Connie demonstrates. So think of taps, pinches, flicks, drags, presses and the stuff that actually happens in the mobile world. Luke W has a lot of stuff here about how to design for mobile. Take a look at his gesture reference cards.

Fourth, what hardware will you use? You'll have several different types of media that you may want to use but will your hardware support it? Does your hardware support geolocation if you're trying to use that in your design? The phone camera can be quite a useful tool. There's the accelerometer as well as is near field communications using RFID technology. So two phones close to each other can share information with each other. iPhones don't support this but you can work around using bluetooth. Be careful to focus to on the primary task.
So how do you communicate your design?
Three important things to consider:

* Write you specs
* Diagram the structure of your app
* and be absolutely sure to wireframe

When you're writing specs for your app, you have several ways of doing it. You could write detailed requirements specs or you could even do user stories. There are definitely other things that you want to specify, such as personas, programming language that you prefer, web or native, task diagrams, your overall vision of the apps functionality, etc. Be sure to diagram the structure too. There are three general structures:

* Flat, no heirarchy
* Tabs
* Tree structure which has a fairly complex heirarchy

There are several wireframing tools available on the internet for this kind of stuff and well, you can just do Powerpoint, Word and maybe just pen and paper.

The other thing to thing to think of is visual design. What icons will you use? What will your touch target sizes look like? What metaphor will you use? For example the Compass app has a real world compass metaphor. If you do pick one metaphor, be sure to follow it all the way through.

Technology Decisions
Native apps of course are faster give you access to the phone's hardware, etc but the cost of programming is high and you get very platform specific and you've got to conform to the marketplace rules. The web on the other hand is portable, cost of development is lower and works on various platforms. Also it's easier to prototype this. The disadvantages however is that you're internet dependent and then you don't get the speed and hardware functionality of your native apps. You can of course create hybrid apps using stuff like Titanium. Do also be mindful that you need to use native languages to program for mobile platforms - so your programmers need to know the specific languages. There's quite a few mobile authoring tools out there as well, but be sure to check on native compatibility and the publishing structure there.

The Art of Leadership and Learning - @JohnMaeda

I have to tell you - I haven't been doing much reading in the last 6 months or so. Tell me, with a 12 hour work day and birding to do in free time and a life to lead on top of that, where's the time for this? Anyways, I'm going to learn from an author today. John Maeda the author of Redesigning Leadership is keynoting the conference this morning. I'm curious to know what the talks going to be all about - very exciting stuff since I'm always kicked about learning and I'd love to be an effective leader. Heidi says John can speak to us as a colleague but also someone who can bring views from a different sphere. Currently he's the president of the Rhode Island School of Design.

And so the keynote begins! John was mersmerised by Heidi's intro because it was about us and not about him and that's important as a leader. John is very interested in the idea of how to lead - he sees it as a practice. It began from his curiosity - eg his discovery of the lingo of financial terms. He did an MBA online to decode that lingo. He was a professor by day and a student by night. Leadership comes through living it and it's quite uncomfortable.

Leadership has four stages/ aspects:

  1. Start from foundations
  2. Craft the team
  3. Sense Actively
  4. Fail productives
We're living a lot longer than we did 30 years ago. So a four year college education or the two years masters add-on doesn't cut it for our evolution in this world. So you need to keep learning.

Build the foundations

You can't be afraid to get your hands dirty. MIT was a very clean place for John - RISD is a very dirty place that way. People want to understand and play around - a very elegant thing in John's view. John just got super-promoted and was at the top job of the school very quickly so he didn't really know how to do his job. So he bought a lot of books and he's been learning all the time. He's gotten to learn about art and design at the very core. Take a look at who the Alumni is.

In the first year at RISD, people are supposed to unlearn what they know. For eg: they know how to draw, but the first foundational course is to break it down into drawing simple shapes such as black and white polygons. It helps all the artists understand their craft better by coming down to the foundations.

Maeda is talking about knowledge starting from direction moving to concepts but then experience going to change concepts and affecting direction. So while the first direction is about mastery, the second is about originality. This creates what the human race is all about - innovating and improving all the time.

Craft the team

Figuring out the team thing is quite a strange task. Maeda refers to the American basketball team which had Michael Jordan and the first two times the American team dominated, but then they couldn't get gold. What was wrong?

You look at some oriental buildings in Japan, made of wood and these last several hundred years! In modern construction things don't last even a decade. The secret is in the materials they use by selecting the right wood from the mountains. In your team, the materials are the people.

There's no I in TEAM. There's a lot of I in INDIVIDUAL. There's a WE in WELCOME. John is talking about someone at the omelette station at the breakfast buffet and that server made him feel welcome with his omelette! That kind of power is human power - doesn't come from a dialog box or hashtag. It was because someone believed hospitality and wanted to live that value.

He brings up Marshall Ganz's book about the Power of WE. The book talks of a spiral emanating outwards - every leader leads about stories that lead outwards. It's not about autopilot; it's about engaging. Marshall's book calls leadership a practice. It's a practice that starts with Self - identifying yourself. Then there's the story of US - the connections in the group. And lastly there's the story of NOW, where the SELF meets the US and there's a task to complete. Every leaders story fits this very simple pattern. The only time you need leaders is in times of uncertainty. Story is a critical component in this - they can't hear you if they can't feel it.

Sense Actively

Artists are always doing a wrong thing at the right time! He talks about people wanting to fly kites - what good is that? Well a good thing there is to see and feel the wind. Also it's a good way to experience what it's like from the wind's perspective to see the person flying the kite or the kite itself?

If you look at growth in the last 20 years. Median family income is increasing at a linear pace, but cost of medical care and education has increased exponentially. So the ability to be educated is diminishing given that our capability to fund is becoming more and more difficult. So we need to sense this and find other ways to learn.

If you look at the monopoly in information with the number of printed books. The monopoly of universities such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale until 2000, their monopoly increased considerably. But post that, it fell quite a bit? Is there a disruption there because of the long tail?

It's not longer a heirarchy in organisations these days - it's more an organisational network. The bigger thing is now a trans-organisational network. You're friends with your competitors.

Fail Productively

"Courage lies somewhere between fearlessness and recklessness"-Aristotle
John is showing us some of the scenes created using circuit boards. You've got to see this to believe it. It's art created with circuit boards - showing deep situations like a single fathers, CEO-ness and possession; a guy showing off his new smartphone. He talks about an experience in London - a workshop that involved drawing on sand. He met people from various walks of life. People had several problems and varied situations.

There are two frames to leadership - Traditional and Creative. One being a symbol of authority, other being a symbol of inspiration. Traditional is about Yes or No. Creative is about 'Maybe' - the world is complex and you can be wrong.

"If you manage a team of 10 people, it's quite possible to do so with very few mistakes or bad behaviours. If you manage an organisation of many more it becomes quite impossible." - Ben Horowitz

When you're an A player, your median is quite high on the other hand your median as a leader will be quite low given all the mistakes that you'll make and you've got to be willing to make.

John's book is about an honest recount of what it's like being a leader. He describes it as leading without all of the answers and being open to the critique. It's been a fairly inspirational talk and I enjoyed some of the ideas he threw out though the points I noted down were a poor replacement to his talk.

The point John makes right at the end is that the economy is at a downturn in America. The innovations we're looking at come from Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM). But a lot of the innovation also needs to come from Art. Yes we have more technology - it's everywhere. We're in a strange race with ourselves. We've always been in this evolution. We used to have a technology called the coffee table. This was before the TV. After the TV, coffee tables became defunct - now people stopped sitting around the coffee table, they sat around the TV now. And in the computer and mobile age, everyone's got a television in their face. It's the reality of the world. Technology realises progress at light speed. Electrons travel at light speed, people don't. We're stuck in a bit of a loop. When computers came first, they were awful and then there was the amazing invention of the CDROM - ability to store and share full colour images; great sounding audio and then movies on your computer. Then we had the web, and the web could do everything in the browser that we did everything we could using the CDROM. And then the mobile came and went through the same evolution as computers and the web. The evolution pattern is the same, culture hasn't moved forward though.

When Maeda compares his time at MIT and contrasts his time at RISD with it. He looks at the combination of Design (making solutions) and Art (making questions). Artists are bold to be cultural entrepreneurs. The intersection is where cool stuff happens. Design is about balancing form and content. John shows the word FEAR written in different typefaces and it's quite amazing how the form changes the way we perceive the content.

And then there's art. Art is harder - by definition it is. People who don't 'get' art are actually getting it because they recognising it is hard. It's about questioning authority. Artists ask 'Why' or 'Why not'. Why would you make art out of glass than drink from the glass? Why would you paint every day? Why not? By forcing us to think and question, we evolve our culture.

VUCA is how the world feels today - volatile, uncertain, complex ambiguous. The anti-VUCA is visioning, understanding, clarity and agility. It's the new VUCA. A new creative way of thinking that changes the way we approach life.

Scientists and artists both ask big questions, but they have different inflections. Both types of questions put together create powerful combinations. Artists are often inspired by scientists to see anew. There are artists who are scientists and vice-versa nowadays. There are designers who are scientists too. Designers are helping us see patterns in complex data. Art is merging with science. Policy makers need artists to help with sense making!

Innovation is the combination of Art and Design. STEM needs to become STEAM with the Art popped in between. Check out

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

9 Days in Paradise - Leg 1, Nameri

It wasn’t going as I’d planned it. Sahana had dropped out of the trip at pretty much the last moment. This meant that we’d have just four people in our group to Nameri and Kaziranga as against the planned five. On the face of it, this didn’t seem much of an issue, except it hiked up the costs that we’d divided across five people. I like being meticulous in the way I plan, so this was a bit of a hiccup. As it turns out, some hiccups are for good reason.

Onward to Assam

So on 21st Feb - a day I’d been waiting for months, we set out on our journey. Raji picked me and Chirdeep up, we reached the airport well in time, met Sudhir over breakfast, got into our flight and then made an uneventful trip several hundred miles away to Guwahati. Our first stop was going to be Nameri Tiger Reserve - a quiet forest tucked away not very far from the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. Nameri is known to be a birdwatcher’s paradise and we’d planned to stay at the forest department’s Kanyaka Lodge. While the roads from Guwahati to Balipara were OK, the route from that point on was nothing but an absolute nightmare. We’d made quite a few stops on the way - a few times for lesser adjutant storks, and once for some tea at the NH52 Dhaba. So, after a five hour bone rattling drive, we made our way into the lodge and were able to stretch ourselves.

Rolling into Nameri

Nameri is not short of accommodation options despite the limited footfall it receives. Nameri Eco Camp is the most popular property in the neighbourhood and is run by the Mahseer Conservation Society in the region. I haven’t heard very good things about the Jia Bhorali resort (Email: / Mobile: 9435101614 / 9859262831), but I can’t believe it’ll be absolutely awful. We however couldn’t get accommodation in the Eco Camp, so we decided to go with the Kanyaka Forest Lodge which at Rs 800/- a night per room seemed like an absolute steal. Located right next to the 134 Eastern Planters unit which is part of the Indian Army’s Eco Task Force, the property is a good, no-frills wildlife enthusiast’s accommodation. Mr Sarat Sarma who runs the lodge on behalf of the forest department is a funny man who has limited knowledge about birds, but more than makes up for it with his enthusiasm. That first night, we slept really well - it’s funny to think how just sitting through a long flight and a long drive can tire you out.

Exploring the Wilderness

The next morning we were up early. The plan was to go rafting down the Jia Bhorali river. If you stay at the Kanyaka lodge, be sure to speak to Mr Sarma and have the boatmen either stay over at the lodge or come really early in the morning. The rafting point is about 10 kms away at a point called the 13th mile and an early start at 0630 AM gives you a good chance to spot birds. On that first day we were late, but the Jia Bhorali didn’t let us down. Ibisbill, Mallard, Ruddy Shelducks, Black Stork, Black Necked Stork, Pratincole… we found birds faster than we could call out their names. A part of me felt we were on a birding roller coaster. Be mindful though that rafting down the rapids is not an easy way to take photographs and while you’ll spot many birds on the way downstream, you’re quite likely to come back with no pictures.

Post the rafting trip and a pit stop for breakfast at the Potasali camp we set out on a forest trek with Meenaram Gogoi. At Nameri Tiger Reserve, birdwatchers need a permit to explore the trekking routes along its peripheries. You’re usually accompanied by an armed guard just in case you run into an aggressive elephant or bison. Now, it pays to have a guard who is a birdwatcher and knows the forest well. Meenaram Gogoi is one such man. From Kaziranga, he’s what you’ll call a born wildlifer. As the birds whizzed past on the canopy, he would operate without binoculars and help us identify exotic species that we hadn’t ever seen before. A little pied flycatcher flew by, as did a blue throated barbet. A streaked spiderhunter perched itself in an unusually high spot. As we went ahead redstarts and bulbuls dotted our path. A crested serpent eagle played hide and seek while a buzzard and a booted eagle soared high above us. You don’t expect to see this level of activity at 11am, but Nameri was truly a different kettle of fish.

As we trudged ahead and reached the Oubari camp, Meenaram started to get more alert. He had his mind on a more prized sighting - the white winged duck. You wouldn’t think of a duck being difficult to find, but these guys are shy and super elusive. They choose small ponds in the middle of the forest as their habitat and come noon, they go up on the trees and rest unless disturbed. We tiptoed to a haunt that Meenaram knew of. “Don’t talk, when I point out a location, look there without saying anything.” And that’s exactly what we did. As we approached the pond though, we startled an otter. The otter lunged into the water and off flew some of the most beautiful ducks I’ve ever seen. We’d seen the white winged duck, but had no chance of getting a photograph. Damn!

Over the next two days we spotted over a 100 bird species and trekked through some of the most beautiful woodlands you would have seen. Mr Sarma played eager host, Meenaram the astute guide and Jaykumar the caretaker was a wonderful cook who rustled up some simple, yet tasty food. If you’re a birdwatcher, then there’s nothing quite like birding in these evergreen forests. As we went down the Jia Bhorali for our last trip almost all of us felt that Nameri needs a lot more time than we had planned for it. Had we stayed longer and not had a hard stop to the trip, we could have come back with some pretty decent photographs. We didn’t, so I’m sure I’ll return there at some point to photograph the avifauna of the region. Until then, I’ll live with memories.

Travel Tips

Here are a few points that’ll help you plan your trip to Nameri:
  • To get to Nameri, you can hire a taxi at Guwahati airport for about 3600 INR.
  • To book Kanyaka Lodge, call Mr Sarat Sarma (the forester in charge) at +919435381990. He doesn’t operate by email but will mark out your name in his diary.
  • The ensuite rooms are 800 INR apiece, though for hot water you’ll need to share one of the common bathrooms. You can also opt for a deluxe room with a TV and that costs 1000 INR each night.
  • Food is usually simple and consists of local vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. Jayakumar, the cook is quite obliging with requests and is usually willing to do what it takes to please you.
  • Rafting and trekking require separate permits and cost 280 INR and 320 INR respectively. Mr Sarma can help facilitate this.
  • The boatmen’s charge for the rafting trip is usually the bigger amount - 3240 INR for the trip. Each boat can accommodate upto 4 people. So in hindsight it wasn’t too bad that Sahana couldn’t make it. It helped all of us be together.
  • You’ll also need to hire a vehicle to carry your raft to the 13th mile and to pick you up from the end of the trip. This usually costs 1000 INR.
  • Apart from birding, there’s also the pygmy hog breeding center to help in the conservation of this endangered wild pig. Well worth a visit and I also saw some pretty interesting butterflies in the area.

I hope you visit Nameri soon - it was leg 1 of what’s been my most productive birding trip by far. Our next stop was Kaziranga - more about that in my next post. By the way, for this post and for this trip in general I tried using my iPhone as an alternate camera. I was quite pleased with the results in several cases. I'd love to know what you thought. So please, please, please - do share your feedback. I'm guessing you'll be able to make out the ones I shot with the phone, won't you?
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