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Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan on India

“People mistake localization to best user experiences.”

Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan, or UKP, is a Global Strategic Design Director at Designit, an international strategic design consultancy. He is based in Bangalore, and in this conversation we talk about challenges and opportunities for information systems in the Indian market.

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Jorge: Udhaya, welcome to the show.

UKP: Hey, Jorge! Thanks for having me here.

Jorge: I’m excited to have you on the show with us. For folks who might not know you, can you please introduce yourself?

About UKP

UKP: Okay. So, my name is Udhaya Kumar Pamanabhan. A very long name, but friends and family called me UKP. I’ve been a practicing designer for 25 years. In that ballgame, I was part and parcel of many, many successful acquisitions. I built and sold a couple of my own companies. And design is the only thing I’ve been doing for a living. And I started way back, with very, very rudimentary stuff like visual design, graphic design, and all of that. And then went up the design ocean, got to dabble with not all of the things, but most of the things.

So, picture information architecture also is primary. When I started with IA, I didn’t know I was doing IA. So, over a period of time, I think, my canvas just went first, you know, breadthwise, and then it went deeper as needed and that’s what’s made me what I am today. And yeah! I make a living out of it, so I can’t complain.

Jorge: I suspect that you and I are of a similar vintage, and I can relate to this notion of doing IA without realizing that that’s what it was. My impression is that you have worked most if not all, of your career in India, is that right?

UKP: It’s the other way around. Yeah. But now it’s probably, yeah, it’s more of India, but yeah, I’ve been, you know, I started off, outside of India. I keep joking that, you know, probably I have not worked in the Poles, but yeah, I’ve worked across the globe. But India is home base, and now I’m back in India.

Jorge: And, you’ve said that you’ve practiced design most of your career. Is that what you studied? What’s your educational background?

UKP: Yeah. You’d be surprised. I’m a quant. I did a triple major in math, stats, and computer science. 20 years… even 20 years actually to the clock before Time made it the Person of the Year. So, I keep kidding that, you know, I had the premonition that 20 years down the line, this is going to be hard! So much so that I actually specialized in that during my university days. So yeah, I am a quant by accounts.

Jorge: How do you come from being a quant to being a designer?

UKP: What I’m going to say might sound very stereotypical, but there are a lot of designers that I keep meeting who have the same story. Act one, scene one is basically they somehow figured out that they were very creative in their formative years. They spent a lot of time, had supportive parents. And of course, they had curiosity. I think that took the same spin as mine as well. I was good at painting, sketching, drawing, and all of that stuff. And then my parents always supported all my whims and fancies.

Where I come from, getting access to computing or computers and all of that… Now that things have changed, but my generation, probably when I was a teen, that was like probably one in 10,000 or one and probably a hundred thousand households. But I was lucky to get exposed to all of this. Started dabbling with MS Paint and then started working on Adobe Photoshop LE – limited edition – on a monochrome monitor.

And I think the rest is history. I figured out that if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do this and I’m not going to spend the rest of my life becoming yet another software engineer from India. I mean, that was very good at software engineering as well. But that’s not… it never, came across as something fascinating.

I just did it. I got good grades. India, you know how in India it is, right? Academics is very, very important. And parents and society… basically there’s a lot of emphasis on that. So I think I kept that side of the bargain. No complaints! I did really well. But I didn’t know that I would want to be a designer.

All I knew was I wanted to do creative stuff. So, I think from a very early age, I think that was always… was like a brain tattoo and I think things just interlocked and clicked in place.

Digital clay

Jorge: The way that I think about the technical aspect of our work, particularly software, is that it is the material that we work with much like steel and wood and bricks are the materials that building architects work with. And my expectation would be that having a background in computer science would give you a particular take on the materials that we’re working with in things like interaction design. Does that resonate in any way?

UKP: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I actually have a label that I’ve been probably using for probably 20 years, if not more. I have a concept called digital clay. Because software to me is digital clay. I like clay as a medium. So, I always say that, think of software as exactly clay, but it’s digital. You can shape and craft and construct products and services and ecosystems, and you can even build societies at scale. So yes! It helps.

Computer science for me personally helped in terms of I wouldn’t say empathizing, but, because I come from that world, I know the checks and balances and the guard rails, and the boundary conditions of what technology can do. And at the same time that has helped me actually not go overboard.

From a very early age you know, I was told, “don’t aim for perfection, but aim for optimization.” I didn’t know that there was a thing called systems thinking back then. But I was nurtured, I was mentored. So, I followed certain guiding principles in everything that I do. Computer science definitely helped. Numbers definitely helped. Stats definitely helped me in becoming the researcher that I have always been. I’ve been part and parcel of some fantabulous research practices. Sometimes people have offered me, with open arms, “why don’t you just move to just research? You seem to be a natural!” And all of that. But I think my training actually helped me discern a lot of things and, yeah, apply that on my professional journey.

So, yes. Interesting question. I think it helps. It definitely helps when you want the value chain and you’re supposed to deliver products and services and experiences more so in today’s day and age. My current job, I work with a top 10 strategic design firm and we are part of a eight and a half billion dollar behemoth.

And we today go to the market, and we don’t say we are a technology behemoth. The entire world knows it. We gently say, “we do anything at scale.” And the difference between us and probably the rest of them is that everything that we do is design led. So, when you own delivery, when you do a lot of interesting stuff, you have to be very, very, cognizant to the viability, the feasibility and all of that, right?

So, I think, it was a natural progression for me, and I developed those muscles and every single project, it helps me to assess scale, scope, what can we do now? What can we not do now? What can we park? And that skill in the room actually helps your colleagues, your partners, your prospective clients, and actually your clients, because you could sit with them and actually have a meaningful conversation and actually help them to make decisions, influence the decisions that are for the greater good.

So, a mix and match of acquired knowledge basically most of them become tacit, though you learn things from academy. If you don’t apply it for long, it becomes clustered. So, I think for me somehow, I developed this tacit knowledge, and it comes to help.

Jorge: I want to dig into something you mentioned there. Two things: one is this distinction between optimization and perfection. What I’m reading by that is that, if you aim for perfection, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re hitting on the optimal approach. And the other thing is the idea that the work that you’re doing now aims for scale. And the reason that those caught my attention is that you’re working in a context that I understand to be… well, first of all, India is one of the world’s most populous countries and it’s also incredibly diverse. And I was hoping that we could talk about what it’s like to do design work, and more particularly, information architecture work, for a market as diverse as the Indian market, and doing it at scale.

The Indian market

UKP: Awesome question. Let me spend the next one or two minutes to give India on a pitch. I hope I do justice, you know? Probably this would be the shortest definition of India that, once people hear about it, they’ll have a fair understanding. And it’ll basically deconstruct a lot of confusion that people might have had about India. I mean, India is known for software. India is known for brainpower. India is known as a, you know, country with a rich cultural history and heritage that transcends 5,000 years. And the anecdote is: it has been 5,000 years from the last century. The number doesn’t seem to be moving to 5,001, 5,002 or 5,000… right? Just kidding!

Like you said, we are the second most populous country on the planet, as we speak. And we are projected to become the most populous country on the planet, probably in a couple of decades or lesser. Coming to the information architecture side of things, we are a country with 1.3 billion people, and we speak about 19,500 dialects that are actually registered.

That’s too much to crunch, too much to handle. So, we have something called Scheduled Languages, which means they are kind of official languages if you will, for want of a better word. So those are 22 Scheduled Languages and there are officially 121 recognized mother tongues. So, for example, you go to Spain, more or less it’s a given that Spanish is the mother tongue. Then if you go to France, it’s French. That’s the beauty of other countries. But the diversity and the exponential beauty in my country is basically we have 125 different mother tongues, that are officially recognized.

Now, the next part. So, we have the second largest English-speaking population on the planet. That’s about 125 million plus and counting. Apart from that, we have 615 million and counting speakers of Hindi, which is misconstrued as the official language of India, but it’s the most widely spoken language in India and elsewhere. 615 million is like more than half of our population. But most of the services and products and platforms, more so in a digital world today, are English.

So, we have a lot of languages, and we have a lot of people who are digitally equipped today. We have probably the second largest, or maybe the largest mobile phone population in the world as well. So, access to content, access to product and services is a check box that’s already been picked. But is it disseminating and assimilating and enabling people to assimilate information and context and transact that’s a big bummer. So, there’s a significant thrust on that plane. Specifically, that, okay, the English world is taken care of, probably some other European languages’ world is taken care of, but India, like I keep saying, it’s like every 200 kilometers we had a mini country, in essence.

People mistake localization to best user experiences. Technology helps you convert an English into a Hindi or a Hindi into something else, but a lot of context gets lost in that. I keep joking, it’s like your subtitles on any of the Netflixes or Amazon Primes that you see. If you really observe, at least 50% of those translations are hilarious. So much so that sometimes you can just watch that and laugh.

So, there is a lot of opportunity. You have simple math. You have about a billion prospective consumers, not necessarily customers for anything digital. Hungry! And English doesn’t cut it out. So, the strategic design agency that we are, well, yes, we do a lot of projects. 99% of our projects are projects [that] are for profit. We do a lot of non-profit stuff, but we also do a lot of speculative activities across the 17 studios globally.

So, amazingly in India, about a year back, we started working on some studio initiatives to figure out what are the areas of intervention from a speculative design standpoint. We came up with all of these numbers and said, “India is definitely shining you know, decade to decade comparison. This decade has been significantly better off than the last one. And the projections are, we will probably be the number one GDP in the world.”

And we basically stepped back and said, “Hey, this is as-is, right? We still have, probably 615 million people who speak Hindi. And probably not all of them know English. And amongst that crowd, you can do magic of math. Even if you take a 10% population, if these are small and medium-sized entrepreneurs. That is a tremendous amount of… It’s like an ocean of opportunities, right?”

And then we spoke about inclusion. India’s good in banks. India is great in banks. You know, in fact, if you really look at the top 10 banks, probably there would be two or three Indian banks that will list there. But there is a deep divide. There is a divide between the haves and the have-nots, you know? People in metro cities and tier one cities like mine, we are all covered. Probably tier two cities are covered, but beyond that, tier two and tier three, things could be better.

So, we basically started speculating on, what is it that we need to do? And we knew for a fact that the SMB, so it stands for Small and Mini businesses. There is a Micro also. Micro basically is, you’re an entrepreneur, you’re running some kind of business. It’s probably three, four people tops. So, then we said, we can’t boil the ocean. And we went ahead and conceptualized a mobile experience. A multimodal experience, but predominantly powered by voice interface.

The hypothesis was, “can we actually bring in not only financial inclusion, but can we also empower these people, to basically not only conduct business, but thrive in ways that are simple, smart, and give them maximum reach.” And financial inclusivity has been proven to actually not only give [inaudible] an uptick in the lifestyle, but also makes a country healthy, wealthy and happier and progressive, right? So, there are a lot of extended value additions.

And we knew that this is a humongous one for a studio of 35, 30 people to sit and solve probably in a year or two. But yeah, we did it. We built a concept called Paisa Vasool. So, Paisa Vasool actually is Hindi, it means ” bang for the buck.” That’s the closest English translation that I can think of.

We basically prototyped an experience where a small to medium entrepreneur with about four people on his payroll. And payroll is just a label here. I mean, he has four people working for him. He’s a textile merchant, you know? He has a lot of ambitious plans to scale and all of that, but because of the lack of inclusivity in digital properties, he’s a Luddite. He still goes to the banks. He still talks to the manager. He, you know, tries for loans, extended loans and all of that.

So, we re-casted that into a story, built a quick prototype. We actually participated in a lot of award submissions, and it was very well received. And currently, as we speak, we are at that point, now we are thinking, “how do we take this? How do we scale this? And probably test it on the ground?” All our hypothesis on “is there a market for this?” Absolutely yes. You know, our formative research, we spoke to real people.

We spoke to representatives of small businesses and initially yes, they were like, “Okay, these guys are technology guys, maybe they are speaking something?” And to be sure, when we articulated a vision and mission and when we tested concepts, then we ask them like, ” how might you use it, right? Should you have access to an application, a mobile application that speaks to you, and that gives you insights and information in a language, and a natural context that you are familiar with?” 11 out of 10 times they were like, “wow!” So much so that the thing is when is this thing coming up so that I can access it.

So, the concept has been validated. But yeah, we want to scale it beyond one or two use cases. So, banking, definitely banking and inclusion is a big thing. Interestingly, that actually intersects with a couple of government initiatives. You know, we’re just actually bound to support whatever we do, but the government policies are just that, right? It’s like ideas are a dozen a dime. You need to go and execute it and actually see it come to life and bring it to fruition.

So interestingly, between 2016 and 2018, there was this massive push on making India self-reliant in terms of manufacturing capabilities and everything… Basically economic and industrial growth. So, the government unveiled a program called “make it in India, but make it for the world types.” We’ve been reasonably successful, early days, nobody to scale.

So, you know, one of the most amazing things is, this time the government got very serious, brought in all the experts from a diverse populace. They had a committee, and they came up with something called INDEA. So, it’s I-N-D-E-A. It’s an India framework. So basically “IND.” IND is basically for India. EA stands for “Enterprise Architecture.”

I think I can comfortably claim that I am one of those morons who read all the 211 pages of a PDF document. Very interesting. I can guarantee not many designers are even aware of such a thing that’s been pushed by our central government. It’s a fantastic document that sets the vision and mission for what we need to do to become a truly digital country and a digital government.

Jorge: I’m wondering about the speculative design project that you all worked on. It sounds like just from the title, that it was primarily in Hindi. Is that right?

UKP: Yes, primarily in Hindi. Yeah.

Multi-language experiences

Jorge: Not to downplay it because you said it’s… what was it? 615 million speakers. So, it’s a huge, market already just in Hindi. But I’m wondering if that experience that you all designed, was it accessible in more than just Hindi? Or was it only in that language?

UKP: Okay. So, the hypothesis that we tested is can a predominantly voice-driven multimodal experience on a mobile device, actually bring in interventions that makes the life of certain target personas that we were looking at better? The hypothesis turned out to be absolutely true.

We picked Hindi just for exactly the same reasons that you spoke. I just want to follow up that the 615 million Hindi speakers are not… not everybody are in India. A percentile of them are outside. You know, our ex-pat community outside. But a significant amount of people are in Hindi. And yeah — Hindi is a very common language in India.

So, you know, every second person that you speak to… you know, meet up definitely is aware of Hindi. But the same things can be scaled across other languages that are non-Hindi as well. So, that would be one of the things that we want to test out as we move forward, that are like at the bare minimum, probably we’ll look at the 22 Scheduled Languages that I spoke about, or maybe we will test it out with more. Because it’s a replicable model. There’s a scale imbibed in that.

So, basically you build once and you’ll basically go and run specific sub projects because it’s just not a translator service, right? Content writing also is UX; you need to figure out information architecture, you need to figure out the ontologies, and like I said: India, the diversity that it brings, it’s not like build once and translate it into 22 languages and Hindu. And that is where the opportunity for someone who can do this at scale and the opportunity for people who actually can consume the effects of this, and actually make a living on top of it.

Jorge: Have you found any patterns that work particularly well? I mean, it sounds like 22 Scheduled Languages that’s… Even though it’s obviously a much smaller list than the 19,500 that you mentioned earlier, it’s still quite a long list. Are there any patterns that work especially well for doing this work? I mean, it just sounds… to me, it sounds overwhelming.

UKP: So yeah. One of the items… my top item for us was like, “are we just thinking and are we hallucinating that this kind of a thing is the right intervention or solution to be tested out?” And the answer turned out to be yes. The patterns are people… Okay. The other amazing, ironical, dichotomy is this: while I said that, we only have about 125 million people who can speak English, and three times that who speaks Hindi, and that most of our products and services today are actually in English, some of them do have some other Scheduled Languages being translated.

The amazing thing is using mobile interactions or digital user experience if you will, has become an acquired behavior in India. Whether it is a literate 60-year-old, illiterate 30-year-old, or a 5-year-old, across the segment, people get it. People expect certain behaviors with their digital interactions.

So, that basically told us that we don’t need to go and figure out very unique UI, UX constructs, UI patterns, or user experience ideas. And that was very, very soothing for us because people knew how to scroll. People knew how to tap. People knew all of that, and people expect a certain response from the system.

The only challenge for us then to solve and focus upon is, okay take Indian homegrown examples. I’ll take an example of direct business to consumer kind of a model, ordering food delivery, right? It’s called Swiggy. I mean, one of the largest… there are only two top players in India. One is Zomato and another one is Swiggy.

So, people know that “Hey, I want to call in food, I tap, I select this findability, I choose, I place an order and voila! I get food delivered.” Now, are they servicing… I think India has about 50,000 or six… I mean, I could be completely off, but I know it’s a humongous number. I think we have 30-40,000 different zip codes, pin codes. So, are they serving all of these zip codes? Absolutely no.

And these guys are… Swiggy as a company, is a unicorn. I mean, it’s valued at $7, 8 billion. I have to step back and look at it. They are valued at that, and simply by a function of serving to probably 10% of an Indian market or 20% tops. If they actually spread their tentacles across the hinterlands of India, just imagine the scale and the opportunity that it brings to the table.

So, the pattern… coming back to the pattern is, yes! People definitely would love to access something that they are very, very conversant with within their end result and language is very natural. The other thing that we figured out is, converting it to voice is an easy peasy one, but like I said, 22 Scheduled Languages, 121 officially recognized mother tongues. But those basically become a permutation and combination of 19,500 dialects. That is a big one. Like you said, it’s an overwhelming one. But I think there are ways and means to figure it.

The challenge that we might face is: can we actually have an app construct that actually can sense the dialect and start speaking to the person or the user in the dialect that he or she is? Theoretically, it’s possible. But I think it maybe a few more years where your usual culprits — mission, language, and AI — needs to self-learn and come there.

The other pattern is, people expect a lot of services, whether it be B2B, B2C, or citizens-to-governments or government-to-citizens and citizens-to-government also on the app. Gone are the days where everything was brick and mortar. People expect everything in their thumbs. So, yes, it has to be a mobile-first experience. Definitely because we have more mobile devices than computing devices like laptops or tablets and all of that.

You know, these three were the top three patterns that I can recall. I mean, most of them were like some anecdotes because they are! Anecdotes don’t become patterns, right? These three were some juicy propositions that we have actually identified and documented. But I’m sure as we get into… because we were just talking of one of the 22 Scheduled Languages, and I know for a fact, the minute we take a stab at the remaining 21, we will have other observations that might intersect with existing patterns or maybe add to the pattern or modify a pattern. This is the huge… Probably, this is one… we know? A project for a lifetime! But yeah, let’s see how it pans out.

Managing multi-lingual systems

Jorge: when you talked about the initiative of the Indian government, the India Enterprise Architecture Initiative, you said that it had ease of use and multilingualism among its principles, right? And what I was wondering is how that manifests in the apps that people use. Because in my mind, when you say that there are 22 Scheduled Languages, I imagine these locale-switchers like we see in websites and apps. I imagine this long locale-switcher. 22 is quite a bit, right? And what that implies to me is that the content in those systems needs to be managed in parallel if the app is going to support all 22 of those scheduled languages. Is that what it means?

UKP: Absolutely. You’re spot on. And just so you know, I hear that 22 scheduled languages itself is a lot, but simply because we have 29 states and 7 territories. Each of these states has an official language. So just do the math! Actually, it’s surprising that 29 states have only 22 Scheduled Languages simply because some of the states, simply have Hindi as their state language. Like where I come from, I come from a state called Karnataka and our state language is called Kannada, right? And it’s a fascinating story, right? So yeah, I think, 29 states and 7 territories.

Basically, there are 36 different, local governments, state governments. The United States is made up of 50 states, including Hawaii, right? India is made up of 29 such states and 7 unique territories… which basically, you know? The number is about 36. So that is the kind of diversity that we bring in.

Jorge: How would an organization go about managing that? Are they just putting people on it? Like, is it a matter of actually getting all that content translated or produced in all the languages? And then how is it kept up to date?

UKP: Yeah, brilliant question. So basically, the tenets of India Enterprise Architecture is… it’s like a Nike tagline, just two types. They basically say, “one government of citizens and businesses.” All the absolute vision and visionists, right? And basically, the focus is on first, citizens. Government-to-citizen, you know? G-to-C is what is that they’re looking at. Basically citizen-centric services. So that they want to ensure that the country is run by a government that is digital and is completely inclusive. And you know, it’s citizen-centric.

Some of the smaller countries like Singapore and the digital native and digitally mature countries have actually done it. And there is no reason why large countries like India cannot do it. I think that is one of the key objectives of a very critical ministry called the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. It has written a portfolio in the central cabinet, right?

So, what they’re saying is, you know, this India architecture framework is available for all government bodies, civic bodies and businesses also. And basically, the three things that I called out basically intersects with, their core focus areas of, you know? Basically, I picked a half a dozen core areas of impact and delivery.

They’re saying ideas should enable India as a country and the business environment in India to actually come under the tenets of governance and regulation. It will absolutely drive economic development. It will give access to civic services, 24 x 7. It will also enable social justice to people because there are a lot of misrepresented, underrepresented classes of people in India, right?

That’s definitely a burning issue here. They also want environment and the natural resources to be managed from a digital infrastructure. That caught my ears simply because if you really look at it, what they’re saying is, “let’s build this construct of a digital twin.” I mean, we are a country blessed with amazing natural resources and environmental resources. But yeah, it gets misused and used, as with the rest of the world. Can you actually build a digital mesh that actually helps you keep track of what’s happening across probably your geography, right? Probably this will take about 30, 40 years, but, the seeds have been sown and they’re very serious about it.

And the kind of people that are involved are not just bureaucrats. These are people who come from the higher echelons for civil services. They are cabinet-level ministers and the who’s-who of the industry. So, coming to the business side of things, that is where people like you and me most probably operate on. For profit businesses and academy at best. Not too many government projects come, and they are far and few.

But I think sharing and reusability, ease of use and multilingualism for me, actually, are like synonymous. The challenge is now, there is a framework that they wanted to get. And they have gone to the extent of fleshing out some eight models that are available for people to consume and actually apply. They have created the boundary conditions and frameworks for the enterprise architecture, right?

More often than not, an enterprise framework is thrown out like a thought paper or a white paper. And then people end up scratching their heads at what next. They’ve covered the “what next” also. So, they have like six, eight modules, which are like… it’s called a performance reference model, business reference model, application reference model, data reference model, tech reference model, security, integration, and governance reference models.

These clearly say what are government services. How do we disseminate these government services from the classic print and paper world to a digital world? And how do we build this and also enable people to access and retrieve on it and get the result that they want. That is where the challenge is, because each of these areas that I’m talking about comes with a lot of common sense and recognition of objects and processes and materials and actions and a lot of other things from their lens. It cannot be a spray and pray stuff.

Maybe somebody in the Northeast of India wants to access some government services. You know, their mental model of what to do and how to go about it may not be exactly the same as someone from down south where I come from. I’m just giving a hypothetical example. That would be the challenge. And that is where I fundamentally believe that it’s not just having an enterprise architecture, but I think the ontology and the taxonomy part has to be fleshed out.

I am assuming or hoping that the government will definitely look at it because some of the guys who are sitting there are pretty smart people, because if you don’t have that guiding principle of how you classify, reclassify, your taxonomies and ontologies, and actually have a framework, this will fail. Because my worry is it will simply mean that, “okay, let’s build it in English. Let’s use one of these pre-processors of smart things that are available and convert them into these 22 Scheduled Languages and actually deploy that as services that people can actually consume.”

So, funnily enough, a label that’s probably one word and probably eight characters in English can turn out to be a label in the native language two words or three words and probably 30, 40 characters. These have to be first emulated, simulated, and then you need to do it. And in my mind, the only way to do this is: let’s build the semantics. Let’s build the taxonomy and ontologies first, otherwise this is at best… it will be hubris.

Closing

Jorge: That sounds like a fantastic information architecture challenge. And hearing you talk about the challenges of doing this sort of work in such a context frankly opens my eyes to both the possibilities and the great challenges involved. Thank you for sharing with us. Now, for folks who might want to follow up with you, what’s the best place for them to look you up?

UKP: They can look me up at LinkedIn, go through my profile and all of that and feel free to connect with me. LinkedIn is something that I check in very frequently. Yeah, so my handle is uxfirst. That’s U for umbrella, X for Xerox, F-I-R-S-T. Look me up on LinkedIn and you’ll find me.

Jorge: Well, thank you UKP for sharing it with us.

UKP: Hey, thanks Jorge, for having me here.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated India has 17 territories. This was a transcription error; the correct number is 7. We apologize for the error.