Several stellar products and services in the past have failed the ultimate litmus test – Market Acceptance. The lessons are clear, market adoption is built on foundations of User Centric Design, backed by thorough Design Research through insights on user behaviour.

Harshada Desai, our next pathbreaker, works with clients to identify new and missed market opportunities by helping them understand their end users better in terms of their culture, context and choices. 

Harshada talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about how her interest in understanding people and their cultural influences led her to become a qualitative researcher, to make design more impactful.

For students, Design research is all about exploring the human element and trying to understand why we do what we do. Take it up If you are interested in applying concepts of Psychology, Sociology, Ethnography to Design thinking !

Harshada, tell us about your background?

I had a very interesting childhood. I am what I would call a product of globalization, a third culture kid. My father is a Maharashtrian, mother a Goan with some Kannada influence. I was born in India, raised in Cairo, Egypt, spent some time in a British boarding school in South India, went to college in Glasgow and now live in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. My journey continues, I am sure this is not my final destination. So, from the very beginning, I was raised in an extremely diverse, multicultural, multilingual environment. This helped me develop a sensibility for understanding people, their cultural influences and become a keen listener of stories that people tell based on their experiences. So it is not a surprise that I am currently a practicing qualitative researcher, specializing in cultural traits of users. My favourite part of the job is listening to people’s stories and understanding where they come from. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

As a child I thought I would become an artist. My mother (a creative person herself) encouraged me tremendously by getting me crayons, colour pencils, paints, various kinds of paper etc. When it came to choosing a subject for graduation I had to re-assess my love for Fine Arts. I wanted to study something that could give me a career (in a more conventional sense), so I thought of studying design instead. Graphic Design would have made sense at that point as it has a good mix of fine art and design, but when my parents made me take an aptitude test we found out that I was more apt for something like Product Design. So I decided to study Product Design. Luckily while I was studying product design I got interested in humanities and social science through an academic research department that had encouraged us to study the societal and cultural influences on design. Simultaneously the head of my department in design school was a Sociologist who encouraged us to learn Ethnography from practicing professionals. So being surrounded by sociologists, academic researchers, ethnographers and taking lessons from them has influenced many of my career decisions. 

When I was in high school there were only a handful of design colleges in India. There was NID, Sristhi and MIT, Pune. My parents used to take me to NID and other emerging colleges every summer of high school. They wanted me to see the colleges, get to know the faculty and the kind of work they were doing etc. In each of these places I could not visualise myself there. Throughout the interview I might talk a lot about visualisation a lot. I think you need to be able to see your life in places, in situations and that visual must be the very best day dream that you can imagine. Only then can you focus and meet your life’s purpose. This is also how I ended up in Glasgow. When I was about 7 or 8 my grandfather went to Glasgow to visit a friend. While he was there he was so impressed with the entire public education system that he came back with a bag full of college pamphlets and brochures for me. When he handed me that bag, I remember his words till this day, he said “If you get a chance you must attend one of these colleges”. I followed this dream and chose Glasgow. Also Glasgow School of Art has a very unique history and legacy. It is one of the oldest art and design schools of the world set up by the famous Art Nouveau artist and architect Charles Mackintosh and his wife and sisters were all in the forefront of art and design in the UK. But more importantly, dreams and vision should be followed up with some rational. So I read about the course and syllabus, watched videos and read reviews of alumni and spent a lot of time at the British Library where they have catalogues of many UK colleges over the years. So I went through the old and latest course catalogues etc. before absolutely being sure about my choice. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

One of my key influencers is my father. He is a mechanical engineer and as a child I used to spend time with him on his site where he would explain to me how machines would operate. I guess my interest in product design really started from there. In college the head of the Product Design department who was a sociologist was a big influence and his guidance in looking at design from a humanities perspective helped me see in practice how social sciences can be put to use for better design. My childhood favorite activity of listening to stories of people who came from other cultures only grew stronger as I grew older and that is when I made the switch from industrial design to design research. 

My parents were extremely crucial in helping me make career and graduation choices. Both my parents are believers of acquiring knowledge and learning. They always say if you are confused or do not know what to do try to learn as much as you can about the situation. The knowledge will guide you to make decisions. 

Tell us about your career path

Impact Arts is one of the biggest social enterprise in Scotland. They use art and design as a medium to help young adults. In university I took a module on service/social design. As part of this module I had the opportunity to work with Impact Arts.

This was my first experience where I got to see how research, design and social work can come together to make effective change in a community. One can say this was a service design project. Impact Arts, is a social enterprise in Scotland that uses art media such as carpentry, landscaping, upcycling fashion, music etc. to get youth between 18-24 to get apprenticeship while overall positively changing their life and their community. My work with them as a design researcher was to study one of their oldest programs called FabPad, understand how it was being delivered and the bigger social sector ecosystem that it was part of. This program was so old that it was no longer creating the kind of impact on youth lives as it used to. Alongside I spent time with team members and the benefactors of the program to understand each of their visions and expectations. All the things that I learnt from these interactions were then used to design an upgraded program that was more relevant, meaningful for all involved. 

This project really opened up my world, because all of a sudden I got to see how design can be used in so many ways rather than just making pretty stuff. This intangible and infinite possibility of design think was exciting for me. It also made me see the value of listening to others, putting aside your biases and designing something that others are going to like, even if you may not necessarily like it.. This project, in many ways, was like my foundation. When in doubt I think about it and then try to think how I can do 100 times better than what I did for that project. 

In all honesty, there was no thought process when I joined Ogilvy & Mathers as a creative intern in-between my college semester. I love learning and just wanted to experience as much as I could. Even today sometimes I do things just to experience it. I believe each experience teaches you something and whatever you learn can never go to waste. 

I received a scholarship to attend Glasgow School of Art from a private benefactor. I received exceptional grades in high school. Going to Glasgow to study was my aim, so I was ready to do anything for it. I worked extremely hard in school, planning each hour of my day so it contributed positively towards my goal. In the British school system we have board exams every year for 4 years. So during those 4 years of high school, I had my blinkers on. I had made a mood board that I had put up above my desk and that is where I wanted to be. 

I started by doing a job at a start-up in Mumbai called Germin8. That was a data analytics firm. I joined it hoping that I would get to delve into the future of “research”. However, that did not happen and I had a visual of how research should be done for better design direction, so I decided to leave the job and pursue that vision by myself. Till this day I am pursuing that vision and keep polishing it. Today, The Observatory (my firm) has a fine balance between an academic research process and the creativity needed for design. 

When I left my job, I really did not have a plan. I don’t suggest anyone do that before leaving their job and jumping straight into consulting. But I had enough conviction to follow the vision, which was a process by which research could be used for better design  

How did you get your first break?

Through a friend who showed great faith in me and my work, even though I did not have a big portfolio to showcase as a consultant. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Pitching – how does one create a deck or a presentation that showcases your work in such a way that clients see the real value in it. 

Challenge 2:  Networking – Since I did not go to school or college in India I did not have an existing network through which I could get projects. So I had to start by spending a lot of time networking through events, platforms like LinkedIn

Challenge 3 Fees – No one ever teaches you on how you can charge or negotiate for your salary. As a consultant I had to learn this first. 

Can you tell us about your current work?

A client can have many “problems”, such as wanting to design an e-rickshaw but not knowing what kind of features he/she must include in the design. Or a client may want to know how Indian youth define ‘having a career’ and how they use social media to make career choices. Or clients may want to know how children visualize their own learning in the future. So in essence, qualitative research or design research can help clients identify missed opportunities for interventions, or help to understand their users better to make them more suitable or want to acquire knowledge of their target audience’s culture and choices. 

What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?

The key for me is communication. All researchers that have to connect with and talk to people must develop effective communication skills. If you can articulate what you feel and think effectively then the better you become in not being misunderstood and creating conflict. The last thing you want while conducting research with people is to be misunderstood or come across as brash. The other skill one must have is listening. If you are a good listener then you will understand far more than just the words that are being said. Which will make you analyse research responses much better. The only way to develop these skills is by practice and being mindful. Keep a diary, make notes of the opportunities you missed in the day to practice these skills. 

What is a typical day like?

I start my day early. Always cook my own lunch to take to the office (we sit together to eat everyday).I am at work by 10am. I spend the mornings planning. I make extensive lists of all my tasks and break down each task into smaller packets, this helps me not to procrastinate and I give myself small reward breaks every 2 hours for 15 minutes. These 15 minutes are mine only and I make sure I am not disturbed. I also plan my day in such a way that I can be at home by 6:30pm to exercise and eat a healthy dinner. Sometimes, of course you have to make exceptions but I try to eat healthy, drink a lot of water and exercise. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I love the complexity of working in India. It sounds clichéd when I say India has a wide demographic that makes the simplest of tasks and research questions complex. But that is what I love! I call it brain food. 

How does your work benefit society? 

In my perspective, if I am able to make each of my research projects human-centric, ethical and mindful of the implications then it means there are more social sector programs and commercial products that are more human-centric. Thus the more human centric my work is, the more human centric products we have in the society that means everyone gets a chance to experience design that is more meaningful to them and brings them more joy. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

In November I had the chance to visit Bihar and Jharkhand and interact with government school students. We did a pilot with these students where they had to make short films about themselves using mobile phones. I spent four whole days with these kids and they really touched my heart! What I loved about them, and something I will never forget, is how there is no right or wrong, there is only imagination and hope.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Soon after your Bachelors if you know what you would like to specialize in then take that step and do your Masters. Do a lot of research on the subject that you wish to study and learn more about it. If possible intern, it will help you set more realistic expectations for your field and career.

Future Plans?

As a trained designer and as a consultant who helps businesses identify opportunities through human-centred research I look forward to becoming a successful business woman myself. This year I registered my qualitative/ design research consulting agency, I also have a start-up (in partnership) that is to be launched soon called SteamDaily. Following that I am going to launch a women-led community called “When Women Talk”.  So really looking forward to all of this.