Design Research can uncover rich insights about users and their behaviour, thus providing valuable feedback into the development process in order to make design more intuitive.
Aishvarya Gopalakrishnan, our next pathbreaker, UX Researcher, works with organizations to design better experiences for their customers by understanding the users of their product or service.
Aishvarya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the growing importance of User Experience Design in businesses which led her to a career in UX research.
For students, good UX design comes from research, that is, understanding what drives people’s actions, and translating those insights into better experiences for end users. Go for it if you are interested in working at the intersection of Social Sciences, Psychology and Humanities !
Aishvarya, Your background?
I grew up in Chennai, India, and majored in Biology in my high school. I guess I was always fascinated with the human body and its intricacies. My second favorite subject in school was English.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
After I graduated from school, I went on to pursue English Literature from Ethiraj College for Women, Egmore, Chennai. My passion for the arts shined through during my three wonderful years at college where I served in the student council and held other leadership positions. Whenever an opportunity knocked my door, I took it up, and when it did not, I went looking for them.
I went on to pursue my master’s in Business Administration (Communication Management) with specialization in Public Relations from Symbiosis International University.
I also did a second masters at University of Canterbury (New Zealand) in Human Interface Technology.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
My manager at my first job at Intellect Design introduced me to UX. And then I did my own work which involved a lot of research, connecting with people and reading which helped me.
My transition to a research career was very unconventional. I personally don’t think that you need to have specific academic qualifications to be a researcher, although a social science or a psychology background helps!
Though I have a communications and marketing background, I had all the qualities of a UX/Design researcher which got me where I am today. Honestly, a few years ago when I was looking to make a transition to the UX space, there was hardly any information available for people like me wanting to make the move, because UX, and especially research, was uncommon. But now, there’s a lot of resources available online, and several online platforms that connect people early in their career to mentors in the design space.
During my master’s, my research supervisors were my mentors. In Australia, when I began taking up freelance contract work in agencies, all my managers were very helpful. It was really hard to break into UX in the Australian market, so I am thankful to those who gave me the opportunity.
I attend a lot of UX-related meet-ups (virtual and in-person), and conferences when I can afford them.
My first job at Intellect Design was my turning point. I saw how a product company worked, and the importance given to UX and design. It sparked a curiosity in me about the value of research.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I began my career working for Intellect Design, a Chennai-based FinTech product organization with offices worldwide. I joined the communications team, but soon actively involved myself in digital marketing and branding initiatives of the organization. My manager at that point was setting up Intellect’s first UX team. The UX team designed interfaces for various consumer banking products. That’s when I began thinking about the value user research could add in enhancing mobile app or web experiences. Banking and finance is an exciting industry to be in, especially now that they are investing heavily in design and research.
I was curious to know what drove people’s actions and behaviors, and what motivated them. I wanted to expand my knowledge in research, hence, I decided to pursue a research-based masters. I explored one-year master programs in Australia predominantly. That’s when I chanced upon a program in New Zealand at the Human Interface Technology Labs in Christchurch. It drew my attention because it was an independent research program with 90 credit points assigned to a thesis based on research and 30 credit points to course work. I took up Design, Evaluation, Prototyping and Processing as the courses which really helped me in my research as well. Academic research really threw me at the deep end but was extremely useful and valuable to me as a researcher. I would say this was an unconventional program which was a little expensive. I did not receive any funding for my research, so I applied for student loans. I have no regrets!
After my master’s I went to India for my wedding and got stranded there due to Covid border closures. It was serendipitous that I found a role as a UX Strategist at Eduzo, an EdTech platform. Incidentally, my master’s research was also around EdTech.
At Eduzo, I worked closely with the Founder and an Academic Researcher from Stanford University in developing research plans. Eduzo is an AR-based EdTech platform catering to students of K-12. They are still in the development phase, and their vision is to supply cutting edge AR tech-based product that aligns with users’ interests. Eduzo’s focus is the user which is why as a UX-er, my work was very important.
I finally moved to Australia in November 2020 and quit my job at Eduzo in February.
I took up a few freelance contracting stints as a Design Researcher to gain some experience in a new region. I worked for agencies with multiple clients on different projects. It expanded my perspective and opened my eyes to the importance of research.
The projects I worked on were mostly qualitative in nature. I was surprised to see several organizations working with agencies to understand their customers and users. One interesting project I worked on was with a 100% plastic-free nappy manufacturing start-up. I joined them at their customer discovery phase, and got to interview several mothers new and second-time, about their buying behaviors and brand preferences. The data we got out of the research was so insightful and helped the business with some key decision making.
How did you get your first break?
I only knew that I wanted to do research, but I had no idea what kind of research I wanted to do. I got a fair idea when I was in New Zealand doing my second masters. So, I attended conferences, spoke to people in the design and UX space, read a lot of articles and simply looked at job openings on LinkedIn, although I wasn’t actively applying for jobs.
So when I moved to Australia, I had a fair idea of what skills recruiters and hiring managers were looking for when I began looking for full-time roles. I customized my resume and cover letters for each job application.
Networking, although this might not necessarily work in all countries, is very important in Australia. I actually reached out to a person via LinkedIn who posted about a job for a Design Researcher. She was in fact the Founder of the start-up she was looking to hire for. I sent her a personal message, and although she was looking for someone more advanced in their career, she wanted to talk to me in person about my skills and experiences.
So, I met her and walked her through my background and where I saw myself in the future. I guess she was impressed and hired me for a short-term contract role at the start-up. That’s how I landed my first job in the Design Research space.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: I am an introvert, so actually networking with people on LinkedIn or in events felt strange to me. But I let go of my anxiety and began socializing a lot more than what I am comfortable with. I think networking in this industry is most important, not just to land a job but also to know the trends and where the opportunities are.
Challenge 2: The opportunities in the research space are only a handful. So, it’s important you are in the right place at the right time. I feel like a lot of Design/UX research roles have a lot to do with design as opposed to research itself which is a bummer! Organizations still have not uncovered the value of research. The research maturity is very low in India, and even in the ANZ region.
Challenge 3: You are likely to get an opportunity if you have a portfolio, and that’s very difficult for those who are looking to start a career in design research or those making a transition. It’s important that you highlight your transferable skills in the portfolio that would make it look like you are qualified to be a researcher.
Where do you work now?
I currently work for HSBC as a UX Researcher. This will be HSBC’s first ever UX Researcher-hire in their UX journey in the ANZ region.
How does your work benefit society?
To be in research, you have to be passionate about it, otherwise, it can get boring. Research is very exciting to me personally because we are constantly uncovering insights about users and taking the feedback back into the design process.
Research helps us understand the users of a product or service, thereby enabling the organization to design better experiences for the end users. This in turn not only benefits the organization as it saves a lot of money, but it also benefits consumers like you and me.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
A work that’s close to me is my master’s research project because it was on a topic that’s close to my heart. My thesis was on assessing the use of Immersive Environments to Prepare Teachers to Address Challenging Behaviors from Students. For my research, I designed a system in virtual reality where teachers can practice classroom management which will potentially minimize anxiety when they enter a real classroom. And the prototype I built is being used in an actual school in Christchurch, NZ.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Read, read and read. Students are so lucky these days to have so many resources available to them. Also please build your portfolio, even if you do not have design research work to show. Know the skills that people in the industry look for, and focus on highlighting those skills in the portfolio.
Keep learning every single day, collaborate and co-create with people around me, and make a solid difference through research.