Good, meaningful and thoughtful design should not only help people achieve what they want to do, but also create experiences that are simple, productive and seamless for the end user !

Harshavardhan Sushant, Applied Anthropologist & User Experience Researcher, interacts with the end-users, as well as collaborates with different professionals in the company, ranging from software engineers to product managers, marketing teams, and designers to design technology that meets the end user’s needs and expectations.

Harshavardhan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about Anthropology standing out as a career choice because it combined his interests in technology along with human centered design focused on people, society, and culture.

For students, if you enjoy the process of conducting ethnographic research, understanding people, their culture, background and aspirations and relish the idea of incorporating their needs through holistic design, this is the career for you !

Harsha, Your background?

As my father used to handle sales and logistics of tractor vehicles, my family used to relocate to several different cities in India during my early childhood. I spent most of my childhood in Mumbai and Chennai.

My father grew up in a town in Coimbatore, and came from an impoverished background. I have heard several stories of how he possessed a fierce zeal to lift his family out of poverty. Similarly, my mother hailed from a fairly impoverished background in Mumbai. 

So, looking back, I can say that it was driven into me to take education seriously and make a mark for myself in the world. Both my parents and my Guru played a central role in my career because they always told me to pursue something I was passionate about. Despite our family background, they encouraged me to pick whichever field I wished so that I would excel at it. 

English, both the language and literature, was something that I loved ever since I was a kid! I was never a hallmark student. I hardly ever ranked first. I never put much effort into studying either. I would instead want to play video games, read books, or do something else … anything else, but homework and studies! Yet, English was one of those few subjects at which I always consistently performed well. I realized that I dearly loved the subject, and, so, thanks to support from my parents and Guru, I went on to take up Advanced English in the 11th and 12th (in the ICSE syllabus). Back then, I was considering becoming a writer or a teacher – any career that I could pursue using my English background.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I pursued a Bachelor’s in Anthropology (Liberal Arts) at the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts in Pune. This experience proved to be life-changing! During my first year of college, there was a career orientation event that the professors organized. It was there that I got to know the different subjects that I could pursue in college. Anthropology stood out to me, as it captivated all of my interests in people, society, and culture. So, events unfolded such that I took up Anthropology as my major, and English Literature as my minor in college.

My Guru played a singularly pivotal role throughout my life because Swamiji always supported my interest in English and Anthropology. During these formative years of mine, we would discuss topics that were covered in class and then go beyond. We would discuss how these subjects connected to the real world! It would always be a joy to talk to Swamiji because I would come away with renewed enthusiasm for these subjects! I would then eagerly pore over my books and absorb whatever knowledge they had to offer.

During college, I had several assignments, where I had to do primary and secondary research. However, my first major foray into Anthropological/ethnographic research was in my final year when I contributed to the Yamuna Nagar applied research project at SSLA. It was a project that was started in 2015-16 by the Anthropology professor, Dr. Shweta Sinha Deshpande, with the goal of long-term partnership between my college, SSLA and the slum community. At a very broad level, anthropological research can be conducted in different domains – business, marketing, law etc. This particular project was situated in the field of community-based action research (CbAR). The research approach was bottom-up in the sense that we did not formulate any hypotheses ourselves. We went to the community and asked them about their circumstances, needs and aspirations in order to develop a comprehensive understanding of actions that can help support the community. As part of one of my courses on Applied Anthropology, my classmates and I contributed to this project. Then, during my final module of my Anthropology major, I chose to continue the research effort through an independent research project. In the first half of the project, my classmates and I identified three main areas that the community wished for support – food & nutrition, English and computer literacy, and WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene). In the independent research project, I dived deeper into these needs to unravel insights which led to key recommendations for each of these measures. The outcome of my independent research was a CSR report, a short-film, which was intended to attract financial and development aid to the community.

As I was balancing classes with this research project, I would spend whatever time I had both on weekdays and weekends at the slum conducting interviews and observing the way people lived life there. I discovered that I highly enjoyed the process of conducting ethnography, and understanding people who hailed from different backgrounds. So, it was a rather straightforward decision to study it further while exploring different career opportunities. I decided to go to the University of Amsterdam (UvA) to study a Master’s in Anthropology as I was interested in Applied Anthropology, which was a specialization that was offered there. Moreover, the university was ranked in the top 50 across the world for Anthropology.

This degree was a theory-based, highly research-intensive, one-year programme. The end outcome was supposed to be an exhaustive Master’s thesis on any research topic of my choice. Hence, the entire research plan, design and logistics was left to me. In fact, during my admission process at UvA, I was expected to provide research topics that interested me, and explain how I planned to conduct the research. Although the entire research project was left to me, one requirement was that I had to partner with any group or organization and contribute to their goals. This requirement was placed on me as I was pursuing Applied Anthropology, a field that is focused on making tangible impacts in the world through anthropological research. It so happened that my research advisor knew of an organization called Mirabeau, that was working in the field of Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR), which was one of the topics I had expressed interest in too. Hence, it was through the connections of my Anthropology department that I was introduced to the organization where I would later conduct my internship and work towards my Master’s thesis

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

After graduating from high school, or 12th std., I was applying to a variety of colleges. Some programmes were focused on a Bachelor’s in English Literature, while others were broad, liberal arts programmes. I was interested in the liberal arts curriculum because of its emphasis on both generalization and specialization. Liberal Arts programmes are often 4-year programmes, where the first year is meant to simply explore personal interests through elective courses and extracurriculars. I only had to decide my specializations (major and minor subjects) at the end of my first year.

I had heard about such liberal arts programmes through some educational seminars organized during my 11th and 12th. Then, when I was offered admission to SSLA (Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts), I took it up because I liked the flexibility they offered. I could choose majors and minors from a variety of subjects, and even pick a double major, and one minor, which was unheard of in most other Indian colleges. As mentioned earlier, before the end of my first year, during a career-orientation event that was held in SSLA, I heard about Anthropology. It captivated my imagination because it was similar to English Literature in the emphasis that it had on society. As I had to pick two subjects, one as a major and one as a minor, I initially picked Anthropology as my minor and English Literature as my major. Then, during my second year, I loved Anthropology so much that I converted it into my major and decided to do my minor in English Literature.

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

My approach to arriving at my present career largely had to do with the process of elimination. I had so many different ideas in the final year of college. Even after shortlisting my interests, I was still thinking of a few different paths – international aid & development, an education policy-maker, researcher in a non-anthropology field (such as neuroscience, genetics, or astrobiology), an Anthropology/English professor, and an Applied Anthropologist (which basically meant working in any field outside academia, such as business, marketing tech etc.)

Looking back, I had an affinity towards research. I voraciously read online and watched different videos about these careers. I also spoke to several people who knew about these fields. The important conversations that I had were with my undergrad Anthropology professor, Dr. Shweta Sinha Deshpande, my close family and cousins, and my Guru.

I also did a lot of self-introspection during college so that by the time I graduated I realized that I had a strong passion for technology! This was an important epiphany because I used to always tinker with computers, phones, and video games in my childhood. It never occurred to me until then that I could work in the tech industry with a background in research and the social sciences. So, I took the courage to ask myself, ‘Can I use this passion for technology and make it a career?’

At this point of time, I was already reading up about Anthropologists working in the tech industry. I found out about some amazing professionals in the field, and learnt that there is a discipline called User Experience (UX) Research that requires a strong background in research, and a curiosity about people. This field captured my imagination because it was a perfect mix of my skill sets, passion and interest. Soon after that, I decided that while I studied a Master’s in Anthropology, I would simultaneously explore this career of UX Research.

In terms of career trajectory, my first internship after college was at Mirabeau, a digital design agency in Amsterdam. I was a Design Research intern, and the nature of the internship was exploratory research. It was not tied to any particular product or project. Both the agency and I were curious about how an emerging set of technologies called Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) were being used in the real world. Mirabeau wished to learn about this so they could create market-informed AR and VR prototypes for their clients (such as AirFrance, Philips etc.) During the course of the internship, I did a cross-comparative study on two user-groups: AR and VR headset-users, and smartphone AR users. In the end, I contributed to Mirabeau by sharing my insights through multiple presentations. I also wrote a magazine article for them, where I documented the state of AR and VR at the time and provided some key recommendations for utilizing the potential of AR and VR. If you would like to learn more about this project, the findings, and recommendations, please visit my LinkedIN page, where I have uploaded an article as well as described this internship in the work experience section!

After this internship, and finishing my Master’s, I returned to India and was searching for work in UX Research. I was sure I wanted to gain experience in this particular field. Thanks to a recommendation by my cousin, I found out about Redd Experience Design, a design consultancy in Bangalore founded by Sharan Grandigae. I found out about the wonderful work that Sharan and his team were doing, and contacted Sharan about my interest to work in UX Research. That paved the way for an internship as a UX Designer at Redd. Although it was a design, not a research internship, I took it up because I did not have any other tangible opportunity at the time. Moreover, in UX, design and research go hand in hand; so, I decided that it would be useful to gain experience in an allied field. My goal was to learn more about UX design, while, simultaneously, trying to do some research at Redd. I am very grateful for the opportunity because I was able to practice relevant design skills like wireframing and prototyping, and conducted some secondary user research too!

While interning at Redd, it again became clear to me that I wanted to specialize in UX Research. So, I kept an eye on opportunities, and soon landed a job at PeepalDesign, Bangalore

How did you get your first break?

My first job at PeepalDesign, Bangalore, was made possible thanks to an acquaintance I had met at the UXIndia conference, 2019, in Hyderabad. This acquaintance, Nikita Chandawale, is one of the kindest, most hardworking researchers I have ever met! This chance encounter with her was another important incident in my life because she took the time to explain how UX Research functions in India. Moreover, she introduced me to the research manager at PeepalDesign, which allowed me to land an interview there.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Deciding which interest & passion to make into a career. I had so many ideas and interests that I was unsure what exactly to pursue after my Bachelor’s. I successfully resolved it by talking to various people, researching the different career paths that interested me, and through self-introspection. The process of elimination allowed me to pick one clear career out of all my ideas that I wished to try out

Challenge 2: Anthropology background. Unlike someone with a background in engineering, computers, or the sciences, I had no concrete career path ahead of me. Further, I did my undergraduation from a young college; my batch was only the third batch of students to graduate. So, I neither had any concrete support from campus placements, nor any Anthropology seniors that were already working. I managed to overcome this challenge due to the sheer belief that I would rather make my own career, than follow the herd. Thankfully, it turned out that my interest & skills in technology and research matched well with an existing career called UX Research, about which I found out online

Challenge 3: Gaining work experience as a fresher is never easy. It was certainly not easy for someone like me who had such an unconventional background. The decision to study my Master’s in Amsterdam was hugely helpful because it broadened my perspective. The Anthropology department there was very helpful in providing guidance for my thesis and applied internship. Thanks to the connections of the department, I came to know of Mirabeau, and was introduced to the organization’s Creative Director, Henk Haaima. Henk and I immediately struck a chord during our initial conversation, and that landed me my first internship. Ever since that internship, I tried to build off of the experience, and maintained a portfolio of my work.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve as an anthropologist?

I currently work as a User Experience (UX) Researcher. My most recent job was at PeepalDesign, which is a full-service design and research agency.

In a nutshell, UX Research is all about deeply understanding peoples’ interactions with, and attitudes toward, technology. The ultimate objective is to make sure that apps, websites, and any other piece of technology is designed in such a way that it meets users’ expectations and needs. 

Over the years, UX Research has found that people, or users, generally want technology to be very simple to use. They want to find information and do what they want with the technology instantly. They also expect that the overall experience interacting with the piece of technology is pleasurable and meaningful. These findings are extremely helpful to any organization or individual that designs apps, websites, or any piece of software because if they can design pleasurable and meaningful experiences, then they can be assured that their users will keep coming back to them. They can also rest assured that the users will be less likely to switch over to rival competitors.

What are the skills required for an anthropologist?

The skills required for this job largely surround an incessant curiosity about, and empathy for, people. Without empathy, it is very easy to design technology that the people don’t want and won’t care for. From a more concrete, tangible viewpoint, a person interested in pursuing the field of UX Research would require both knowledge and experience implementing various research methodologies. Further, they would need to have strong interpersonal skills because UX Researchers not only interact with the end-users, but also collaborate with different professionals at their company, ranging from software engineers to product managers, marketing teams, and designers.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day for me at PeepalDesign involved intensive juggling of responsibilities. I would be coordinating recruitment of participants/end-users on one project, while conducting fieldwork where I would be talking to end-users on another project. Then on other days, I would be analysing the findings and writing reports, while discussing the research plan for the next project/s with my clients.

Although a day in my life may sound hectic, it is definitely manageable. What keeps me going is the sheer love for the field. UX Research, essentially, helps design technologies for a pain-free, stress-free life. On the one hand, I love observing people and understanding what makes them tick. On the other hand, I look forward to generating an impact through these findings. Large numbers of users, sometimes amounting to millions of people all over the world, are impacted by even the smallest of changes in the way apps and websites are designed. So, at multiple points of time, when I am talking to end-users, or when I get to witness the impact of my work, it leaves me feeling fulfilled!

How does your work benefit society? 

As with so many things in life, technology brings with it both good and bad. On the one hand, technology has enabled unprecedented connectivity, prosperity, and growth to the world. However, on the other hand, a knock off effect is the unprecedented reliance on technology that we have developed. Smartphones, in particular, cause several disturbances in our lives – they often create rifts in our family and social lives, disturb our sleep, and demoralize us through social media, to name only a few ill-effects. It is true that we, as individuals, have to be vigilant about practicing good, healthy behaviour while interacting with technology. However, I believe that there is an equal responsibility on the tech industry, and all its workers, to ensure that they do their very best to design technologies in healthy, meaningful ways. Technology must be designed in a manner that encourages people to establish a healthy relationship with their phones, apps, and other technologies. 

Good, meaningful, thoughtful user-experiences should not only help people achieve what they want. It should also keep the exit door highly visible and easily discoverable so that people can just as easily quit their apps and put down their phones when they are done. By working as a UX Researcher, I firmly believe that I can contribute to creating technology that is designed in more healthy, meaningful ways

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

My internship at Mirabeau, Amsterdam was memorable because it was my first hands-on experience conducting a research study on technology. Further, it was about an emerging group of technologies that I am very interested in, namely Augmented and Virtual Reality.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Here are some pieces of advice that I wish I knew when I was still a student

1. Choosing a career is like going shopping for yourself

I like to think that choosing a career is like going to buy clothes for myself because both are difficult, at least for me. I have to know whether I want jeans, a shirt, a T-shirt, or all three. Then there are so many other decisions to take. Say, I want to buy jeans. Well, should it be plain or frayed? Black or blue? Slim fit, regular, or narrow stretch?

So, how do I figure out which pair of jeans to buy? Cost, color, fit, brand …? When I started to think about it, I realized that choosing a pair of jeans, or taking any major decision in life boiled down to one simple fact – priorities.

Knowing our own priorities does not come easily to everyone. But, if you can understand them, you understand yourself a little better, and, as a result, are able to choose a fulfilling career

2. It’s okay to NOT have a clear career mapped out when you were 3 years old

Unfortunately, in India there is a pressure to know everything as a kid, and then to do a running race from LKG all the way to high school, college, and then obtain a PhD, just for good measure. Throughout my childhood, I was always compared with kids who just knew what they wanted to be

Don’t fret if you don’t know where you’re headed. If you’re determined to figure out which career will best suit you, you’ll unravel the perfect career FOR YOU

3. There is no universal perfect career

There’s so much ‘gyaan’ or advice out there about finding THE career, that as a college student I sometimes worried myself to death. For instance, “What if doing X does not earn enough money? What if doing Y earned more money?”

It’s only much later in life that I realized that every single career will have it’s pros and cons. Whether it’s a cricketer, or a software engineer, no matter how glamorous the career, and what other people say about it, there will always, always, ALWAYS be pros and cons. And, the grass does look greener from the other side.

Regarding this point, I’ll leave you with one thought – If you are more-than-average interested in a field, then you are passionate enough to take it up as a career, and that’ll be the perfect one FOR YOU!

4. Try out different careers!

You would try out different clothes before buying them right? Why not careers? Gone are the days when our parents used to stick it out in one job at a single organization for their whole lifetime!

Don’t be afraid to do multiple internships, or even different jobs. In the end, maybe you’ll find one career that you want to stick with. Then, all you have to do is connect the dots and explain to potential employers how the variety of experiences has enriched and uniquely trained you for the career you choose.

If you don’t find a single career to stick with, that’s okay too. We live in what’s called a gig economy these days anyway! So, I’d strongly urge you to explore that idea.

I want to make sure that this advice applies to students and readers of all backgrounds and circumstances, whether social, economic, or anything else. So, I think it’s important to discuss some other topics too – ‘What if I don’t have the luxury of continuously trying out different things? What if I want to pursue a single career that’s both fulfilling, and earns well?’ If that describes your situation, then try to think about your biggest passions (in the plural, not singular). Go back to your childhood and think about the things that excited you. Which ones still continue to excite you? Of all of them, if there’s one field or area or thing that you are more-than-average passionate about, or you would regret NOT pursuing, then that’s the thing that you’ll want to choose for your career

Future Plans?

I am but a drop in this vast ocean of professionals and experts in the field of UX and related fields like usability and human-centered design. I hope to keep learning and growing as a UX researcher!