Designing products for users with chronic health conditions is not just about technology but also about understanding their intrinsic motivations and being sensitive to their daily needs !
Sreya Ahuja, our next pathbreaker, Healthcare Designer at Sugar.fit, leads design at the start-up that develops products for managing Type 2 Diabetes and PreDiabetes in India.
Sreya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being drawn to the field of healthcare design in order to create holistic, human-centered and simple solutions based on the interplay between technology and creativity !
For students, as lifestyle diseases increase in India, design will play a key role in making healthcare more accessible and impactful !
Sreya, what were your early years like?
I grew up in the small, yet cosmopolitan town of Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. I went to a Jesuit school there, where my subject combination for my plus two years were Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Biology.
I was always extremely interested in science, but at the same time, was deeply involved in the arts. I was in art school before I even learnt the alphabet. I immersed myself in any and all forms of art where one could express themselves – painting, poetry, dance.
I always loved dabbling in a lot of extracurriculars and was the editor of our school magazine, a part of the student council, the girl’s house captain taking part in a bunch of sports, part of the debating club and more. I graduated high school with an award for the best outgoing student of my batch.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my graduation in Design. I received a Bachelor’s of Design degree in User Experience Design from Symbiosis Institute of Design, Pune. I worked at Samsung R&D for two years and then went on to pursue my Master’s. I did my Master’s in Research in Healthcare and Design from Royal College of Art, London, and Imperial College, London.
What were some of the factors that led you on such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career path?
This is an interesting question. To be honest, it wasn’t a very straightforward path. Like a lot of teens, I went through several career options as I was growing up – every few years, I’d be interested in something seemingly new.
I initially wanted to be a criminal lawyer – that was when I was about 13. That changed to wanting to be in forensics by the time I was 15. Being super fascinated by biology and having an interest in the other sciences, it was an obvious choice for me to take up PCMB as my subject combination for my plus two years. But that was also when I realized I had to select a path to study for college and beyond, and start prepping for it. So I did a little research and realized that if I had to be in forensics, I’d first have to be a doctor – which meant prepping for the MBBS entrances.
A year into the prep, I realized that while I loved Biology, I didn’t feel enthusiastic about being a doctor. I could tell my parents I didn’t want to be a doctor – but I’d have to tell them what I wanted to do instead. That’s when I had to actually introspect and understand what I could do instead.
I tried to break-down all of my interests and see what the essence of those interests were – was it psychology that pulled me towards criminal law? What about forensics? What did I like about medicine? And what about art? Was that supposed to just be a hobby?
I wanted to be in a place where I could be involved in some level of science, and emerging technology, not be too far from biology and have a side of creativity.
After an entire month of research and a lot of turmoil, I had decided on design as my path forward. I spoke to my elder brother who was studying abroad at the time and was more aware of different career options; I looked up colleges in India that had design courses that I could be interested in and what their admission requirements would be, and then had a talk with my parents.
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 think I’m still on my path to getting the career I want, but am also in an amazing space right now and could not be more stoked about it.
When I started with design school, it wasn’t the best design school in the country – and this went beyond rankings and also impacted the quality of education. We had a lot of basics of design being taught across the first two years of college and it never felt stimulating enough. I was fortunate to have an amazing professor join in my third year. He taught us for 2 years and I think that changed a lot of who I was. He made me push myself a lot more; he had just the right amount of tough love and motivation – he made me find the intersection of biology and design that I didn’t know I was looking for.
I did a bunch of healthcare related projects in college- I worked on a project for people with bipolar disorders, created a non-intrusive blood glucose monitor and built a couple of wearables.
I did not immediately start working in healthcare and design. This combination of fields is still not well recognized in the Indian job industry. I had an internship with Think Design over one summer and that’s when I realized the agency life wasn’t for me. I knew I needed to be part of a product company. It was also essential to bring in some pedigree to my resume since I wasn’t from a Tier 1 design college. That’s when I tested my theory with my internship at Samsung R&D, Bangalore. Our college also did not have a great placements cell at the time, so I applied for whatever jobs and internships I wanted over LinkedIn.
Thankfully, my work at Samsung R&D was considered good enough to be offered a pre-placement offer. I was also lucky to find an amazing mentor in the industry while at Samsung R&D. I worked on a bunch of projects while at Samsung R&D that ranged from India specific projects to global ones. It was a great opportunity to learn the ropes of how the industry worked in a global setting, over the 2 years I spent at Samsung.
My work at Samsung ranged across various niches. I took projects from research to market in gaming, voice UX and online communities.
Blot Studio happened right after my stint at Samsung. I was applying to colleges abroad and I did not want to not do anything in the meantime, and a full-time job was making it difficult to do the work that was required to get into the right college for me. I did a bunch of freelance UX projects there, but the main focus of Blot was giving back to people in whatever way possible. I had done a couple of courses on Psychology and Art Therapy, and that became the mainstay of Blot – Art Therapy.
I was always sure I wanted to do my Master’s as well. It wasn’t a need from the industry, but something I wanted to look into. I looked at a bunch of colleges in India and looked at their course structures. Since I had already done my Bachelor’s in Design in India, I realized there weren’t a lot on the courses in India that seemed distinctly different from what I had already studied and practiced. I also wanted to specialize more and go beyond just UX. That’s when my I found this amazing program at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London. A master’s in research, specifically in healthcare and design. I applied there, got in, and started also working at Cult.fit, in the healthcare space.
There was no scholarship for the program that I had selected. It was also meant for people who were already a part of the industry, so you bring in some work experience. My course was structured in such a way that there were sporadic modules of teaching – Two weeks every 6 months. Meanwhile, there was a continuous 2 year thesis going on.
This enabled me to be relevant in the Indian design industry. I decided to travel for the modules every 6 months, and continue my thesis and my job in India (It was also much more budget friendly to do so – London is extremely expensive if you earn in Rupees).
My thesis project at RCA was around helping people manage chronic conditions like Type 2 Diabetes, Hypertension and Obesity.
A couple of years later, I’m leading design and a lot of the product work at Sugar.fit, an offshoot of Cult.fit, that assists people with Type 2 Diabetes and Pre-diabetes with the aim of reversing of their condition.
How did you get your first break?
I’d say this was through LinkedIn. Finding and reaching out to the right people and landing my job at Samsung R&D was the first step to everything that followed.
I was already a part of Cult.fit when I was doing my masters (Yes, it was a lot to juggle at the same time). At Cult, I was working on the healthcare side of things (then called Care.fit).
I had done a lot of research before picking my thesis topic. Chronic conditions were ever increasing, younger individuals were getting diagnosed, and people in India were also becoming a lot more aware of their health and proactive towards being healthy.
I had pitched my thesis to some of the folks at Cult.fit before my Master’s program even began. I was offered all the help and support I could need for its completion. I was also told that the company was looking to move in that direction as well.
It was about a year of me being in my Master’s program when Sugar.fit was conceived. My past experience in healthcare projects, and my new background in chronic conditions made me an obvious choice for the budding project, which later became its own entity. So yes, I have been part of Sugar.fit since its inception.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Being from a college that wasn’t considered a Tier 1 college, i realised that the easiest way to go past this was bringing in some big names on my resume. Samsung R&D did that for me.
Challenge 2: Specialising in a field that isn’t known in the country (healthcare and design) was another challenge. I found a course abroad that helped me first build more expertise and then worked on being able to communicate the value I could bring to companies that worked in healthcare.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your work in Healthcare Design
I currently work at Sugar.fit. It is a very very nascent start-up that looks at reversing Type 2 Diabetes and PreDiabetes in India.
There aren’t a lot of solutions for chronic conditions in the market where you need all the help you can get, in one place. My everyday work involves bringing all these healthcare needs and requirements of an individual to a single, accessible area, where they are cared for and valued. I look over strategy and design, a little bit of product management, along with user research and testing for the company.
Design is essential at such a tech intensive start-up. While working with people who are diagnosed with a condition that they think is for life, there is a lot of psychology and sensitivity involved that needs to be understood and conveyed. It is not just about making things work from a tech perspective. It goes beyond that, by understanding what intrinsic motivations people have to join the program, what are their mindsets like, what kind of milestones they would look at, and in general, how can we simplify their lives in the best manner possible. There is a lot of UX work that goes into this.
The skills that my job requires me to have include experience design, product management, research, behaviour & psychology analysis, among other things.
A typical day for me involves working closely with the founders through different phases of user research, lean UX design, agile product development and iteration. I also have to communicate with different teams in the company including, but not restricted to, the development team, the business teams, the brand team and the growth team.
There are several things I love about this job. All the work I do ends up benefiting the health of real people and the gratification there is huge. It is extremely humbling and fulfilling to be a part of a company where everything you work on needs to positively impact an end-user.
I also love being a designer who gets to be so deeply involved in the product and all it’s different tangents, in a start-up structure. The work is quick, super focused and keeps you on your toes, at all times.
How does your work benefit society?
Well, it directly impacts the health of individuals. I work at making health more accessible, reducing the stigma associated with chronic health conditions and at reversing these health conditions.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Back in college when I was working on a few wearables, my professor insisted I build them as well, not just give concepts. So I had to actually go through learning a lot of programming and electronics to make my printed circuit boards and have the wearable talk to a mobile device and function the way I intended it to in my concepts. And since I have always loved science, I was happy to immerse myself into this extra learning and creating. I used to be proud of myself for being a “maker” and bringing things to life, so this project was automatically one of the biggest wins I had. What I didn’t expect was the cherry on the cake – my professor comparing me to Tony Stark (my favourite Marvel character) and asking me to get in touch when I create my first JARVIS. And I realise how this random conversation with the inner praise it contained made this project that much more memorable and close to my heart.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Don’t ever let anyone say no to your plans – not even yourself. Don’t restrict your learning based on what exists. Always be willing to go the extra mile for what you believe in – it could all fail, or it could be a huge success, but it will never be for nothing. There will always be learning.
I’d love to be able to work on and consult on a lot more healthcare projects that may put patients’ well being back in their own hands. Democratizing the delivery of healthcare, and improving the lives of not only patients, but also doctors and clinicians, are things I would like to work on in the near future.