User research is all about empathy which helps bridge the gap between product decision makers and the real user.

Shweta Barupal, our next pathbreaker, User Research Lead at Glance, works with a team of researchers and technologists to ensure product development and design is inclusive in philosophy and practice.

Shweta talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the relevance of a a humanities background, particularly Anthropology, Sociology and Psychology, in grasping the nuances in user behaviour and putting it into context for people from other disciplines.

As technological innovations grow at a dizzying pace, there will always be a need for researchers who can systematically unpack user behaviour and generate insights for product development !

Shweta, tell us about your background?

I grew up across 7 states and the exposure to cultural diversity at a young age got me curious about people, their lifestyles, belief systems and why they did what they did. Years later I chose humanities as my electives at university, which was a natural progression for me. I learnt classical indian dances like bharatnatyam and kathak and hindustani classical music apart from academia. I also enjoyed reading and writing. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Choosing Sociology, psychology and economics for my undergraduate degree was an obvious choice for me – an attempt to make sense of the world we live in. I fell in love with anthropology, one of the papers in my majors for Sociology and I wanted to learn more and dive deeper. However, I couldn’t find a program that solely focused on anthropology, and so I looked at courses outside of India. I found a Masters course in Digital Anthropology at University College London – the course covered topics I was curious about. I knew I would enjoy this course and I prepared for my applications and I got in.

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

Some of my key influencers were – Sociologists and Anthropologists like Patricia Uberoi, Irawati Karwe, Michael Taussig, Daniel Miller, Susanne Kuechler, Victor Buchli.

I would regard- Susanne Kuechler – my MS supervisor, Kaori O’Connor –  my thesis supervisor, and Mandakini Jha – my teacher from BA Sociology, as my mentors.

A significant event that influenced my career path was growing up across 7 states in India, and getting a scholarship to study at UCL which was a turning point.

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 journey as a researcher while assisting my supervisor at UCL. While at university, as part of a student placement program I was selected to intern at Fliplet, an enterprise mobility startup. I helped them with competitor analysis and industry research while learning on the job from their talented designers and product managers. 

This led me to several independent consulting roles at small to mid-size startups and organizations like BlippAR, Nature Research, Nucleus Global and finally at Financial Times. I was a user researcher at these organizations where I helped bridge the gap between product decision makers, designers and developers and the real users, by designing and conducting research in order to general actionable insights. 

After working in London for 5 years, I moved back to India to care for my father who was hospitalized. A brief sabbatical of 5 months and spending quality time with family at my family home gave me the break I needed to rethink my career in India. I joined Google Station for NBU (Next Billion Users) in Bangalore as a consultant, which took me to the length and breadth of India, SEA, Latin America for field research and then Ola for a large foundational study on their driver partners and users. 

NBU at Google focuses on solving problems for the next billion user countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America. My work for them involved designing and conducting foundational and exploratory research to inform product innovation, design and development. I got the opportunity to interact with users directly in these geographies. We were able to build products for specific use cases which ensured an inclusive design and development practice.

At my next role at Microsoft, I worked with their research and design teams in India and Seattle.

My work with MS Teams involved designing research methodologies and conducting field research (remote due to the pandemic) for teams/users across the globe. I worked closely with the product and design teams in the Bangalore office to understand the business and design challenges they were addressing in order to come up with research plans and execute them. I collected user data and distilled them to come up with actionable insights that my teams were able to use to improve the user experience.

I currently work for Glance as a lead user researcher where I manage a team of talented researchers and helped launch the product in SEA, India and U.S. 

How did you get your first break? 

While studying for my MS in Digital Anthropology, I participated in the talent hunt program organized by the university where meritorious students get a chance to intern at a promising startup. I qualified for the program and won the chance to work with Fliplet for a paid internship. They are an enterprise mobility startup and I helped them with competitor analysis and industry research while learning on the job from their talented designers and product managers.

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

Challenges included learning to work in a new country, understanding the work culture and landscape while learning on the job, and keeping up-to-date with industry trends and research practice. I addressed these challenges by working closely with my colleagues from diverse teams and backgrounds, and asking questions when I didn’t understand something, or simply by asking for help. I also enrolled myself for career development courses at the university’s learning center and updated myself with other available online resources to keep up with industry trends and practices. I am also grateful to my seniors, mentors and managers at various organizations who have been generous to share knowledge and helped me to grow in my career. 

Where do you work now?What problems do you solve?

I currently work with Glance as a user research lead, where I manage a team of talented researchers and help launch the product in SEA, India and U.S. 

Glance uses the lock screen as a real estate to surface AI generated content according to a user’s preference. I work with the product and design leadership to determine research goals for the quarter and ensure research needs are met while maintaining quality. I manage and mentor junior researchers on my team and help them learn. 

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

One of the most important skills required for my role is empathy – towards the users, my team members and my stakeholders. I love my work because it is intellectually stimulating and keeps me looking forward to more – I want to be at work everyday and help make products easier to understand and use by everyone. On a typical day, I start with organizing my calendar and managing my time between meetings so I have enough time to prepare for upcoming conversations where I am able to help my teams make the most of their time and resources whether it’s mentoring junior researchers or sharing my inputs for product development and design.

How does your work benefit society? 

We live in a world that is moving at a dizzying pace of technological innovation. While these technological innovations make our lives simpler and efficient, we must balance it with thought, introspection and practice so we ensure we do the right thing in terms of ensuring user safety, data protection, and their well being. One of the challenges faced by the industry is the digital divide – my work ensures all product development and design is inclusive in philosophy and practice.

The most essential skill to be a good user researcher is being empathetic. It is with empathy, that you can put yourselves in the real user’s shoes and envision what life is like for them. Helping product tech companies with user research is all about using this skill to bridge the gap between product decision makers and the real user. For someone with a humanities background, particularly Anthropology, Sociology and Psychology, it is relatively easier to grasp the nuances in user behaviour and put it into context for people from other disciplines. For tech companies, a user researcher with a humanities background brings in the essential training and skillset to systematically unpack user behaviour and generate insights that they can leverage. 

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

I have worked on two projects that are close to my heart;

  1. Helping Nucleus Global build a web platform for patients with Cancer, by helping them find the best hospital and care near their residence 
  2. Working with Google Station at NBU to help provide fast, free Wi-Fi to the underprivileged who lacked internet access.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would suggest that you stay true to what really interests you and inspires you – if you follow your passion and interests, you will enjoy the work that you do and that makes life joyful

Future Plans?

To continue working with impact driven product teams and organizations to do meaningful work and to help other researchers wherever I can