Building technologies for the next billion users is all about exploratory research which envisions products and services for a wide cross-section of consumers including those at the “bottom of the economic pyramid”.
Indrani Thies, our next pathbreaker, Design & Technology Researcher, specializes in user-centered design, human-computer interaction, and technology for global development, especially for low-literate and emergent users from low-income communities.
Indrani talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about transitioning from a career in Architecture to Human centered Design, and working for 18 years as Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research (MSR) India in the Technology and Empowerment group (TEM), where she was involved in cutting-edge research in computer science, human-computer interaction and related fields, as well as informing the design of Microsoft products.
For students, real innovation is when technology can transform the lives of people irrespective of their literacy level, social or economic background !
Indrani, what were your growing up years like?
I grew up in Guwahati, Assam. My father worked for a pharmaceutical company (now retired) that involved a lot of travel and my mother is a homemaker. My parents were both very hard working. We had a very academic environment at home. We had lots and lots of books and really looked forward to the Guwahati Book Fair every year. Many of my uncles were professors and they would visit often. I was also deeply influenced by stories of my paternal grandparents. My grandparents came from very privileged backgrounds, but they had given up much of their privileges and became Gandhian freedom fighters in India’s struggle for independence. My grandfather’s law practice suffered during this period but stories of his and my grandmother’s selfless sacrifices have always inspired me to do something worthwhile for society, especially for the less privileged. My grandmother had started the first girls’ school in her district in Assam.
I attended St. Mary’s High School until my 10th and did my 12th from Cotton College, Guwahati. I was good at academics and my parents always encouraged me to strive for more. During my school years, my younger brother and I attended the Assam Fine Arts and Crafts society on Sundays where we learned painting and sculpting. The society at the time was a meeting ground for artists, writers, filmmakers and intellectuals of Assam. This environment also had a strong influence on my growing up years. My brother and I watched a lot of world cinema growing up.
What did you do for graduation/ post graduation?
I did a Bachelor’s in Architecture from Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology (VNIT), Nagpur. Those days it was an REC (Regional Engineering College, which later became an NIT). I worked for one year as an architect after my graduation, then went to Chicago, USA, to do my Masters in Design from the Illinois Institute of Design (ID, IIT). My Master’s work involved a lot of human-centered design research work, where you design with the needs and aspirations of users or potential users at the center of the design process. During my Master’s, I worked on a number of projects that involved designing products and services for the “Bottom of the economic pyramid”, e.g., designing a water delivery system for a low income community without proper access to drinking water. I also did my PhD from the Industrial Design Centre, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IDC, IIT Bombay) while working as a full-time researcher at Microsoft Research India in Bangalore.
What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
Until recently I was Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research (MSR) India in the Technology and Empowerment group (TEM, previously known as the Technology for Emerging Markets Group). I worked in this group for close to 18 years, joining just after its inception in 2005 and stepping away in February 2023. I have also spent some time working out of Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. At MSR we do cutting-edge research in computer science, human-computer interaction and related fields. In addition to informing the design of MS products, this research goes into top-tier conference and journal publications that push the boundaries of scientific research. The TEM group I worked for at MSR was very multidisciplinary. We focused on understanding the needs and aspirations of people from underserved communities and on design, development and evaluation of technologies for these user groups. For example, my research at MSR has been in the design of user interfaces of technologies for people who are low-literate. My collaborators and I came up with designs for PC and phone interfaces that used graphics, audio, speech instead of text. I designed for various domains, from job information systems for domestic workers to video search for farmers to mobile money transfer for unbanked users. At MSR we built research prototypes in our work (not products), which we designed, developed and tested. I had also done some recent exploratory research in understanding how existing MS products, like Teams, could be made relevant to the next billion users.
When I first joined Microsoft Research, I had just finished my Master’s in Design from Chicago. Though I had done some user and design research kind of work, I didn’t have any real academic research experience. MSR India took me under its wing and completely transformed my life. They even let me do a PhD alongside. If I wanted to have a serious career in research, I knew that I would need to get a PhD. My mentors and colleagues at MSR have had a very strong influence on my enjoying research and making a career in it. At MSR, I was surrounded by some of the smartest people in the world who are also the most humble. I drew inspiration from them, learned a lot from them and always strived to do better in my own work.
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.
After I finished my graduation in Architecture, I worked for one year as an architect in training in Bangalore (2002-03). While the work was enjoyable, it didn’t pay well. I used to make about INR 6000 a month. Junior architect positions can be very low paid even today. I had to ask for money from my parents to manage monthly expenses. I realized I would need to work for many years at a similar pay scale before I could start my own architectural firm. I didn’t have that kind of patience (some other batchmates did and they are successful architects today!). I wanted to take my career to the next level where I would do work that I enjoyed but also get paid better, early in my career. I decided to do a specialization. I took the GRE and TOEFL and applied for a Master’s in Design in the US. My thinking was that a design degree would let me work for a larger company and doing it from the US would have good brand value. Though I had stepped away from architecture, later in my research career I realized that much of the user-centered design philosophy of architecture was still very relevant in my work.
In my Master’s program there was a mix of courses in user research, human factors, product design, interaction design and strategic design planning. I wanted to come back to India after my Master’s; so, during my Master’s I did a number of assignments that involved designing products and services for the “Bottom of the economic pyramid”, especially targeted at user groups in India. At the end of my first year Master’s, I did an internship with Pitney Bowes where I did design ethnography work in Delhi and Gurgaon to inform experiences at post offices and railway stations.
This internship was really important and helped me to get field experience that strengthened my CV.
After my Master’s, I worked for 2 years as an Assistant Researcher at Microsoft Research India. During this time I realized that I would need to get a PhD to stay in academic research. I applied and got into the external PhD program at IDC, IIT Bombay, with Prof. Uday Athavankar and Dr. Anirudha Joshi. In this program, I could continue working at MSR India while working on my PhD. During my research at MSR India I had found that low-literacy was beyond the strict inability to read text. So, I decided to take that line of research forward and in my PhD I worked on how low-literacy has correlations with cognitive skills and how that has big implications for the design of user interfaces.
How did you get your first break?
I was in my final semester of my Master’s program in early 2005 when Microsoft Research (MSR) was setting up an India lab in Bangalore. Traditionally, for full-time positions, MSR hires researchers with PhDs and postdoctoral experience. But back in 2005, MSR India had this Assistant Researcher position which was a two year position for candidates who had just finished a Bachelor’s or a Master’s degree. I interviewed for the position while I was still in my Master’s program in Chicago. There were multiple interviews with researchers from India and the Redmond (US) lab with a variety of technical backgrounds. I couldn’t believe my stars when I got through the interviews! Within 2 weeks of wrapping up my Master’s in Chicago, I joined MSR India in Bangalore.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
One of the biggest challenges was learning to do rigorous research that was worthy of publication in top-tier conferences and journals. I had to learn different qualitative and quantitative research methods in depth. I needed to learn how to write academic papers. I had to read a whole lot of research papers to understand related work in the field. It was invaluable to have guidance and support from my mentors in this journey. Dr. Kentaro Toyama, my manager and the Assistant Managing Director of the lab at the time, was particularly very helpful early in my career as a researcher. I would write paper drafts and he would send very detailed feedback within just a few hours. We would do multiple iterations of papers and presentations.
Working in an interdisciplinary field requires knowledge and appreciation of other disciplines. My research required some understanding of statistics, ethnography, and some amount of social anthropology. I had to pick up some of these skills by working closely and learning from colleagues who were trained in these fields, like my manager and mentor at the time, Dr. Ed Cutrell and others.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
After working for 18 years at Microsoft Research, I have recently started a work sabbatical. I continue to collaborate with the academic research community. For example, I still review papers for top journals and conferences in my area of research. I also continue to mentor upcoming researchers and PhD students through organizations such as ACM SIGCHI.
What I love about being in research is the opportunity to work on cutting-edge problems with a whole bunch of very smart people, who are also the most humble. I draw inspiration from this community every day. I also love the intellectual freedom that academic research provides.
How does your work benefit society?
Much of the research that I have done is published and available in the public domain. Some invited talks I have given are also available online. Many of the research papers my colleagues and I coauthored are essential reading material in Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD programs across the world in many universities. Hopefully these papers are fuelling other research ideas within and outside academia.
In addition, a number of predoctoral candidates and research interns I mentored and co-mentored made it into very good PhD programs. So, that is also a very satisfying feeling. Finally, some of my research has informed the products of very promising startups like Navana Tech that look at technologies for the next billion users.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
The time I have spent in the field doing research field work is amongst the most memorable. I have spent hundreds of hours in the field in rural and urban India, the Philippines and South Africa as a part of my work. This is when I was doing design ethnography to understand the needs and aspirations of potential users of our interventions. Or I was doing user testing of the prototypes we had designed. One gets to learn so much from field experience. I was able to develop a lot of my design intuition from having spent considerable time in the field.
There was also this time many years back when I lived in a small farmer household in Neemkheda village in rural Madhya Pradesh. I lived with the farmer family for a week in their small two-room home as a part of rural immersion. I got so many important research insights and life lessons during this time.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
To students, I would say there is no replacement for hard work. Especially for those who are in high school to graduation. These are crucial years that will really set you on your career path. It’s important to choose a stream that will pay well, but it’s equally important to choose something that you really enjoy doing and find inspiring. There are times when we choose lucrative fields even when we don’t enjoy them; it might be difficult to sustain interest and motivation in the long term on these paths.
In addition, it is very important to read (outside syllabus books) and speak well. These days good communication skills are becoming very important in most careers. Just practice, practice and practice. I still try to practice delivery for most of my own presentations.
For now, I’m really enjoying my sabbatical as I worked hard for almost two decades. I’m curious to see what exciting professional opportunities will come up in the future.