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.  

Future Plans?  

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.