user research at Turian Labs

Prachi Bhutada

Design Thinking places the USER at the core of designing products, services and experiences. The idea is that you will make a better whatever-that-you-aim-to-make, if you understand your audiences’ need. So, an important part of the design-thinker’s job is conducting user-research. User-research in Design Thinking methods is the love child of Ethnography and Market Research. It is as immersive as ethnography but happens in the limited time-span and capacity of market research. A good user interaction forms a foundation for the rest of the design journey and ultimately the final outcome. For something so important, there is not enough written about it on the internet or in books.

There are some simple ways of structuring your design-research-interactions to get the most value in limited time. Here are 7 of them, that I did not find in the books but a year of working as a Design Researcher at Turian Labs taught me:

  1. Do not go with a script (in the conversational ethnography) 
    First things first, you need not ask all questions on your list to all the users. Know that the quantity of questions is not important, important is the quality of responses you get in the limited time you are allowed. I will even go as far as saying that you will never be able to ask all your questions to one user. So, prioritize, some users have better stories for X and some talk more articulately of Y.
    Keep in mind, users do not respond with the same enthusiasm throughout; aim to complete the interaction in an hour at best unless it is meant to be a ‘day-in-life’ session
  2. Always, start with making the user comfortable
    Take as long as you may to do that. Tell them what you do, what the aim of the interaction is. Ask them what they do, what they like to do, why they chose a particular job, a college, a city. A good icebreaker is also to start with how nice the day is or how bothersome the rain. Lower their inhibitions before you jump to their cell-phone usage, credit cards, opinion on the new feature in an app etc.
    And be careful; do not cross the line between professional and personal. The user is still the user, you are still the ethnographer, neither a stranger, nor a friend.
  3. Activities are important
    There are different methods apart from asking questions that can get you insightful responses from the users. Activities like Metaphor elicitation, Desirability matrix, Body-storming, Cognitive walkthroughs help rattle the user’s sub-conscious mind and get helpful responses. While there are some already available to study on the internet, some can be designed using ‘projective techniques’ of psychology.
    Activities are important because they help break eye contact, and give you observational details that a user may not articulately tell. Activities aid memory; human minds think better visually.
    Time these activities such that it gives a break from continuous talking.
  4. Mind your questions
    Why’ and ‘how’ are more important that ‘which’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘who’.
    Q: Why did you buy this bag?
    A: Because it’s branded.
    Q: Why is a brand important?
    A: It ensures good quality.
    Q: How does it ensure good quality? ..and so on.

    Do not budge until that string has looped.
    Do not ask leading questions. “Do you think Apple is a better company than Samsung?”If you are getting ‘yes’ and ‘no’ for answers, you are doing it wrong. Ask open-ended questions: “What makes you like one brand more than the other?”, instead of “Do you have a preference in brands?” Pause after you ask a question. We are uncomfortable with silence and tend to fill it. Don’t. Let it be uncomfortable. Wait for your user to say something.
  5. Small things matter
    The important thing that most people won’t tell you is that small things matter. Do not sit higher than the user and do not stand while the user sits - this implies a hierarchy that you may not desire. Laugh at a joke they crack and it is okay. If you are using cue-cards, hand it over to the user. It is important to make them a part of the user’s ecosystem. Do not talk in a language alien to the user, with your colleagues there. Do not finish the interaction abruptly. You must conclude and the story must end. Thank the user for their time and help. Drop them to the door or walk away gently depending upon the situation.
  6. Observe
    An ethnographer observes, keenly, minutely; and questions. Why are their books on the table, if he/she likes to read e-books? Why has this behavior not seeped into his/her children, if it has not? “Users do not know what they want”, Steve Jobs says; and he is right. They might ask for a pen with a tracker so that they don’t lose it. But what will probably suffice is a pen that makes a click when it is clipped on the pocket/bag.
  7. Stay ready to be surprised
    A good ethnographer knows that he/she may not know everything. He is a blank page, a curious mind and a fast learner.

Conducting user-interactions is a dynamic process. There are several things that can make-or-break an interaction. But they cannot be taught or used in a one-size-fits-all manner. The ethnographer has to sense things, learn from experience and do what fits a particular situation. Whatever you do, make sure it comes from a place of empathy. You have to be an empathizer to be a good product designer, a good entrepreneur, an employer, an employee, a good comedian; even the government ideally starts there.

How I Bumped Into Design Thinking..

By Prachi Bhutada - Design Researcher @ Turian Labs

With the team Turian Labs welcoming the onset of monsoon on one of the peaks of Sahayadri range

With the team Turian Labs welcoming the onset of monsoon on one of the peaks of Sahayadri range

I am a Liberal arts graduate from one of the only few colleges for Liberal Arts in India. As a part of the insecurity that is inevitable for arts stream (highly India specific), most of the students in my college oriented their energies towards finding better/any future prospects instead of following their passion.

A common joke in my anthropology class was: “I have a degree in the Liberal Art. Do you want fries with that?” I bumped into Design Thinking by sheer mistake, and if you sway the other way, by destiny. A friend of a friend, who runs a Design Thinking firm in Pune, posted on Facebook “looking for graduates who like talking to people”. With the desperation of getting as far away from fries as possible, I replied that I can, in ALL CAPS. I got an interview for the next day. So I sat all night reading the company’s website to figure what they do.

Design Thinking, it read,  helps shaping better products, services, brands & most importantly - PEOPLE. It helps organizations develop deeper insights, discover emerging opportunities and reimagine the business.

Design Thinking Google search said “utilizes elements like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what future customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.”

It has been a year I have been a Design Researcher and I love my job. My job is to help people/companies make their products/services more user-centric. As a Design research company we believe all things start at the user. That maybe Nano would not have failed if the campaign was made after talking to the family of 4 going to a park on a Bajaj scooter.  That I would like my Vespa more if it did not have a bump on the leg rest platform that makes all luggage topple off. We believe that there are little stories that only a user can tell.

We also believed in Henry Ford, when he said “If I had asked people, they would have said they want faster horse carriages” or something to that effect. We believe in users to know what they want, but we believe in the market, technology to have/develop better substitutes to satiate the need.

To put it all together, design thinking is an art/science that helps make any product/service more centered on the user and taking it further with the knowledge of technology and possibilities of the future. Design thinking is the facilitator, a bridge, so to say that connects empathy to market and trends.

Some of the projects I have worked on include- helping farmers gain access to advisory and ecommerce, reducing people’s insecurity of using digital wallets, making ‘help’ provided in-app or on search engines more accessible and digestible.

This does not necessarily apply to liberal arts or designers. Design Thinking is also degree agnostic, I work with a team of Design researchers who were previously engineers, product designers, journalists. And the best part is, it fares a lot better than selling fries.

Knowledge Process: Ancient Indian Wisdom and Design Thinking

Knowledge Process - Ancient Indian wisdom and Design Thinking

There has been a tremendous buzz around Design Thinking in the recent years. From corporates to governments, are looking at it as a panacea for solving critical problems. India too, has joined the race and as a flag bearer of rising economy, the IT (and some of manufacturing) industry seems to have found a new messiah in this process.

Design Thinking is finally a ‘knowledge creation’ process.  As a ‘knowledge process’, it is literally a new born child, when one looks at it from an ancient land of India, with thousands of years of history of codified human knowledge. Indian thinkers and philosophers thought of minute details around people, objects, emotions and existence. Design Thinking, as a way of understanding a problem comprehensively and solving it creatively, one wonders if Indian wisdom had something to offer in this space. Here is one clue through Pramanas.

Pramana, is a term (literally means ‘evidence’) used in the ancient text in India, as way to know anything. At different point of times different sets of Pramana existed adding up to more than 20 overall. However, 6 Pramanas have been accepted as the most important ones. First three are the ones which we use in conducting everyday business. They are Pratyaksha (Direct knowledge), Shabda (from an expert/knower) & Anumana (deduction).

The first, Pratyaksha, or direct knowledge, is the one that we get from our senses (eyes, ears, skin, tongue and nose). But Indian philosophy distinguishes it from what we know from our MIND (jealousy, pleasure, pain etc.). Knowing the reality from our mind (manas) is also regarded as direct-knowledge. But Indian thinkers went ahead in search of more means of this direct knowledge or evidential knowledge and figured that there is a stage in the meditation journey, where one KNOWS without the aid of bodily-senses or the mind (there is elaborate classification available for the different ways of ‘direct knowledge’). Closest English word for that is ‘INTUITION’ but not quite that. India is filled with stories of such yogic powers to ‘know’ the past, present and the future. In the business & technology context of today, we have been talking of ‘virtual reality’ and ‘embedded chips in the body’, which will enhance human capabilities to see, feel, process and retain information. Telepathy, as an art, is about to be democratized due to technology-augmentation of the body. Seeding of ideas in someone else’s mind like the movie ‘Inception’ may become a reality soon. This will change a few concepts like market research for ever. We surely will have to figure out what is ‘evidential’ and what is not, part from addressing bigger issues of what is moral and otherwise. Knowledge structure of Indian philosophy must help this new taxonomy.

The second one is Anumana or deduction. Today, in the world of Big Data, this is an extensively used science. Business world relies on deducing the next step, analyzing the past data. And, please note that this is just, ONE of the ways to know.

Third is Shabda, or the knowledge received from the experts/knowers of the domain. This has roots in supreme pedestal, that Indian philosophy lays down for Guru (the teacher). Not surprising that a real guru, has been put on higher pedestal that the God himself in several scriptures. But this does not mean that a knowledge received thus cannot be argued. In fact, there are protocols to logically challenge any knowledge till a valid, cogent argument is accepted. India is probably the only place in the world where not one or two but ten parallel darshan or philosophies exists which are mutually exclusive. One ‘darshan’ is a complete set of knowledge elements, on how to live and how to make sense of the reality, life and death. Each of these have been debated between the experts in formal forums over hundreds of years, exemplified, written down and refined.

The next three Pramanas are the ones, that seem to be eluding our current way of knowing. Design Thinking is trying to restore these in some ways. The next three are Upmana (metaphors), Arthpatti (postulates, hypotheses) and Anuplabdhi (absence). These are the ways, which are vanishing from the society as focus on data is increasing but provide an important aid to completing the picture of reality.

Upmana or metaphors, are in fact common ways to explain complex things in all native languages. Adages and sayings have a place in society because of that. When I say, “my home should be like a palace” or “your business model should be to Uberize the healthcare for the poor”, we are using the upmana pramana. Likewise, in Design Thinking, ‘metaphor elicitation’ is one of the powerful tools to ‘empathise’ with the users.

Anuplabdhi, or absence, is also a valid way to know the reality. Sometimes, to know what it is, one must understand ‘what it is not’. In creating a new brand character, we often define what a brand stands for, and what a brand does not stand for i.e. natural ice-cream would use natural fruits AND it will NOT use artificial flavors. In visual design, ‘figure-ground’ (positive and negative spaces, both play equal role) relation is the best example of this. Have you noticed the legendary ‘hidden arrow’ in the Fedex logo? And I cannot stress how much I am in love with this Zen poem that stresses the important of ‘emptiness’ –

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable

We work with being
but non-being is what we use

And the last, but not the least – Arthpatti or postulates/gestimates/hypotheses. This is the very fabric of Design Thinking. As the business complexity is increasing exponentially, even with big-data and AI, it is literally impossible to know the true picture (else we would have predicted recent American elections differently). Design Thinking suggests that iterative hypotheses, with rapid validation cycles through early-prototypes, is a great way to move forward. Infact, this is completely counter-logic to traditional management education, that presses hard for being precise and clear every moment; every decision must be backed by data. What if we only had part-data? Can we still go ahead and make a hypothesis to do an early check? Design Thinking is the pragmatic way forward there.

These codified pramanas, the six ways to know, complete the paradigm of empathy and holistic way to ‘know’. As the challenges of too much data shore-up, we must expand the vocabulary and methods to all dimensions of human capabilities, to make sense of the world around us. And ancient Indian wisdom, sure has some clues. 


You Google ‘Design Thinking’ on the net and a ubiquitous picture diagram you come across, which looks like a ‘chemical formula’. Five words written in the hexagonal bubbles, arranged in certain manner evoke a sense of wonder, as if there was a great mystery behind them. Is there a simpler way to remember and practice Design Thinking? Turian Labs proposes the 4 tenets.