I’m a Lead UX Researcher at Google. To do my job well, I need to be an expert at both understanding subtle human behaviors and building products. But here’s the thing: I never studied psychology or business in school. In fact, the skills I’ve needed to succeed were imparted to me at home, by my large family of 12. Growing up alongside the disparate, unique personalities of my family members, I became adept at understanding people’s emotions and behaviors at a young age. We were a then-common, now-endangered species of the Indian societal landscape: a joint family.

My father was the patriarch—omnipresent, strong-headed but emotional—while his brother, my uncle (chacha in Hindu) was an eccentric thinker. My mother was intelligent and opinionated, while my aunt (chachi) was responsible and caring. My grandpa (baba) was quiet and reclusive, while my grandmother (amma), the matriarch, was strong and decisive. Her daughter, my aunt (bua) was loving, fun, and easy-going and her husband (phupha ji) was temperamental. Living in this big joint family helped me develop emotional intelligence and a capacity for empathy that studying never could. I learned organic strategies to work with many different personalities, and an intuitive understanding of people’s needs and behaviors.

Our living room was my lab. As the youngest, I spent a lot of my time observing the adults and amusing myself with their discussions. On a typical evening:

My Uncle Arun has been talking non-stop for half an hour. He hogs the spotlight and the extended family won’t stop praising him.

My Aunt Jyoti looks away, oscillating between rolling her eyes, smirking, and smiling. I think to myself: Wow. Her expressions are like a lie detector.

My mom diffuses the discussion and nudges Uncle Arun to another topic with a little sarcasm and humor. The others are relieved. How did she navigate the conversation without anyone feeling offended, and with such ease?

Grandma enters the room and begins giving orders, “Do something! Don’t just idle around! Is dinner ready yet? Is the table set? Arun, call everyone for dinner.” Everyone disperses to fulfill their duties. The discussion is over. This is a masterclass on how to get things done.

Experiencing such daily dynamic conversations helped me develop and define my intuitive approach to UX research. Let me show you how I put these techniques into practice.

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A lot of social bonding occurs during the time shared around tea and snacks. I cherish this Indian tradition, for helping shape my approach to human observation.

Meeting people where they are

Today, as a qualitative researcher at Google, I don’t collect numerical data. The insights that inform our product design instead come from analyzing user behaviors, stories, and experiences. And to hear honest feedback, I have to build rapport and ask meaningful questions.

A few years ago, I led research with children in Nigeria to improve Read Along, a speech-based reading tutor app. For this product, our users are children. It’s imperative to get direct feedback to improve the product, but it can be hard to get kids talking! During one session, I spoke with a really shy child who was self-conscious about giving me “the right answers.” They wanted to look good to their parents, who were observing everything. So I quickly improvised by moving away from the traditional interview model where subjects simply answer the researcher’s questions. Instead, we played pretend-school. They were the “teacher” and taught me how to use the app. The game helped me break the ice and understand the child’s experience with our product. We both had fun, and in turn, I learned a new technique for conducting research with shy kids.

Conversations thrive only if we genuinely take an interest in the lives of others. I had ample opportunities in my own childhood to debate for hours with opinionated, sometimes dismissive uncles, or listen to introverted aunts who just needed someone to empathize with.

Eventually I learned different strategies to strike up conversations, like asking open-ended questions, listening more than talking, looking into people’s eyes, and paying attention to gather information that can be challenging to elicit. Knowing it takes time for people to open up, I create a list of icebreaker questions and always keep the schedule loose to allow subjects to share at their own pace. Projecting warmth and curiosity helps me meet where people are.

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Indians love talking, and they express a lot through their eyes, gestures, and body language. Growing up in a large, joint family shaped my unique approach to human observation.

Observing human behavior

Growing up in the ‘80s, evening entertainment was limited to a few hours of TV, as electricity was expensive; talking in the living room was the main way to pass time, and Chachi, Chacha, Bua, Mummy and Papa did that a lot. As the youngest, I was shooed away if I tried to participate in discussions, so to pass my own time, I would eavesdrop, making mental notes of their expressions and body language, which eventually inspired my ability to understand the unspoken and read between the lines.

Much later, I could categorize observation as an essential UX research skill. According to psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, human beings interact verbally only seven percent of the time. Everything else happens through tone of voice and body language. Being able to pick up on these subliminal cues has helped me tremendously when researching people from cultures I’ve had limited exposure to or complex user groups like rural natives, those with different literacy levels, or children who are learning to communicate verbally. I now often mentor budding researchers on how to focus on user behavior rather than spoken language—a lesson my aunts and grandma taught me organically.

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As a kid, I observed how adults would play unique influential roles like rule breaker, influencer, follower, and mediator.

Understanding group dynamics

If you observe a group of people, you’ll notice every member plays a specific role, which in turn influences the others. What I saw in my own family is similar to what we UX researchers call Informational Social Influence, or Social Proof. During my childhood, I spotted the roles adults played: rule followers, rule breakers, influencers, and mediators. I loved how the dynamics changed when someone wanted to break the rules. Once my mom wanted to watch a late night which my grandmother didn’t allow, so my Mom convinced Bua and Chachi, who convinced Amma in turn, and they did have their girls night out after all! Here’s a little secret—I use the same tactics whenever I want to bring about a change at work.

Thanks to my grandmother, I was exposed to excellent delegation habits. She ran the house like an organization meant to succeed. She set out and appropriately distributed responsibilities, then set up clear expectations on how to fulfill them. Family members often complained about her disciplinarian style, but it was necessary in order for the house to run like a smooth machine. As entrepreneur Eric Edmeades once said, “delegation is the passing on of actions, not the passing on of responsibility.” Just by being around her, my grandmother taught me the art of delegation and the importance of shared goals. This is a skill I use often in my work life, and refer to as stakeholder management.

My family no longer lives in that joint family setup. We’ve moved away and set up nuclear units, and I now have kids of my own. Today, my life is vastly different from how I grew up—yet, I am still learning, and I find my day to day work enjoyable because I am able to replicate many values that I learned at home. In the process, I have adapted my own authentic approach to how I lead and collaborate.

My background set the groundwork for my career, and now I know the key to UX research: learning, continuously, from the relationships that surround you. There is immense value in our personal histories. I have confidence in my voice as a researcher from having traced my roots, the path that had prepared me for this moment all along.

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Snuggled next to my Uncle Arun in the living room, I never would’ve guessed as a kid that these idiosyncratic family scenes were in fact training me for my life as a researcher. Drawing by author Eshita Priyadarshini.

12/02/2021
Thought Leadership User Research UX

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