The Story Rules Podcast E23: Dharmesh Ba – The Art of the User Interview (Transcript)

E23 Dharmesh Ba - The Art of the User Interview
5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E23: Dharmesh Ba – The Art of the User Interview (Transcript)

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Intro Hook

And he gave a very thought experiment. He said, go to your Facebook. This was back in 2012. So go to your Facebook, uh, remove all your school friends, remove all your relatives, remove all your college friends, work friends. And, uh, uh, if you’re able to get 10 people after removing all of this, then probably you’re lucky. Okay. I think that had a very profound impact to say that, you know… It was true, right? You know, because all the people that I knew, we’re all from the same college, same school, same town, blah, blah, blah, right? You know, you would never have like a Swiggy delivery executive as a part of your Facebook friend list, right? You would never have someone who is a farmer as a part of your WhatsApp contact list, right? Which means that, you know, our worldviews are generally also limited, right? So research allows you to break away from that and meet other people and gives you an opportunity to learn about their stories.

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast with me, Ravishankar Iyer, where we learn from some of the best storytellers in the world, find their story and unearth the secrets of their craft.

Today we speak with Dharmesh Ba, a behavioural researcher who writes the popular India Notes newsletter and is the founder of 1990 Research Labs.

I came across Dharmesh through leading India-based VC Sajith Pai – who dubbed him as ‘Indus Valley’s chief anthropologist’ (though Dharmesh prefers the term ‘ethnographer’).

In simpler terms, Dharmesh is an expert on the art and craft of understanding user behavior and motivations – so that we can design better products and services. 

Why is this important? I remember an Oct-2019 interview of Kalyan Krishnamurthy, the CEO of Flipkart, where he stated the importance of this task. His key point: The e-commerce puzzle had been solved for the top-tier users in the country – the top 8 cities. But for the vast middle and bottom tiers, product managers would need to completely reimagine every aspect of the product from the ground up. They can only do that by a comprehensive understanding of user behaviour in their context and environment.

Dharmesh and his team are among the ones at the forefront of this initiative – to understand user behaviour. 

I started reading Dharmesh’s popular ‘India Notes’ newsletter – in which he shares some of his findings.

Apart from the newsletter, Dharmesh’s team also  publishes reports. For example in the ‘Life of a Gig Worker’ report, they offer rich portraits of the vast but unseen category of people who we interact with multiple times everyday – gig workers for apps like Zomato, Swiggy, Uber, Ola etc.

And that is one unique feature of Dharmesh’s work – his team is focused on stories of Bharat and not India. Think a Zomato delivery agent, a small business owner, the proprietor of a tiny family-owned store. 

And what does he do with this research? So his clients include leading corporates and non-profits which are building products and services for these hundreds of millions of aspiring Indians… and Dharmesh and team are doing the critical and under-appreciated task of deeply understanding their world.

They do this through in-depth, well-researched and structured conversations with the users. There’s a lot of science and craft that Dharmesh uses to ensure that the interviewee trusts him and is willing to share the true reasons for their choices. We will learn about them in this podcast conversation.

And while we will learn about interviewing techniques, analysis approaches and presentation tips, the overarching message I could glean after speaking with Dharmesh was – be curious, empathetic and respectful.

It’s a must-listen conversation for anyone keen on conducting detailed user interviews, analysing the responses and coming up with clear recommendations – for product design, research, employee well-being – multiple use cases.

Let’s dive in.

Ravi 00:02

Hi Dharmesh. Welcome to the Story Rules Podcast.

Wonderful. So great to have you here. And so I was looking up your profile and I was like really finding the diversity amazing. So you’re an engineer from Vellore. You’ve done a master’s in design from NID, Ahmedabad. You are a user researcher. You are a UX auditor. You’re also a storyteller. You write so well. I think I was only missing seeing an accounting degree there. Otherwise, you’ve covered pretty much every other element of study that is there. But seriously speaking, I love one description that Sajith Pai gave for you, right? And Sajith Pai is someone I really look up to in terms of his work and his storytelling. So he’s a partner at Blume Ventures, a VC firm and India’s premier chronicler, I feel, of the VC landscape. So he called you Indus Valley’s chief anthropologist. That’s a very, very interesting label that he gave you. So I want to ask you, how would you describe the work that you do, the journey that took you to where you are currently and any key influences or inciting incidents during that journey. Yeah, would be lovely to know. 

Dharmesh (1:10)

Yeah, sure. I mean, it was kind of Sajith to sort of call me that. Anthropology is actually, it’s a very honorable thing to be mentioned that way, but I consider myself largely an ethnographer working in tech space. Anthropology, which means you spend larger amounts of time with selected groups of people. It could range from days to months to years and then you understand every aspect of their life, right? And you do a detailed study and then you publish, like it could be books or journals or papers around their life. But what we do, this gets inspired from a lot of that methodology, but the work that we do is slightly limited in a business context. So hence, that would be like an aspiration to reach, but not there yet, right?

The way I look at myself is I have a sense of curiosity in seeking truth, right? Now, as Devdutt Pattanaik would say that, you know, there is no one truth, but there are different, multiple versions of truth. Interestingly, Devdutt used to teach us in NID. So I’ve attended a bunch of sessions in NID and had a very early influence on a lot of things. So I was, during my NID days, I would read Devdutt Patnaik and also like the VS Ramachandran at the same time. Like, you know, so that’s had a lot of influence on me. So this idea of there is existence of multiple truths and it’s a journey to find each one of them is very fascinating to me. Right. And that combined with how human beings think, how they make decisions, what nudges them to make decisions is very exciting for me.


If you look at a lot of behavioral economics, they have these different effects or biases which they call. But I would love to think first principles. For me, the stories are like the core data on which I play around. How authentic can I go to get like the original stories and how can I interpret on top of it to understand why they did what we did. For me, those biases, all the existing nomenclature around behavioral economics, for me, personally, it comes second. If I wear that hat and go into the field, then I’m putting that lens and trying to see, oh, is this that effect? Is it this bias? And then it becomes too challenging for me to move away and see that. So for me, that story’s ability to listen to those stories and interpret and retell the stories to a different set of stakeholders is very exciting.


Interestingly, in my last job, which was at Setu, they came up with this one leadership program where five or six of us, the founders, came and they asked us to write a document saying, what do you want to do five years from now? So this was back in like 2019. 


And sorry, Setu is a company that…?

Dharmesh (4:23)

Yes. Setu is a fintech API platform. It’s currently acquired by Mindlabs. I was one of the core team members in Setu, and I was running this user research lab called D91 Labs within Setu. So I was like the 10th member of the startup, and like almost a year down the line, so the Setu founders came up with this idea of, let’s do a small mini program for like the folks who are in leadership, especially to improve their skill set, make sure they are relevant and grow them into the road. So they came up with this document, had a bunch of questions and one of the question was, what do you want to do five years from now? I think very interestingly what I said was, I don’t want to probably be in Setu after five years because I said there are only two things that’s exciting to me in life. One is listening to stories and second is telling stories.


And anything in my life that allows me to do that, I keep doing it. So I don’t know why I wrote that, but somehow that has become a philosophy of how I look at things in my life. It has had like a profound impact like the from Setu’s journey from the time I wrote that from what happened after that. So I think largely I followed that principle, right? I like listening to stories. I like telling stories.

Ravi 05:50

Did you have that conception of yourself before that workshop happened where that question got thrown in front of you or it was like almost when you saw the question, it just became clear to you? 


I think it became clear to me when I actually wrote that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t remember it.


It was somewhere deep inside you, but that question triggered that. But can you kind of rewind back and think of early childhood or school or college influences that have kind of, you know, taken you in this direction? 


Yeah, for sure. Um, I grew up in the small town called Erode, uh, in Tamil Nadu and, my parents both were running a small store, um, which was a puja store. Essentially you sell like all the Hindu rituals, all the products related to Hindu rituals. 


Was it associated with a local temple near a temple, that kind of a thing? 

Dharmesh 06:45

It was in the main bazaar. It was not very close to the temple, but it was in the main bazaar. So I grew up in a home where you’re just surrounded with idols, right? You know, from Ganesha to Saraswati to all the time. It for me, it felt like I was living within a temple, right? All the time, right? You know, anytime when I was a kid, like my mom would scam me saying, you can’t do anything bad in this home because there are so many people watching you. So what it also meant is the idea of mythology became a part of my life very early on. Right? You would go to a lot of this temple to listen there to stories. My grandmother would take me and there will be different astrologers who would come and sit in the store. They would keep telling stories. And it stories was eventually like a very big part of the life. Even for the, among all the people that I (moved with?). I didn’t know it. I didn’t know any different because I thought that was how things were.


But in addition to that, what also happened was because both of my mom and dad were largely spending most of their time in the store and I didn’t have any siblings. So Erode was a very small place, so there was not much to spend time on. As a teenager, the only thing that allowed you to have as an entertainment was to watch movies. So I would watch a lot of movies, a lot of Tamil movies especially. And I had like a friends gang.


In fact, we would watch every movie that would release, right? You know, because there’s nothing else to do. For me, that was the first time to live like a different sort of life, right? In the eyes of a hero, in the eyes of a protagonist, male protagonist, female protagonist, a lot of that. And my dad would also bring in those weekly magazines and those would have stories. So I think I picked a lot of my fondness towards storytelling, reading stories from these places. And my mom was also an astrologer, right? You know, she started studying astrology. So there are a lot of discussions around human behavior, right? Even though for her, the base was astrology. She had like a, I don’t know, some people call it science. Some people call it pseudoscience. I mean, I don’t want to get into that debate, but she had some logic for herself to decode a human behavior.


I think that was like a prominent part of even like discussions at home. Why do you think this person does the same thing? Why do you think he has a good life? What is a good life? What is a bad life? Sort of a thing. And it was not only me involved, it was generally a debate also among the family members. I think when I look back, these are some of the places which influenced a lot of our own storytelling, psychology, understanding people and all of it.


More than my dad, I think my mom had like a heavy influence. She was a very smart lady when it comes to running the business. She would also sit with me and say that, you know, how to understand the customer, who would bargain, who would not bargain. Because when I grew up and as a, when I went to college, I thought I was very smart. And one day I went and suggested, why don’t we have billing systems? Why don’t we put some computers? She said, what does your billing system would do? If it is a product, she will take like a copper vessel and see here, your billing system will associate one price to this particular product. And she said, that’s not what I do. In my store, the price depends on how the customer actually looks. Right? The way we speak, I will know whether this person would bargain or not. If I know if he’s bargaining, then I will put it higher because he will bargain, bring it back to the normal.


And if he’s not, then if it’s a regular customer, he has a different price. If it’s a new customer, he has a different price. So there’s a lot of psychology also involved in that aspect. So I learned a lot around how to do business or how to look at customers also from her. I think this environment helped me in developing a lot of my affinity towards storytelling and psychology. 

Ravi (10:55)

It’s fascinating stuff, Dharmesh, and two stories that are coming to my mind as I’m hearing this. Especially around, I mean, I love the, you know, I can visualize your home. I can visualize the store, your mom talking, all of that is lovely. Um, but also the, the movies influence of movies, right. And, uh, the, the one story that I just recently read, I think it was yesterday. I think the Ken talked about this and PVR now has a new subscription plan. You pay some money and then you can watch 10 movies. And, but the, the story of Ken was that there are too many restrictions on that plan. You can’t watch on weekend, you can’t watch on public holidays, it can’t be recliner seat, blah, blah, blah. Anyways, the most interesting exception for me was it doesn’t apply in South India, because that’s a different geography. 

And this, the second story that, you know, corroborates this for me is that when I train, right? So one of the, when I do my workshops, one of the activities I do is to get people to apply a story framework that I teach them on movie stories.


And it’s a very interesting exercise people get involved and they love reminiscing about the movie while trying to learn the story framework. And so I’ve done this in various cities in India and on online platform, online sessions also, right? So even for global audiences. And if I kind of plot on a spectrum in terms of the enthusiasm for this activity, right? On one end, on the low enthusiasm, are people outside India, especially Far East?


Right. So Philippines, Indonesia, China, like it’s not a very strong movie watching culture is my limited understanding. Right. So I’ve, I’ve gone into breakout rooms and I said, guys, come on, you must be watching something. ‘Uh, I don’t remember the last time’ I’m like Kung Fu Panda?. ‘Uh, yeah, maybe’. So I would like really literally feed a movie, uh, to, to an audience of Chinese participants, right. That that’s how it was at that time. Uh, so that they are on that end of the spectrum. And then you’ve got all the other cities.


Like there’s no prize for guessing which city is on the right most end of the spectrum, right? It’s Chennai. Like I’ll go and then they will have, they can, there will be a group of five people where three people will be making their own separate (movie scripts). It’s supposed to be a group exercise with one output. But they are, one guy was so passionate about Vijay, he said, I don’t care. These guys are making a Kamal thing, but I want to do a Vijay movie. Right. And that’s unique. So it’s, it’s fascinating. It’s a cultural thing and you know, it’s lovely to see that, you know, how it seeps in and results in storytellers like you coming out. So that’s lovely. 


I’d love to now get into your, one of your core work activities, which is user research, right? And in a way, what you’re trying to do is to gather the story from users, right? What are they doing and why is it that they’re doing what they’re doing? And so I want to quickly share my thoughts on why I think this is super important, because it’s not, it seems like a very, less important thing, ‘Arre, research, we need to get some data’ and then do it. But it’s I think super important. Why? So the analogy that I use for the story is like that of a house, right? A four-wall brick house. And when we want to build a brick house, we start with bricks, but bricks themselves are like, you know, work in progress. So bricks are made of clay. So clay is the data, the raw material with which you start. And then you do some cleaning up of the clay, it’s messy, unclean.


You do some baking of it. So that’s basically our analysis from the analysis from the brick in emerges the bricks which are the findings and It’s very tempting then to take all the findings and then on a big truck or a wheelbarrow to your audience So they take a look at this all these great findings that we have and the audience will be like What do I do with this with this collection of bricks, right? I don’t care about your bricks. I want my house So the house is a story right? So in that analogy works very well so I think you’re basically in the house business, but to a large extent, you’re in the clay business, right? To have good quality clay. And so then the quote that I remember that comes in, this is Sherlock Holmes’ quote, where he’s once supposed to have said that, “Data, data, data, I can’t make bricks without clay”. So I think good quality data is super important to make good quality stories. So now let’s talk about how do you actually go about doing that, right?


This is one thing that you’ve talked about in other interviews about the importance of establishing trust or a connection with the interviewee, right? And you’re meeting somebody probably for the first time, you might have had one short phone conversation. How do you actually build that trust where in a very short period of time, that person is revealing fairly deep, you know, secrets or deep elements about what they do, why they do with the stranger? 

Dharmesh (15:36)

Yeah. So usually this question I try to uh give through an example. So we all have seen ‘Friends’ like the series. Now each of these characters are so personal to us that if any of your own friends exhibit some characteristics of like from Friends you would start comparing it with them right now if somebody is being a little sarcastic you will call them Chandler right if somebody is being like a playboy you call them like Joey right now the question comes to uh why are we doing this because we have spent so much time with that particular content across like so many episodes. So you’ve seen that particular person in different contexts, probably when they were single, when they were in relationship, when they were married, etc. That character becomes a part of your thinking. And hence, when you see them somewhere, you’re easily able to associate the real life personality with that fictional character.


Now, how was even the fictional character being built or written by the writers? They have actually seen a lot of other interesting people and they have picked up interesting stuff and they’ve built a character which you can easily relate with or you admire. So whatever like Friends try to do it across like 10 seasons, 200 plus episodes, in a user research, we want to do it in a shorter period of time.


So the idea is essentially like how you have a virtual character like Chandler, Joey or Monica. I want to build a character, but it is not inspired by one person’s story. It’s inspired by multiple people’s story. Right. Now, which means if I talk to Ravi or if I talk to Shankar or if I talk to multiple sort of people, I want to find patterns which are similarities or differences.


Now, which means I need to start by asking a similar set of questions. I’m not saying same, but similar. If I’m trying to sort of understand your financial behavior, let’s say how you use bank accounts or how you spend money. I will go with to the field with pre written questionnaire, but that acts only as a guide for me to figure out what to ask, what topic to cover.


And different people will have different ways of responding. Now the goal is to sit with the user and make sure we are able to establish an authentic conversation. So whenever I train people, even in the team, I said the goal is not to do the best research. The goal is to have an authentic conversation. Now the authenticity part.


Comes only when the researcher is actually interested in listening. Right. Now, if you think of it as a job where you are reading out a script, the people will easily see through it. If you’re not really interested, they will see through it. That’s the difference between like a really good, even in the podcast, right? You know, you take news anchors on one side, the podcasters (on the other side) and all the same news anchors, you can’t even bear them for like 10 minutes. They won’t allow you to speak. They’re just speaking for themselves. Right. But on the other hand, if you look at like a podcast, like the slow interview, which Neelesh Mishra does or what Seen and Unseen what Amit Verma does, it goes for one and a half hours, two hours, three hours. And still you don’t feel like the three hours is like a movie, like a Karan Johar movie, right? But you still don’t feel the intensity of it because the conversation is so free-flowing.


You just feel like you’re sitting with two people in a room. Right. Now, that’s the same level of authenticity you should bring to your interviews too. Now, there are some sort of directions which you can, or some sort of tips you can figure out. For example, you don’t directly start with very transactional questions. I don’t know, you start by understanding their life. Where do they come? What’s the environment that they’re set in?


Are they middle class upper middle class and all of them, but you can directly ask, are you going to guess, right? What does your home look like? What is your, what did your parents do? Do you have siblings? Where does your home, where is your home? Is it your own home? Is it an invented home? Tell us the story of how you came from a different city to here. Right now that will ease up things a little bit, but there’s no guarantee that, you know, every time it’s going to ease up, but it will ease up things a little bit


In many interviews, folks who were very reluctant to start the interview over the period of time, they spend more time than what they have actually given us with us because they really liked talking to us. Let’s say in a case, someone who is like 40 years or 45 years old men, uh, nobody really has deeper conversations with them. Right now, when you start talking, when you give them an opportunity to talk about their life, you go and sit when they’re still ask them about how you do business and you sense that they’re more interested to talk, because nobody has ever asked them that. Probably they’re not famous enough to go and give talks or lectures. Or their family might not be interested in sitting and listening to these stuff in the dinner table. They might not necessarily have partners through whom they discuss. They might not have friends, probably very sparingly, but not every time. So many times, it somewhere becomes like a slightly more

therapeutic session for them to express themselves for the first time. Right. So in contrary to what most people believe saying that, you know, why will I talk to a stranger if you’re able to sort of emit the right kind of intention, people will open up. Right. Now that also gives us the responsibility to make sure that we protect their identity. We make sure that, you know, we use the data in the right way for the right intention and all of that. Right. So this is like the dynamic, uh, between like how to establish trust, how to get authentic stories, but moreover, like whenever like younger folks come and ask me, how do we do research, give me tips, give me tricks, give me books and all of that for me, it’s like learning swimming. You could watch any number of YouTube videos, but unless you get into the pool yourself and practice it a little bit. There’s nothing that’s going to help. So when we do interviews, it’s almost like a theatre performance. Because you are the interviewer, there’s an interviewer. There’s somebody taking notes, and there’s a questioner, and somebody else in their environment might come and intrude you, or they may ask cross questions. So there are multiple things that are happening in that environment. And besides all of this, you should just have a focus of making sure you have a good conversation. Right. So, if you, if I do a lot more tips and if you think that tips needs to be at the back of your mind to make sure you’re doing it right, it becomes one additional factor which will overwhelm you. Right. It’s better to let go of a lot of these other stuff, sit there and think that you’re meeting your old friend or acquaintance. And whenever I sit with people, I genuinely look forward to learn something from their life.


Right. And for me, a lot of mental models of life I’ve also gotten from people who otherwise would have been very difficult to meet. There was a professor in NID who took ethnography for me. Right. He at one point during a casual conversation, he said something that, you know, we all live in a cocoon. Right. He said, you, most of you won’t even have, most of you will what do you call, will move around with people who are like you. And he gave a very thought experiment. He said, go to your Facebook. This was back in 2012. So go to your Facebook, uh, remove all your school friends, remove all your relatives, remove all your college friends, work friends. And, uh, uh, if you’re able to get 10 people after removing all of this, then probably you’re lucky. Okay. I think that had a very profound impact to say that, you know,


It was true, right? You know, because all the people that I knew, we’re all from the same college, same school, same town, blah, blah, blah, right? You know, you would never have like a Swiggy delivery executive as a part of your Facebook friend list, right? You would never have someone who is a farmer as a part of your WhatsApp contact list, right? Which means that, you know, our worldviews are generally also limited, right?


So research allows you to break away from that and meet other people and gives you an opportunity to learn about their stories.

Ravi 24:42

It’s beautiful, Dharmesh. And I can see your intense curiosity coupled with deep empathy coming through in the answer. Right. And in a way, those two are, I feel like crucial ingredients for to be able to, to conduct a respectful interview. Can, is this something that can be taught or is it a muscle that can be built or you kind of feel that you have empathy or you don’t? 

Dharmesh (25:09)

Um, no, it can be built. But it’s a painstakingly long process. It cannot be taught like a software tool where within a few weeks or a few months, you will have to go through a lot. It hurts a lot of your ego. I would still say that I’m not there yet. One of the first things that they teach you even in an ID ethnography course is to first write your own autobiography.


So that was a very painful process. Like a lot of my batch mates literally cried when they wrote their own stuff because you have to write your own autobiography and you’ll have to actually code it. So coding in ethnography essentially is where you highlight important aspects of the transcript and you pull them out and you analyze. And that’s what we do even in our interviews. So that coding process is where you’ll have to read your book, your own life.


I have some of my batchmates who came and said that, you know, I can’t do this on my own. You will have to do this for me. And like I did it for a friend or two, right? Because you know, when you start writing, you will know how painful probably your journey is and some of the stuff you can’t even like withstand. And it’s very difficult to read it again. But they put you through the journey primarily because for you to understand your biases, right? Where you come from? What is your ideology around women? What is your ideology around work? What is your ideology around good life? Right? All of that when you start writing about yourself, it starts coming out even today I keep it as a practice to write my journal from now and then and That helps me to self reflect and understand Whether I’m doing something right or wrong, right, you know, so a lot of self reflection is required.


And a lot of writing is required. A lot of seeing insight is actually sort of required, right? Before you take up something like this, because you go to the field and at some point you can switch into an activist, right? You know, like somebody would come and say that, you know, oh, she’s my daughter. I’m not going to send her to college. I’m just going to get her married. And that realises that you’re not an activist. You’re here to just as an observer. You can’t go on questioning that, you know, hey, why not and stuff.


Two reasons, right? You know, one, you could definitely get beaten up. Second is that, you know, that’s not part of your job at that point in time. That’s not the mask that you are (wearing). ‘I agree/ I don’t agree with it’ is a separate aspect. So let’s say for somebody else doing something very spiritual, something which is not something that agrees with you. It’s still my next question is: “why do you think this will solve (the) problem?” as opposed to asking them, “why are you doing this?” Right.


So for example, if somebody is telling me that, you know, they, they are most likely going to get their daughter married and not send her to college. My first question is, you sent your son for higher education or for your college. Why do you think your daughter should get married? Right. Now you ask it from a sense of, again, curiosity, and not from a sense of judgment by judgment, right? They might have their own answer. You are again, accept that answer, not accept that answer… we don’t know what is the environment that they are in and stuff like that. So that’s where it comes from. Sorry, I think I deviated too much from what you asked. 


I think these are great points and I love the self-reflection piece. So I’ve been reading a little bit about the Greeks and Socrates talked about Know Thyself as a core thing. Unless you are deeply curious about yourself and reflecting about why you do what you do, it’s kind of difficult. So it’s a great hack or muscle, if you want to build your own curiosity and empathy muscle, I think, you know, reflect upon your own life. And I love that exercise of writing an autobiography. It could be painful both because of the memories it might, you know, bubble up, but also the actual act of writing. Many people struggle with that, right? So it’s a great exercise. I love some specific tips also that you’re given in an interview and I’d love for you to, you know, elaborate on them. So one, I remember you mentioned that to build trust especially and to build that bond with the interviewee is to not dress flamboyantly, the kind of dress that you wear, where you sit down, like the story that you shared about a house in Tumkur. I think those examples I really liked and also in your own case, once when they shared a story about their mother, you shared your own story about your mother.


So maybe (if you can) elaborate on those two, three examples and you know, how those can be trustworthy. 


One is you need to blend with the environment, right? If they see yourself as an outsider, you know, it’s a very Indian thing not to whine about your problems to somebody else. Right. So they want to actually project. Everything is going good. Even if something is happening between like the mother and the son, they don’t want to really talk about it. Right.


Or let’s say we did some interviews around the small business owners, right? You know, if small business owners are not going to talk about how the business is not going good in front of their employees. So there’s a lot of dynamics that is involved. So one is you need to blend within the environment and make sure that you are not in any way, emitting any signal saying that I’m an outsider, it could be from the shirt that you wear and that you wear. In fact, I have a separate kit when I go to the field, right? You know, where, when I’m in Bangalore, I have a different backpack and I have a different, I’ll take my tab and all of that. But when I go to field, I have like a different set of backpack. I have different set of clothes. I make sure that, you know, I pick one of them and go there. And I also recommend this also, like to my women counterparts who come with me onto the field. Right. Yeah. Because you don’t want any other sort of questions or distractions there. Right.


So that’s one thing. Second thing is around where you sit and how you sit is also very important. There are very times I’ve gotten very pissed off when the newbie researchers come sit in front of the participant, they cross their legs over and sit. I mean, it’s not respectful. You’re sitting in a smaller town, smaller village. They don’t wanna say anything about it, they probably have come from a very marginalized community for them. It’s okay for somebody else to sort of sit there. They have seen this everywhere, but doesn’t mean that we should exhibit the same behavior, right? You know, you’re there. They are doing us actually a favor, right? Even though in all the conversations we compensate them for the time, but I still deeply grateful for them to actually, from, in my opinion, they’re still doing a favor to us, right? Even though you can see that’s a transactional thing at a different lens for me, it’s still, they’re giving their time, telling their story. There is also a sense of hope, right? So for example, when you go to the most smaller towns that you go, and when you try speaking to people, we give them the context, but there is also a sense of hope saying that, you know, these people have traveled so many kilometers, they’ve taken a flight and come here. If I tell the story, maybe this will come back to us in something in a good way. Right? So that humility needs to be there and you should understand the context. You can’t be like, you know, I’m a founder of a product when I design it and I’m from so and so institutions. That doesn’t work. It shouldn’t work. Right. So it’s like if they’re sitting down, if they’re sitting on the floor, we should sit down. Like we also sit down. Like if they’re sitting in the chair, then we ask them for a chair. So it’s a very interesting thing. So there are times where we have sat in a godown and actually did an interview, right? You know, on one side, this person was selling security cameras on Amazon. It’s a very small space in suburbs of Bombay, right? You enter there, there was just one small space where he can sit. We sat among the security cameras and we started having conversations with them. So that’s one thing. Other than that, what are some of the physical things that will sort of emit trust?


Usually there are places where they will serve you food, they will serve you water and stuff like that. Like in all the most of the cases, wherever we can, wherever it’s possible, we try to accept it. Right. Unless, you know, you’re already in fever, there is climate that doesn’t, I mean, it’s bad, you don’t want to do it. But in most cases, we try to sort of accept it because that’s also a gesture to say that, you know, hey, we are guests and we will sort of like, you know, I’m happy to sort of be served by you. Right.


So some of these are smaller aspects. I think over a period of time, people will learn if you’re a researcher.

Ravi 34:18

I love these, you know, multiple small things. And again, I think the core element of saying, you know, the core objective of saying to have an authentic conversation where you are as empathetic and curious as you can be. I think that that’s a core objective, but all these, you know, many elements are also useful. And I think a lot of people who will then be actually conducting user interviews, whether within an organization or outside, I think can take a lot of tips from this. 

Dharmesh 34:42

Yeah. One other thing also, we try to draw a line. There are times where things will go down south. Specifically, there are multiple, like a couple of incidents where the gaze of the participant towards the female counterpart was not good. In those cases, we will cut the interview short and we will leave. You know, there is a fine line between both. So for example, how much you could sort of withhold, how much you shouldn’t.


And if you think it, you start feeling if it’s a slightly more unsafe space, I tell my folks it’s okay. We put an effort, we went and did this. You don’t have to actually sort of withstand these gazes in the name of being professional. You can come. But the second thing also we did very recently also one of these interviews, we do coordinate with the participant beforehand. We tell them the context and with their permission, we go to the store.


This time what happened, they started asking, like the business owner started asking this question, why do you do what you do? We gave him all these instances and very interesting. It was also learning for me because we are a digital first company. We are a remote company, never ever had like the need to print a visiting card. So the first thing the business owner asked is, give me a visiting card. And it never struck us to say that we should have a visiting card.


We said we didn’t know. I mean, we don’t have it. I mean, we didn’t bring it. That’s what I said. And then the conversation went to a different direction. He said that, you know, look, I’m a small store. I have a visiting card. Why don’t you have a visiting card? What is your GST number and all of that? We didn’t continue the conversation like we said we will not do it because, you know, we feel that, you know, he’s not yet confident. It’s better to cut the conversation then. And then I said that, you know, OK, we will next time when we come, we’ll bring in a visiting card.


For when I look back, it sounds like a silly thing. I should have had a visiting card. But you know, in that moment, it was a very interesting thing for me to say, what are all artifacts in a physical world gains trust, right? So visiting card will gain trust. If you have like a company badge, it will gain slightly more sort of trust. And so these are all things. And so we are a smaller firm, we are also learning and how to handle all of these.

Ravi 37:10

So one is, let’s say you’ve built that trust and now you’re kind of having the conversation, right? So the next challenge could be, how do you get the person to really open up and share as close as possible the real reason why they do what they do? And so this is of course not an easy one. There’s a famous quote by David Ogilvy, right? Where he says that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.


So we have all these gaps between our feelings and our final action. And so how do you get people to really reveal not just what they’re doing, but why is it, whatever they’re doing, they’re doing? 


There are three ways that I can think about, right? One is through conversations. Second is through observations. Third is through visualizations, right? So the first is conversations which is like how we are speaking right? Some are very articulative some are not some are interested some are disinterested. Okay now people who have once … once they convinced that you know that you know i want to have a chat with this person beyond that it’s mostly a smooth process right unless if the person by themselves are very introverted in nature like they’re not willing to speak up. Okay. Not because they don’t want to, but that’s how the nature is. Now, somewhere down the line, we also try to slightly let’s say massage their ego, right? You know, talk about good aspects of it or talk about good aspects of their life. We start like, you know, appreciating some of the aspects that they told us, right? Maybe they will get slightly better confidence into speaking more with us, right?


It’s all done in good faith, by the way. And there’s a very thin line between doing this and manipulation, right? So here we have to draw the line and say that, here we are trying to sort of have the conversation. So this is one way where we have a set of questions you ask and they sort of follow it up. The best way is to follow up their actions, the actions that they told us, with the reasoning of why they did it, right? 


Can you give an example?

Dharmesh 39:31

Yeah, so for example, let’s say I asked a store owner, why did you choose this location? Okay, they say that there is a school outside nearby this store and hence I chose. My next question should be there are so many schools around in the area, why did you choose this school? Right, because for most people they’d be like, huh, school, that’s why they asked what they did, but she also I know the reason why they didn’t do other stuff. Correct. Right. There could have been so many businesses that could be run associated with the school, but why did he choose a stationary store? Right. And how did you go about it? So then they will go ahead with the actual reason, the more ‘Whys’ that you ask in a smart manner, they will get to the actual reason.


Then it will come to the point saying that no, this building is something. Uh, for example, in this case, they said that this, this building is someone is owned by someone that I knew. So he was ready to give it to me. Right. Uh, and, uh, his initial, um, rent was around 20,000 rupees per month. Every of their family members or like the relatives laughed at him saying that, you know, nobody in their right mind will actually take a store for 20,000 rupees stationary store right off like this. Uh, but this person whom he knew was ready, was trusting him and was ready to give it to him. So he started there. Right. So if you ask three, four more Why’s and you’ll get to the actual reason. Right. So that’s one way to look at it. This is mostly through conversation. Right. 

Second is through observation. When you say through observation, what it means is you go with a certain set of questions, but you’re also observing the environment for the first there you might find a lot of interesting things. And you might want to ask or add questioner to that. So that’s why I usually tell my team, saying that the question that you’re taking is just a guide, don’t stick to it. Also observe and see if you can pull out some aspects around that. So for example, in again, like in one of the recent interviews, there was suddenly a very interesting condition that’s picked from CCTV cameras.


So what happened was that, you know, there was one store owner and there was a store owner, he had like one employee, he was running like a fancy store. And we tried asking him, who takes care of the shop when you’re not there? And he immediately pointed out the CCTV camera. Like, you know, in my absence, this person acts as like the store owner. Then we went into this conversation of CCTV camera and it was very fascinating. Then I asked him, said, can you show us how this software goes?


And you had strategically placed multiple CCTV cameras and he showed us the ability to move the camera pan it out and all of that. Now, if we had not asked the question or if we had not pointed out that CCTV, the entire part would have gotten missed. 


It was not part of the questionnaire. 


It was not a part of the questionnaire. We never even again, then I’m sitting here in Bangalore and thinking about it. I would have not thought about to ask a small business owner. I should have had a section around CCTV cameras.


But interestingly, after that, whenever we saw a CCTV camera, we used to ask this, can you tell me the story of it? What is the purpose of it? So that was one of the interesting plays where technology has become a part of the running the business. How a man is saying that in my absence, CCTV camera will take a look at it is slightly more very utopian sort of thing, how the person is perceiving. Tomorrow that could be replaced by a humanoid robot there.


So yeah. So the third aspect, I talked about observations. I talked about conversation and observation. And the third one is visualization. There are certain topics which will be very challenging for people to articulate. Let’s say, for example, questions like, how do I say? How many times did you use UPI?


in last week. If I ask this question in general, you’re going to tell something randomly from top of your mind. Okay. Hence what we do is we create these cue cards. So like, like we designed those cue cards, we print it out, we go there and we put it in front of them and say that, you know, can you pick one of this? Right. In that I would have written like, you know, less than once a week, one to 10 times a day, sorry, one to 10 times in a week or greater than 10 times in a week. Right.


So it’s better for me to choose from an option rather than putting in the effort and coming up with my own option. It also works with a lot of questions which are slightly more a taboo topic, right? What is the average bank balance that you would have in your bank account, right? So it’s better for them to select, it’s easy for them to select, associate themselves with a range as opposed to explicitly telling a number.


So this is visualization which allows them to sort of, which allows them to talk through a cue card, right? Sometimes it’s just they might forget. For example, if they think about, this is also a very interesting example, right? Now we ask about what are your most preferred sources of credit, right? We give the cue card and we ask them to pick up.


Now, if you openly ask them what is your sources of credit, they might mostly think about bank, moneylenders, etc. You will be surprised to know many people don’t think gold loan as a credit because it’s asset-backed and in their mind it’s like he is giving me money after taking my gold. How is it a loan? Right? So, as opposed to a bank giving me like a home loan or not even home loan, right? You know, general loan for like business and stuff is just blindly trusting me. Right. So even with respect to asset backed loans and like a non asset backed loans, there is a different perception. Unless I put it forward with them with all these two cards, they will not be able to associate or talk to me about it. So yeah, that’s, that’s the three ways how we make sure that, you know, people are able to have conversations with us. 


Fascinating points. You talked about the five Whys, which is a powerful technique always to get to the bottom. And in a way, you kind of having a variant of that is a why not, right? Like a counterfactual key. You said near a school, why not some other school? Where else could you have done it? So I’m kind of seeing you widen the frame of the question and make that person think sometimes they may not even have thought so deeply, which have been a very intuitive decision. But yeah, in this case, probably it was there. So that part I love. And also when we talk about visualization, right? So we used to do it in a slightly different way, but I love the concept of the cue cards. So we used to do a lot of research interviews with healthcare professionals during my consulting stint. And a lot of the time you would want to try and get a sense of volumes being done by a particular specialty or doctor or whatever. And if you ask a person, how many surgeries did you perform the last month? They would have a very, very difficult for them to pinpoint that number under there, like completely tracking it. Ranges would always help. So would it be in the 20 to 30 range or the, and typically give two ranges which are like far apart from each other. So that it forces them to say, no, no, definitely not 80, 90 is more closer to the 20 to 30. And more often than not, in a lot of these situations, you want ballpark numbers. You don’t want like decimal point accuracy. So the range part is one thing, but not just telling them a range, but showing them. So you actually carry like almost like playing card the size of the cue cards with you. 

Dharmesh 47:47

Yeah. I might have some of it here. 


That’s fascinating. It shows that level of preparedness. How did this idea come, if may I ask, because did you see somebody else doing it? It’s a very one of those ideas that, oh, it makes a lot of sense, but I would not think of it intuitively. 


It’s a very common practice even among the user researchers. I wouldn’t say this is something very novel, but probably the idea of cue-cards existed.


But how do you contextualize and put it? Where should you use cue-cards or something that we come up with? But the idea by itself, I don’t think it’s happening. I think, I mean, I’m also kind of remembering examples where it might not be numbers. It might be pictures that you know, what would you choose and stuff. 


Yeah. So it’s, yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. All right. So I think that that gives us some interesting ideas to get answers that are more accurate…may not be 100% but getting closer to accurate. I think that’s very useful. 


No, in fact, that’s what we aim to do also. Like I said, that I want to get one version of the truth. I’m not really expecting you need the exact truth. Even that lens itself changes a lot between how a quantitative person will look at the data of this qualitative person. Whenever I go to the field with the product managers, it becomes very challenging because they’re pushing them to say the exact number. Exactly. Right?


So they will get into the business and the second or third question would be, is how much revenue do you make per year? What is your balance sheet like sort of a question? 


The other kind of point that I remember you making in another interview, Dharmesh, was that often you will kind of ask deeper questions until you can boil down the motivation of a person to foundational, to basic emotions, to fundamental emotions of fear or anger or so and so can you elaborate on that and maybe an example would also be useful. 


Yeah, so ultimately each one of like their life actions is associated with some core belief system or some core goals and motivations, right? You when you probe deeper into it, you will get to the crux of why they want to do certain aspects, right?


So let’s say for example, again, another example, I’ll be able to tell a lot only through examples, That’s more interesting.



So we were speaking to a farmer last year and we were trying to understand his financial behavior. There were different cue cards that I had put out to understand what are the modes of the loans that he prefers and there are different cue cards but generally he was very averse about taking, he had an aversion towards taking loans because he didn’t want like the overhead of paying like the interest. But when we showed the cue cards of friends and family, he actually got triggered right? You know, if you started saying that, you know, you can take loan from anybody in the world, but never take it from the friends and family. And we continue the conversation. We went to other stuff, but I came back to this idea of you said you particularly were very against around taking loans from the friends and families. Why? Right? You know, one he said that, you know, if I take a loan from them, it will definitely signal saying that I’m not really having a great life. As we started having more conversations around that in some of the topics also, one story that came up was the fact that he came out of his joint family in a very, very bad situation. He was in the kind of situation where he had a fight with his siblings and he came out and he was in this journey to establish himself as a happy family even without their support. Right. So his entire goal was to get his both son and daughter educated, send them to master’s degree, all of that. And hence his perception towards friends and family are they will never help you. Right. So hence I don’t want to associate any loans with the friends or family. But unless you speak about all of this, you’ll not be able to get to the crux of why he is (averse to loans from friends and family).


Otherwise, you just write saying that, you know, farmers are not really interested in taking like the loans from friends and families. You can’t make that generalization. You should know where does it, where is all the driving coming from. So then it goes back to this idea of two sets of people, people who live in like a joint family, people who live as a nuclear family, even in a smaller town, what is the dynamics between them? How do they look at it? Correct. So those aspects  will strongly drive your analysis.

Ravi 53:26

Yeah, and the framework that comes to mind is, you know, a very basic foundational framework of Maslow’s hierarchy, where we, of course, have the physical needs and the love needs, but after that, there’s belonging, which is belonging, need to belong to a community or a family, and that’s there. But the one just above that is ‘status’ within that community or family, right? And so the moment we take, we are signaling Our status is lower or it’s not ideal, right? And especially if you are unable to repay that, it’s still okay if it is a stranger bank, but even worse when it is family. So it’s interesting how some of these questions can trigger those ideas. 

Dharmesh 54:01

Yeah, one thing that I’ve come to understand is in the lack of like sufficient money to run their life or go forward, with the aspirations and goal, it’s the dignity and respect with the community that takes the precedence. Right? And hence, if any anything that comes to hinder that, it becomes an identity problem for them. Right. So we should understand like the hierarchy of why they are being respected, why they get the certain status in that society, whatever status it might be. Right.


And what is the reason for it? Is it money driven? It is nature of the person driven or is it like the community driven? Based on this then you will know what is their priority in their life

Ravi 55:05

Another issue that researchers face, and you’ve talked about this, Dharmesh, is bias, right? And bias can come from various things. One is that you’ve got strong points of view on a topic, like you mentioned the researcher who might feel that the interviewee is being very patriarchal. It could be biased because you probably know something about finance and how the world works and you might have a perception about the fact that the research, the interview is not acting quote unquote rationally. Or it could be just the example, the point that you mentioned at the very beginning that having read so much about human biases, you might be having all these labels in your head to say, oh, this person is doing an anchoring bias and this is doing, you know, whatever else. And so how to, you know, acknowledge or know that these biases are there, how to cope with them, how to kind of keep your mind clean?

Dharmesh 56:01

Oh, one is read less of those biases, right? Like that’s like doctor trying to read about every other disease in the world and then he figured out like, you know, okay, you don’t know if you have this disease. Like, like, I was actually discussing this with a friend of mine, right? 


I was talking to him about like, Oh, my doctor has told me that I have like vitamin D deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency and all of that. I was a little worried and I was having a casual conversation with him. He said something that was very interesting. He said, see, this is a human body. It’s like a machine. It will have four or five problems. Right. It’s a nature of it. Like if you consider every problem, keep fixing it, something or the other will keep coming up, right? He doesn’t mean that, you know, you shouldn’t fix these problems, but he said that, you know, it doesn’t need to be such a big thing to keep it at the keep it at the front of your mind and be worried about it. 


You will try to optimize every parameter in your body. 


Yeah. Similarly, like, again, go back to the academics that I learned from. The question that I would ask, I asked my professor when I was young was, how do I not be biased? Right. He said, you can’t remove biases. You can just only be aware of them. You can just be aware of the biases that you have. You can’t remove biases because… The word bias itself has a very, I mean, in the common terms, we’ve given a very negative context to it, right? But it helps you take a lot of interesting decisions throughout your life, right? And it helps you navigate life in a slightly more smoother manner because you’re not analyzing everything from the core for everything. Like you already know how things work, how things function, that is already in your mind, there are boxes where you put these information, right?


You just need to be aware of where is it coming from and whether it applies in this context or not, right? You know, which requires a slightly more deeper inquiry for that, right? You know, and go back to the same answer that you said that, you know, one, if you do active listening and if you have like enough curiosity, then this idea of bias might take a step back. Again, I wouldn’t say that, you know, you will not have biases. The idea of bias might take a step back.


In fact, even though I speak so much, the way my female counterparts do interviews is very different from how I do. Even as recently as this, we are speaking to a female business owner. Before that, I did an interview where I spoke with a male business owner. He never spoke about family. He spoke about how he takes all the decisions and how he manages finances and all of that.


The next interview where like my teammate who did an interview, she got into this idea of family because she knew that she, the particular female business owner will also have struggled in fact managing her household. That was not a part of the questionnaire. Right. I’m not sure if I would have asked it in so deep a manner. And that’s what I meant that, you know, sometimes those biases actually help in getting to the core of the narrative right because in that shop we were in a very small shop where the husband and the wife was there. The husband was sitting outside and there was a small kid who was just going around his mom right she was taking care of the shop she was organizing like the chudidaars or whatever in the shop but she was also managing the kids saying that you don’t go there don’t be here and all of that right?


This is just an observation. Again, I’m not putting any judgmental calls here, but that’s the observation, which means even in a simple one hour conversation, if the amount of work she has to do is likely more, also managing the kid, then my researcher has gotten this insight saying that, you know, I want to understand what is your life even outside the shop. Right. Then she talks about saying how her husband comes early, she has to come later one day because, you know, she has to cook for the family and then come.


And even the way she thinks about like expanding the business or the aspirations and all of that is very limited because she thinks that, you know, she has to manage family and also like the business and all of that, right. So yeah, I mean, sometimes bias is actually helpful. 


I love that. It’s beautiful. It’s a great combination of empathy and observation that, yeah, that day. I would have also probably missed that, right? It’s sort of been like, yeah, let’s talk about work. Let’s leave out family. Yeah. So the last question I had on the research part, before we move to the insight generation part, was about engaging the interest of the interviewee while you’re talking, right? And one lovely example you gave was for an online interview where you had two people and while one person was asking questions, the other person was creating something in Figma, note taking. Can you elaborate on that? You know, what are the ideas do you have to engage the interviewee?

Dharmesh 01:01:06

Okay, so there are two ways to do this. One is the doing it in online, right? And second is when you’re doing it in field interviews. In field interviews, what happens is one person does the interview, the other person is actually taking notes. The second researcher is also tasked to observe the environment, right? Because the first researcher is completely engaged in asking the question, yeah. 


Sorry, would you always recommend to have … It’s always better to have two than one because of all these. And now we know why. But so what you’re saying? Note taking, observing the environment, go on. 


Yeah, so the first person is totally involved in active listening to the participant. The second person is actually making sure that there is notes that have been taken. They also observe the environment. So by the end of the interview, there is a pause where the second researcher is allowed a few minutes time to ask any additional questions. Right?


But in addition to all of this, there’s also other orchestrations that are there. You know, we have like a remote microphone. Somebody needs to make sure the microphone is still recording. Um, and so you definitely need two people. And if you’re doing, if you’re also recording video, then you might need three people also, right? So minimum two maximum three is fine. If there’s too many people also, then it becomes like a crowd. So even if there are four people we enter, we recommend two people to sit in the car or somewhere. Uh, because you know, if there is too much too many people then the participant becomes slightly more conscious. So that’s one way we do in offline. So in the online… 


Just one quick question on offline before we go to online. So if you’re already recording or taking audio recording, why take notes? 


No, one way to… because the audio will go to a transcription agency, it will get transcribed and it will come back. So the turnaround time is a lot more. The moment you take notes, immediately after the interview, we do a catch up, right? A breakdown of how the interview went. Right. So this notes become a good reference point to figure out what went well, what didn’t go well, which question. It’s not just the notes from the interview, but it is also something where the secondary researcher would have noted down saying that you missed going deeper into this point. Like I wanted to like note this down, right? We either the person themselves will ask, or they will give it as a recommendation to the second researcher saying that, in the next interview, we should go deeper into this. 


And also might be your quick observations you can add. I think there’s some magic happened when you’re writing with hand, right? So it’s a great thing. Sorry, so coming to the online engagement ideas. 


So in the online engagement ideas, one of the things is just to sit in front of like a laptop or like a phone and speak for one hour is a very tiring task right? Just to keep them engaged, what we do is we would do like a real time visualization, right? You know, like just like a form, we would create this artboard in Figma and say that, you know, which of these following, uh, uh, UPI apps that you would use, right? You know, and I would have like PhonePe, GooglePay and like, um, Paytm and all of that. And when they say PhonePe, maybe I will convert that into a different color. So you know that, you know, in real time, you’re also creating like an artboard, which is also engaging. They are also seeing. So It’s again like a little bit of theatrics to make sure that, you know, one, we cover all the questions, keep them engaged and see that there’s a artifact that was created at the end of the interview. That was one experiment we did try.

Ravi 01:04:42

I love that. I think it’s a great way to kind of show, not just tell something visual engagement is also happening. It’s not just and especially if the person has switched off the camera, do you insist that they keep the camera on in? 


Not really. I mean, they can keep the camera off. But what we recommend is if there are other people observing in the online interviews, we recommend their cameras to be off, right? Only the interviewer and the participant as the option to either choose on switch on or switch off the camera.

Ravi 01:05:13

Makes sense. Superb. So this is a lot of effort and thought that goes into building trust, asking the right questions, engaging the interviewee and getting powerful insights out. I’m gonna talk about the insight generation part now, right? One is of course, just a transcription and you know, okay, I asked X and he said Y, so that is one part. But then to then combine all the things that they said and come up with insights, I’d love to know the process that you kind of, you know, have for yourself or the person who has done the interviews and you know, how do you come up with those? 


The first process is to convert the audio into English text, right? So we do it in multiple languages across Bengali, Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, whichever it is, that is later converted into English text. The second is to highlight anecdotes which are relevant to the interview. Like I said, we start the interview with a lot of pleasantries being shared and that could be sometimes people talk about their own stories. It might be exciting, but it’s not relevant to what you’re trying to understand. So from here, there’s a lot of convergence that is happening. From here on, I’m making it more focused.


From like the previous process, it’s slightly more divergent. Right? And I see something interesting. I start the question from there. So from here, we stop and we say, okay, now it’s time to converge. There are multiple different ways how people answer. Now, if I ask you a question of, Hey, I really like the wood color in your door. Can you tell me a little bit about it? One person might just say that, you know, it’s just an MDF plywood. Some will go on to say that how did they choose an interior and they will tell the whole story. For one interview, the same question is split across multiple three sub questions. Like the answer is split up because I’ve asked you follow up, follow up, follow up to get to the core. For some person, it would just be one answer because they’re good in articulation. So we have to normalize this, right? So the first thing is to go highlight the important pieces which are relevant to the questionnaire that we are dealing with. Second, pull the similar anecdotes which answer one single question and club them together. So this is step number one what we do. The step number two what we do is pull all of these anecdotes and put them in a separate database. Now till now your entire view was an individual led which means your lens is very individual like you know you’re seeing only one  interview and questions within that. Now this is the first time when you’re pulling these anecdotes and putting it in a database


You’re starting to see this anecdotes across. 


Sorry, what database do you use? 


It could be anything. It could be Excel, AdTable, Notion. We use Notion. But you could use any sort of spreadsheet or database software. 


Basically, some way to tag it so that you can connect. 


Correct. Yeah. So some way to actually tag it. So now this is the first time you’re seeing the anecdotes across different interviews. Right.

Ravi 01:08:30

Maybe let’s use an example to make it clearer. So the gig worker economy, the gig worker report that you did where you spoke to many gig workers and ask them about their day, the challenges that they face. And so for example, a question might be what challenges do you face while doing it? And so you’ve got several responses. So you have put them all on a Notion database somewhere or any other and then yeah. 


Yeah. So we don’t take it with respect to questions, but we put every response. Right, you know, every across all the questions into a single database, it’s like one mega database. Right. Now after that, we go back and tag it. Right. So the challenges aspects. So on one, uh, row, the first column is the anecdote. Second column is the participant. The third column is the tag. Now here across this, uh, anecdote, I would have tagged it as challenge. Then I can apply a filter saying that show me challenges across all the participants.


And that’s when the anecdotes get filtered out and they come back. Then you do like a analysis on top of that. When you’re doing analysis, what I’m trying to figure out is patterns, patterns of similarity, differences, things that get repeated, things that are repeated at a particular frequency, the reason behind why those certain things happen. All of those patterns is what we look at and it’s done multiple times, right? You know, we put different filters, see it. So it’s like It’s like having like a pivot table, right? You know, you have different ways of looking at the data. And we do it across multiple eyes, which means we will bring in someone who is also not part of the project to come and do an analysis with us to see that, you know, if they have a different way of looking at the data, and then you collect the teams and then you’d write down. So we have something called like a team document, right? So you would give a title to the team. You will write like an almost like a newsletter, right? And you’ll write it. And then we add anecdotes supporting that data and then we will translate it into either recommendations or an opportunity for you to solve based on this particular theme. Right. Usually this process itself takes us anywhere between two to three weeks. 


Just wanted a quick basic question when you use the word anecdote, it… because there’s one typical definition of anecdote in storytelling that you know it has to have an event and some place and people, dialogue all of that not necessary. It could be just a statement also where somebody says that  I, for example, the shop owner saying that my deputy is the CCTV camera. That could also be an anecdote for you?


No. So we can, we don’t highlight just statements. We highlight the reasons behind that statement. So there needs to be an exhibition of a behavior or that needs to be reasoned behind that particular why that behavior happened.


For example, this executive saying CCTV camera is replacing me when I’m not around, it’s just a fact. I don’t want just to highlight that, but I also want to highlight the reason behind it, because he would have said about that in a subsequent conversation. We would pull that out and combine them and say that convert that into one good paragraph. Because that entire anecdote should be a mini story by itself. Because once you pull it out of the main document, it loses its Um, this pattern, right? Yeah, it loses context. So again, that anecdotes need to be self-explanatory. Of course, you know, as a researcher, you will know why, yeah, why they said it and stuff, but because you will come back to it after a week or a few days, you shouldn’t be like, you know, okay, who said this? What is this? Why is it? And stuff like that. So I always feel that, you know, when you’re pulling out those anecdotes, they should make sense by themselves. 


Fascinating. So and I love some of these that have come out, uh, from your reports, right? So I was reading the gig, uh, worker report and one insight that came out for me, which has now actually impacted my own actions is the fact that we were asking about the typical problems that gig workers face and lots of issues like, you know, that’s bad roads and you know, it’s hot and sometimes raining and security guards can be disrespectful, all of that. But one basic simple thing was that, you know, they struggle to get water and they struggle to find time to eat. And just a simple act. now I’ve started doing, whenever somebody delivers something, just asking them for water, I actually see their face, mildly light up in pleasant surprise that, oh, this person is actually asking allthough Zomato actually tells you to do that. So I love that, you know, thing that came out for that’s like a relatively, I would say, you know, surface level or maybe a couple of levels below insight. But now I want to talk about the concept of a deep level insight, right? Which comes from really deep reflection. I’ll give you an example that you yourself cited. And then maybe more examples can come. And I want to know about how do you come up with these? So the example that you cited was, which kind of blew my mind, that if you look at many present day app business models, many of them you could say have been born or come out from a JustDial. So JustDial, for those who are maybe too young, was a very, very popular service when we were growing up. But if you wanted to just know the phone number or maybe a dry cleaner near your place. You would call, they had a simple 88888888 number and they would say, oh, there are these other dry cleaners and we can send it to you on an SMS or we can tell you and you can move it out. So that was basically a Google, but for local search. And how you kind of said that, various elements of JustDial have been blown up into separate business models. So Zomato is food and restaurants, Practo is, is doctors and healthcare, uh, Urban Company, you know, all urban services and so on. So, uh, that was a brilliant insight for me. It’s like, you know, uh, there’s a nice definition of word insight, which is, uh, by, I think Sudhir Sitapati where he says that an insight is a contradiction that is obvious in hindsight. Both, both those kinds of, you know, come out very well here. So how would you come up with something like this? Do you have a reflection process that helps you to connect these disparate dots and then form a pattern? 


Yeah, with respect to this insight, there’s something that I read in a blog. And this is a very common framework if you look at deconstruction of JustDial, how it happened into different apps. Specifically with this insight, the way I think about it, it’s more to do with the generational shift from people who are using the web 1.0 to web 2.0. For the web 1.0 era, it worked well. For the web 2.0 era, probably by the time the internet users have evolved, their preferences have evolved, and all of that has evolved, maybe the way the Justdial was functioning is not being relatable for many. And hence, there is a decoupling of the apps, because their needs have become slightly more unique, and their preferences have become more unique. And those are stuff you can capture through mobile apps. And that’s one way to sort of look at it. So deeper insights in my opinion, again, I still haven’t figured out a way how I can push everybody to get deeper insights, right? Because it has a lot to do with your personal experiences, whatever stuff that you have read, how many people you have seen and all of that. It’s somewhere like I’m trying, so I put the data, so there’s my team who’s seeing the same data, I am seeing the same data.


The way I make the connections between these dots is very different from how the team is actually sort of making it, right? That can be different debates, that can be different arguments. I think the more aha moments you’re able to sort of capture, you’re able to push that into like interesting ways is what will make you into like a good researcher. But to answer honestly, I actually don’t know, right? You know, it comes through experiences.


And somewhere I also, whenever I feel that, you know, okay, the way I have been able to connect dots if somebody finds it interesting. And they tell me that, you know, it’s not very easy to do that. And you’re doing it very effortlessly. It just makes me more humble. Right. And it also has this fear saying that because I can’t explain why I’m doing this, I also have this fear that, you know, one day it will go away. 


So it’s like it’s like asking a musician, how are you performing music? Right. So the day when the musician tries to sort of articulate and tells tries to explain his process, I think he’s losing that essence of how he is composing that music, right? You know, there is only so much you can actually say beyond that. You can tell that, you know, okay, these are all the keys, you can a combination of these keys will produce so much music. But how does why is it Rahman and Illayaraja are so good, nobody knows.


For me also, the insight generation is a slightly more abstract process becomes challenging for me to even tell how I…


But do you have like a formal, I would say reflection time, process like a walk or going to the gym …?


Writing. Writing it’s sometimes you know there are so many things that I’m thinking about but when I write it, it just effortlessly comes to me.

Ravi 01:17:56

So it’s almost like that question that they asked you that, you know, what do you want to be five years from now when you were writing that answer that insight came to you. That’s fascinating, Dharmesh, because normally people think first have to think and then put it out there. So it’s in your case, writing is helping you think. 


Yeah, but I’ve been thinking about it all the time, right? You know, from the day I interviewed this person and let’s say if I go to a trip, I’m interviewing six people.


It’s like a jugalbandi (joint performance), but I keep talking to the team. The team keeps talking back to me. Maybe some of these data points are somewhere being collected at the back of my mind. 


The subconscious. 


Yeah. It’s very subconscious. I’m actually thinking about it. Right. Uh, that’s why, you know, I think my wife will be able to tell this better that you know, every different project and thinking about something very, very different. Right. Sometimes I’m just, uh, in, in my day, I’m just talking about credit cards out of nowhere. Right. You know, my wife will be surprised in a ‘Why you’re talking about credit cards so much?’


Some days I’ll just come and talk about education. Some day I’ll just come and talk about real estate because I’m working on those projects. So for me, it’s not that I’m only the time I’m sitting in front of the computer, I’m working. Even when I am not, it’s not that I’m consciously doing, but subconsciously also I’m thinking about that one particular problem statement. Again, I’ll go back to the same musician example. He’s always trying to find inspiration from everywhere. And when he sees something interesting, he sort of captures it and keeps it. So like how like you would see that you know a lot of musicians will have like this rough mixes that they do and keep it and then they find a good environment or when they find a good situation that they’ve taken use of that music. I also have like a lot of these insights at the back of my mind and reflecting about it right and then there is an appropriate situation for me to sort of compare it, then it makes very interesting right. So for example like like seven-eight months back I taught my mom how to use UPI. And I was teaching her and we installed PhonePe and she said, you know, now let’s test it out to see if the bank account is connected. So I said, okay, let’s send money to her brother. And I said, I actually pressed one rupee and I said, she got very pissed off. And said like, why are you sending one rupee? I said, no, we just asked to test. She was like, no, what will my brother think about me? Send at least 100 rupees. Or send 101. Right. It never happened to me.


It never occurred to me like, you know, this simple act of sending money is like a social status for her, right? You know, so these are simple stuff, which is formulating in back of my mind, but I might observe the same thing somewhere else in a field interview, then I’m able to make those connections. 


No, I love that. And so it’s a process that you’re trusting that you’ve, you know, completely listened with deep empathy, curiosity and actively.


You have discussed about that, you have ruminated about it, you’re basically living in that world for that period. And so when you’re sitting down at the keyboard, at some level, there’s a trust it will come out. And of course it may not happen all the time, but you know, more often than not. But do deadlines also help in the situation. 


Yeah, deadlines definitely help. In fact, it pushes me to actually write. So for example, in the newsletter that I’m writing that I keep writing, right? Some of the best performing newsletters are the ones that are written in the shortest period of time because I thought, you know, okay, there is no story for tomorrow. I have to sit and write something. Right. So when I write it and it is beautifully sort of moving, then I’m wondering that, you know, oh, damn, where did all these data come from? Right. So it’s a younger version of me would have tried to rationalize this process. As I get older, I stop rationalizing it, right? You know, so it’s better to let it be.

Ravi 01:21:43

But I think all of these elements are to me important parts of the process Dharmesh. I think anybody who wants to kind of improve their insight generation can at least try and do all of these steps and then hopefully that magic will happen. 

So one insight in particular that you had talked about in another interview I wanted to elaborate on was saying that WhatsApp today is what Justdial was many years back. And in the future, we might see decoupling of WhatsApp’s features. Can you elaborate on that?

Dharmesh 01:22:13

WhatsApp has become a super app. I mean, this I would have said like three, four years back, and I still I think it’s even more relevant today than ever. Because you know, the number of features WhatsApp has introduced from the time it has started from channels, status, groups, broadcasts, and all of that. We are now seeing a lot more use cases on WhatsApp. For example, if you are a small store owner, Let’s assume, this is something again from an insight that came from last year. So this person is an apparel store. Their customers are usually the people or the households surrounding the 5-6 kilometers. In that some of the customers are premium customers in his mind, some of the customers are normal customers. So he is importing these different sarees or chudidars from Bangalore to that this was a small village in Tamil Nadu. Now, whenever a new item comes, the first thing he does is he posts WhatsApp status. And the second thing he does is he actually sort of … he has this group with limited set of people and he posts them saying these are the new collections that have come. Now WhatsApp is a personal messaging platform for me, but it’s a marketing platform for them.


And very interestingly, like another teammate of mine told this example. So he lives in, he lives in this market, Chandni Chowk I guess in, Delhi, right. You know, where there’s a lot of this, a lot of these businesses that exist. He said one of the person in one of the stores, he has a marketing technique where he posts the score in WhatsApp status and in between the score he has this image of the products that he sells in between the status like there are like five statuses. There’s a score, then he puts a product image and then 


A cricket match or something?


Cricket match. Right? Now, the thing is like, okay, somebody is having WhatsApp. Why should somebody see the score in the WhatsApp status, right? The thing is, all the people who are employed there, they can’t actually watch matches because their owner will look at them and say that, you know, why are you watching a match? And still they’ll have to know the score.


So for them, if they’re seeing WhatsApp status, the owner will be like, you know, the business owner, he’s just watching WhatsApp or something like that. So that’s the way where he’s telling this score and also sort of doing like a product insertion between the WhatsApp status. So, yeah, I mean, I think there will be a lot of decoupling of WhatsApp also that might happen. In fact, ShareChat is a great example of that.


So ShareChat started with this idea of saying that, you know, you could download images, just videos, which you can use it as a status in Facebook, WhatsApp, or wherever it is. Right. And then it became a social media platform by itself. So I think WhatsApp is there and it could possibly. In fact, not many people are using probably WhatsApp for business, but I think everybody’s using WhatsApp as a business tool that I know for sure.

Ravi 01:25:32

Yeah, it’s fascinating. And so it could be in parts, the apparel shop owner is using WhatsApp pretty much as his Instagram, the guy in the store is using it like a news feed plus education. You’ve got communities, which, and it’s fascinating Community as a product, I’ve kind of looked into that because I’ve explored some, like there are companies like Circle and there are others… Nothing has come remotely close to WhatsApp in the way it has built that community product, right? Either whether it is just simple communication or updates and other things and sharing. Yeah, so it’s interesting. It’ll be interesting to see how some of those elements might get decoupled. So, okay, this is great, I think, in terms of the insight generation, a lot of these elements are powerful. 

Now, let’s talk about the actual writing process. So you’ve got some, you know, insights in your mind, you’ve got some information, you’ve got various elements from your databases. Now you have a deadline and you have to finish by tomorrow. Do you have any tips, tricks, techniques in terms of you shut down distractions, what time of the day or anything to actually do your report writing? 


Most of the report is done only in anxiety. It’s not like there is a very calm process to it.


It’s usually that entire phase where I’ll have to present. There is a lot of anxiousness in terms of am I doing it right? Will they like it? Is it? The major fear that I have is after putting in so many of my efforts, if I go and present it to the stakeholders and they’ll be like, “Haan, yeh toh mereko pata hai”. (I knew this already). Right. And that would be like very… Even though I can’t do anything about it, but you know, but I want to add some new flavor to their perspective. Right.


So I am repeatedly thinking only about it. But in my report writing process, I see it as a, again, like a, if you think of like a filmmaker, right? You know, he has songs, he has visuals, he has dialogues. There’s so many things that comes together to make a film. So the same essence of a scene, you could have communicated with different, combining different elements, right? You could combine lighting and stuff like that. That’s how we look at even reports, right? So I have text, I have videos, I have visuals, and…I want to do the optimal mix of all of these three to four different elements, iconography and all of that to give the best storytelling possible. The thing that I’m very clear that I keep telling the team is I don’t want to create a 200 page report which just sits in somebody’s Google Drive folder which nobody is interested in seeing. I want to create a report… I go backwards saying that, you know, if it’s an internal report, I want them to send it on Slack (and) starting from the thumbnail, it should be exciting, you know, for everybody in the team to actually click on it and read it. Right. So it’s like saying that, you know, if I see the report for 30 seconds, I should still be able to get to information. If I see it for five minutes, I should be still be able to get some information. If I see it for 15 minutes… (and so on). So the question that it poses, how can I create a report that can be consumed in less than, let’s say, 15 minutes or whatever. Right. You know, I put a time for myself.


But I also push them to think in terms of who is that reading the report? Let’s say somebody is the founder of the company. They may not necessarily have all the time to sit and read the report. Right. So maybe you give video summaries, which they can actually watch to know about what is happening in this report sort of thing. Right. So it’s usually backwards. The challenge is this – because you are dealing with huge amounts of data and here you have this requirement of saying, make it simple. How do you connect these two dots? Right?


So in this place where I say there is a lot of anxiousness, it’s usually about prioritizing and letting go of a lot of things. That’s very painful, right? Because you know, you at one side thinking that, oh shit, we travelled for 5,000- 6,000 kilometers to get this data. And finally you’re just putting three, four anecdotes. But yeah, but that’s the process, right? You know, even for like a filmmaker, he has only two hours, he could have taken a movie for five hours. But the moviegoers will sit only for 2 hours, correct? You know, he has to remove some aspects, it’s like killing your own child, right? The same thing happens even in the report, I might remove a lot of things, but I’ll put only few things. The thing is, after they read the report or see the presentation, they should be able to get 2-3 interesting pointers. I’m not expecting like, take 10 different takeaways. Even if you’re able to say 2-3 takeaways and that alters your perception, like how you talked about giving water to a gig economy worker, I think it’s a success for me.

Ravi 01:30:19

I love that. One is, of course, adding these nuggets or beautiful insights that will stick. Do you also think about the overall structure of the narrative flow, so to speak? And I think very deeply about it. Would love to know what is your process about saying, OK, before I start writing down the entire report, am I going to write a one-page summary or something like that to give an overall structure? 

Dharmesh 01:30:40

No. So, we discuss around saying that after reading the report, what should the feeling look like? So it’s like throughout the report, there are multiple things, but I want to explicitly focus on these three, four topics or subtopics because I believe that’s the core essence of it. In most research reports, what they miss out is The first 10, 20 pages is just talking about how we went and did interviews. 


Approach and methodology. 


Approach and methodology, they would sort of put too much importance to it. But I strongly believe that, you know, boss, this client has actually trusted me. So yeah, so he knows if he wants, I can give him more explanation, but I don’t want to waste his time in this. Right. So there are these three, four core themes that I am very interested in pushing forward, right? So that is something we want to augment it with a lot of different media, right? Which means I will add some video snippets to it. I will add more visualizations to it. I will add some framework that I have, like a data visualization or an infographics I will add to emphasize that piece alone, right? So there are some things which is there to establish the story, but when it comes to the core, here is where I want you to focus more because I’m repeating the same again and again, right?


So even when I’m sort of ending it, I’m giving like a summary slide that says that, you know, here are five things that you want to keep take away from here. 


This, I like this point. Sorry, please continue. 


Yeah, so the other aspect is also that, you know, we want to translate a lot of this into recommendation and give it to them so that when they think about what is the next step of the research, it shouldn’t be blank, right?


So even I try to push it to a level where the next step of this research is, it’s actually brainless, right? Let’s say for example, if there’s a feature suggestion or if this is a flow cut change or there’s a copy change, we try to incorporate it. Again, we don’t expect them to take whatever we say. So it’s like a direction, right? You know, it’s up to you to figure out whether you want to take it, not take it. But our job ends here right? You know, giving you like the insights, pushing you in a slightly different manner.


Some people expect us to give recommendations, we give recommendations and for them to do, but I don’t expect them to take. 


But that’s interesting. What you’re saying is that sometimes your recommendation might give them a show don’t tell off, this is how it could look like, this is how you are revised (product could look). I love it. Because it’s one to give a, improve your user experience. That’s very vague, right? When you’re giving a very specific thing and I love that. So I want to double click still on the, let’s say I like three to five main insights that I want to leave behind. I don’t want them to get drowned in 15 sites. Okay. Great. Um, and each of those, let’s say three insights, I’m going to, uh, adopt a multi-sensorial approach, uh, not just text, but visuals and video and audio. That’s one. Do you find a way to connect a thread across those three-four insights such that this could be just to one sentence summary or, you know, that, that actually, you know, makes It an overarching narrative that flows like a story. Do you try and do that deliberately? 


No, no, no, if it comes, it comes, but you know, we don’t try and do that deliberately because in the themes itself, the way we write it, we try to write the theme itself in one sentence, right? You know, if you observe that, you know, the topic itself will, the way I write the theme is like, you know, it should raise your eyebrows to read further. Correct? So that’s how we try to write the themes, even compressing even making it slightly more abstract will lose the essence. So we don’t try and do that. 


Perfect. Okay. So I, yeah, this is great. Now I want to talk about the, so you have kind of, you know, come up with your insights and you made the report or presentation. Now actually presenting it to the audience, right? And so there are two elements I wanted to talk about with you. One is this challenge when the data from your research clashes with their pre-held belief or their intuition. And I remember this quote by Bezos, Jeff Bezos, right? Where he says that “the thing I’ve noticed is that when anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right, which is interesting. There’s something wrong in the way you’re measuring data and so on”. So how do you cope with that situation where the audience kind of pushes back saying, no, no, no, your approach is wrong, your data is wrong, your sources are wrong, blah, blah, blah. That is one.


You’ve mentioned in another interview about not presenting the findings, but sharing it in the form of a workshop where the audience actually comes up with some of these insights themselves. And you know, you talked about the ‘Ikea effect’ on that. So maybe you could talk about both of these. 


The cases where there is disagreements, right? It’s a very tricky situation. Fortunately, because I put out some of my work out there and people know what they’re getting into 

In many cases, there is no disappointment. Because they know what they are buying in. It’s like watching a trailer of a movie and going, if it’s an action film, you expect it to be an action film. So, in that way, that is one of the reasons why I explicitly put out a lot about research. Because I want them to know what they are signing up for, what they are getting here. That’s one thing. Second is, if there are any such disagreements at a very ideological level, that we will counter it even before doing the project.


Right. If here, if it’s genuinely, they think that, you know, there is a discrepancy they think that then that is up for a very rational conversation through which you can solve it. Right. 


Does any example come to mind? 


Uh, nothing recent times, but when I started, probably there was a lot of but usually that they say that your data is wrong, not because they think that it has run, but because they don’t believe in the methodology. Right.

Ravi 01:36:50

Right, you know, maybe you didn’t meet enough people or the right kind of people that kind of a thing. 


No, so they, they would come back and say that, you know, okay, I had a different perception. You’re saying it this way. Maybe go and talk to 50 more people and then come back and tell me or go talk to 500 more people and then come back and tell me. Right. So the way I ask is, let’s say, for example, this is, this is a slightly interesting way to ask it. These days, like when because they are younger folks coming and asking me, I have the liberty to ask this, right? Because they come and ask me that, you know, why don’t we do this with more people, right? But the question that I ask is, why do you have confidence in your quantitative data? And why do you have mistrust in my qualitative data? They say the quantitative data comes from, let’s say, 1,000 people, right? But there are billion people in the country, right? How are you saying, in compared to a billion people, 1,000 look small, right? (They respond) ‘No, no, no, but it is still a large sample’ , So the thing is you have a perception of saying 100 is a large number, thousand is like a large number, or like 10,000 is, it just feels like a large number and then it could be true. But even in the context of like the overall number, that numbers could be very small. What is a good number? 


Although, statistically, if you have applied sampling techniques, do you think that might be valuable? 


No, so it can still be valuable, but that also I’m saying that, you know, what is the lens that you apply is actually more important. In fact, in we do qualitative research, if we speak to 15 people, we most likely can predict the 16th one what the answers could potentially be depending on if they’re coming from the same environment, if they’re doing a similar type of like a job or they’re in a similar setup, because that environment plays a huge factor, that environment, but I mean that, you know, physical environment, social environment, financial environment…. All of this plays a huge role in how they take decisions. So we focus on that and that will keep repeating if you keep interviewing more people around that. So in quantitative data also, there is a sense of safety net because we feel that there is a larger number. But the thing is that also depending on what filters you use, how you look at the data can also be manipulated.


It’s just that we should be cognizant of both of these pros and cons of both of this methodology. It’s not one versus the other. In usual, many cases, it’s one and the other, right? The combination of both, right? So in those cases, then the conversation is slightly more smoother. 


And yeah, especially, I think the answer to deeper questions like, why do you do what you do? It’s very difficult to get that out of quantitative, right? You can get the demographics and you can get maybe some elements of income and all, but anything to do with reasons you have to depend on.


Yeah. The workshop element and you know, the Ikea effect. 


The workshop, it’s not a presentation or workshop. These days what we do is we do a presentation and a workshop. So workshop is essentially where we bring in different teams and we put those insights and personas that were derived from the field and we let them do the problem solving. Like I said, we do the recommendation and sometimes, you know, rather than the recommendation the researcher or the design team think let’s bring together and we push people to sort of problem solve on the go. So that’s more like they doing a random sketching exercise where you say, okay, this is a suggestion. Here’s where you could change the text or here is where the button could be different or is it something we should change? 


So the workshop is to kind of solve for the insight to work on the recommendation. Very interesting. 


So it’s a co-creation workshop. And there also when somebody is coming up with a solution And if they think that solution might not necessarily work for their ideal target segment, I will show some anecdotes and push them to think in a slightly different manner. Right? 


So you’re almost representing the user in that room because you have spent the most amount of time deeply with them. 


Yeah. Right. So in that manner, it’s like saying you don’t give a fish, you teach them how to fish types. So you’re pushing them how to think rather than saying, okay, this is one-off recommendation. Right? 


No, I love that.

You’re like, ‘oh, this is all what we have found. Okay. Now let’s see what, uh, what we need to do about it’. Instead of saying this is what you should do about it, which is, yeah, which is better. Lovely. Um, but this is great. I think, uh, I love the, um, scientific yet supremely empathetic way in which you’re approaching this whole, uh, craft that mission that has a lot of deep thought and wisdom that has gone into it. And there’s a lot, I think all of us can learn, uh, who wants to do user research, talk to people, find out more about their customers and tweak their products around that. What are your, coming to the future of where do you want to take the work that you do,  What’s your vision or ideal future in terms of where do you want to take this?

Dharmesh 01:41:59

I actually don’t know. So 


I should ask you to write down, where do you see yourself five years from now? 


I think, things that I’ve planned out really well, I planned really well in the past, never worked out, but whatever unexpected that came my way actually worked out really well. So I stopped planning. That’s one thing, but some of the things when you, when I encounter that situation I know what I don’t want to do. For example, from when I moved away from the previous job, I had a lot of offers to come as a part of a design leadership in different companies. Even though they were lucrative offers, I, somewhere, sat down and reflected and said that, hey, even though the money is good, but I don’t think I want to do this because they were all design jobs like, you know, be like a design manager, like a design leader. And one thing that we keep telling you the design communities, no Indian parent ever forced their kids to become a designer, right? You know, they would have forced them to become an engineer or doctor. So which means I came to this field by my own choice. And there was a joy of doing design or research, right? That was like, if I call it in the product terms, that was a north star metric for me


I want to have fun in the work that I’m doing. And anything that allows me to do it, I’ll keep continuing to do. Even today, when we take projects as a team, we keep saying no to some 50-60% of all the requests that come because we feel that’s not enjoyable. I keep thinking about it. If I have to take this project, I might as well actually go and do a job because I don’t think there’ll be enough fun for me to actually do the job. And some of the clients are very surprised when we say no, right? because like, why are you not taking this project? Because we don’t think that interesting stuff that we can actually contribute. That’s one thing. 

Second thing is, I am actually deeply curious about this very, very diverse country called India, right? And every project that we take, we try to see, will this add something new to something the team already knows, right? And internally also we have like this weekly catch up where different projects people are coming and then we are just casually catching up saying that you know, hey, I observed this, you observed this and we are trying to collectively improve our insights and the knowledge around the country. So even someone calls it like a Hindi heartland, which is Bihar, UP, MP. And now I’m starting to see differences between how people in Bihar are different from the people in UP are different from the people in MP.


And I went to Chhattisgarh and I’ve never even thought about a state like Chhattisgarh, right? You know, it is not even in the news media channels ever. But that’s a whole different state out there. And the first time when I went there, I was very surprised and it’s a lot more exciting. We’ve never been to like say the north-eastern part of the country or like the places like Rajasthan or Punjab. We’ve never done research there. If we find an opportunity to do research there, we will jump in and first take that job and probably do it. Right.


So it’s the combination of these two things. Like, you know, one, something that I love. Second is this deep inquiry of understanding like the consumer behavior in India. It’s a very vast, but even if I’m able to build like some mental models around how people think about living their life, how they purchase and how they think about like the goals and aspirations, I think my job will be done there.

Ravi 01:45:46

Beautiful Dharmesh. Do you have any role models in India or globally that you aspire to become like in terms of the organization or personally? 


Yeah, so there’s an ethnographer called Jan Chipchase. He runs this studio called Studio D. He’s based out of, if I’m not wrong, Tokyo, I guess. Like he’s in the US, but he is in Tokyo. So he does a similar thing, but at a different scale, right? You know, he would go to Afghanistan and he would try to understand like how people perceive money and he’ll go to these places even like war-ridden countries and his projects are longer, six months, one year he will have a local team there and he will set up a camp there and he will do even though he might not understand the language he will take translators with them. So for me him is like the the ideal person I want to be like you know though I’m not sure if I have like the courage to go into a country like Afghanistan or a place like Syria

to do these researchers, but I could try and do at a similar scale even in India. I believe that you know there’s a lot more many countries even within India, right? So that’s something that I would actually definitely love to do. 


Can you spell the name out there so that people can look him up? 


Yeah, his name is Jan Chipchase. J-A-N-C-H-I-P-C-H-A-S-E.

Ravi 01:47:08

Very interesting. So I’ll also look him up. 


So he was a very instrumental in setting up a research team in Nokia and then in Frog design, he was there for a long time. And he’s been doing these projects independently, I think like the last 10 years. if I’m not wrong. 


Dharmesh, which are the books or other media, individual books or specific movies or bits of music that have deeply influenced you?

Dharmesh 01:47:36

Books, I actually read very less research or design books, I read a lot of books on economics, or general psychology. For example, the recently I read a book on grit. And that was really fascinating. 


Angela Duckworth


Yeah, yeah. So that book was very fascinating for me. And my liking towards the book keeps changing. But one book which really, really changed a lot of things for me is this book called “Banker to the Poor” by Mohammed Yunus. I think I read it like four, five years back. I was still in the flex of saying that, you know, Should I do research, should I do design? I think when I read that book, it was very impactful. And I still remember a lot of stories from that book. Whatever he has done is very interesting, very exciting for me. And I feel that, you know, there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.


Whatever he has done in something like Bangladesh, I think it needs to happen here also. So that book personally is my favourite. 


Fascinating. And I would have normally thought you would talk about a book like ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Kahneman and Tversky, but I think you would say, no, I don’t want to know more about the biases. I want to keep my mind out. So that’s nice. Any movies that come to mind that have influenced you?

Dharmesh 01:49:01

movies, ‘Her’ is definitely a very influential movie. Right, you know, I keep thinking about a world where machines and people coexist. And I think it’s slowly starting to pan out. I have a lot of utopian and dystopian views, which most of my family disagrees. Right. So I think Her is a very beautiful movie.

Ravi 01:49:27

It seems almost realistic. It almost seems like this is happening, not would happen in the future. 


Yeah, yeah. Also that movie, I saw it in a very interesting time because I just got into NID (National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad). I saw it with a lot of my batchmates and we had like lots of discussion about what does the future with technology would look like. So I think ‘Her’ is a movie that I really love and in terms of the series, I have a very specific Episode in black mirror, right? You know, I think it’s season three first episode. I forgot the name. What is it called? The one where uh, the Salma Hayek is there. Yeah. Yeah, no, not the Salma Hayek. I thought they they start giving you ratings For like the different people that they see It’s called Nose Dive . Nose dive was an episode. I think it’s season three episode one – I would have seen it like some 10-15 times. I showed it to many people


So, so again, it’s again like a very futuristic where technology pushes us to another extent, where in her it’s very companion focused, here it’s very ego-centric. So I really love watching like this utopian dystopian kind of movies and series. It’s beautiful. 


Do you, where could people get to know more about you? What are the channels online? 


Yeah, mostly active on Twitter. My handle is @DharmeshBa and I also write a newsletter called the India Notes. It’s on Substack called The India Notes, The-India-Notes. If you Google it, you will be able to find the link. So these are two places where people can read or interact with me. 


Wanna talk about 1990 Labs? 


So 1990 Research Labs again was born out of this idea saying I want to do something fun. And for a long time, it was just Indian Notes where I was writing the newsletter.


I said, okay, why not? We also get paid to actually travel to a lot of these places because these are pretty expensive. So that’s how we started doing it. It’s currently a research consultancy where we work with a lot of philanthropic institutions, startups, big tech companies, in helping them understand consumer behavior in a certain context. Could be e-commerce, could be social commerce or whatever it is, right?


In a certain topic, we try to understand the consumer behavior and we help them with the recommendations based on the processes. I told you. Yeah. 


This has been great. That mission, you know, India is really, I think Ram Guha said that it may not be the greatest or whatever it is on probably the most interesting country in the world. We are a subcontinent, you know, 1.4 billion people, so many depths of … so much diversity. And it is amazing. I feel happy and assured that the task of knowing more about this diverse country is in the hands of amazingly capable people like you. Not just capable, I think capabilities is one important element, but deeply empathetic, curious and wise people like you and so more power to you and the team. And I’m looking forward to reading more and more lovely insights from India Notes and also changing my own behaviour as I change from reading what you have done. Thank you so much. 


One last thing I would like to say, because you said India is a diverse country. There’s a very interesting incident that reminds me from like almost seven- eight years back. There’s a friend of mine who was getting married and his friend had just come from US to just attend a wedding. So he came like two weeks back before that wedding and he traveled a little bit of the northern part of the country. And this wedding was happening in Salem, Tamil Nadu. So he came to Salem and we took him to a small mess, breakfast mess and which very very been served idli and rosa in a banana leaf. And after that, the waiter comes and asks him, does he want any beverages? And he said he wanted “mango lassi”. Right? And everybody started laughing. And he said that, you know, my friend told him that, you know, no, you won’t get mango lassi here. He was surprised because he said, ‘I used to get it everywhere when I was traveling in the northern part of the country. Like, you know, why do you not get mango lassi here’ So for that my friend said,‘the only cuisine that you get throughout the country is actually Chinese’. Right. 


Oh God, really is that true? That’s I’m like not happy about that. I thought Dosa, no, maybe in some parts, yeah, but maybe not in all parts. 


Maybe anecdotally, he was making fun of it, but you know, that, that dialogue stuck with me for somebody who comes from outside the country, they find it very difficult to understand this country. 

Ravi 01:54:04

No, it’s beautiful. Thank you so much, Dharmesh. This has been a huge pleasure. Thanks for coming on the podcast. Thank you.

Dharmesh 01:54:15

And that was Dharmesh Ba, one of India’s foremost experts on gleaning insights by researching user behaviour.

A few things which stood out for me in the conversation:

  • The need to be genuinely curious and empathetic
  • How to get your interviewee to trust you
  • How to be spontaneous and keep your eyes open for asking questions beyond the initial list
  • When presenting your final findings and recommendations, the need to show, not just tell, and involve the audience in generating the solution

If you find this content valuable, please rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to them. It’ll help others like you discover these insights!

This podcast was hosted by me, Ravishankar Iyer. Audio editing by Kartik Rajan and all-round support by Sanket Aalegaonkar.

Until next time, may the force of good stories be with you.

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