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Changing the world with user research

A People Nerds interview with Aruna Balakrishnan

Words by Kari Dean McCarthy, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

With a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction, Aruna Balakrishnan is the digital world’s prime example of a people nerd. Through stints at the Google, RAND corporation, IBM, and Harvard School of Public Health, she’s devoted her career to understanding what makes people tick, and how that ticking works with technology.

When we sat down with Aruna, [now at Dropbox], she was the Principal User Researcher for, a website that helps people and organizations to host and manage campaigns to support reforms in education, animal rights, human rights, environmental protection, criminal justice, health and more. She spoke with dscout about how her role of researcher varies from organization to organization.

dscout: You actually started out as an engineer.  What motivated the shift to user research?

Aruna Balakrishnan: There have been two fundamental strains connecting my career. The first is how people interact with technology, the second is how people collaborate and share information, particularly at scale.

At Harvard, I focused more on mechanical engineering, and my senior thesis was looking at how people type. I built an ergonomic keyboard. That was my introduction to research.

My thesis advisor was at the Harvard School of Public Health. That opened my eyes to that world of ergonomics and human-computer-interaction information technology. When I went to RAND, I started doing research around science and tech policy and health policy. It was about how people interact with technology and how technology influences society and policy.

Why is collaboration such a theme for you?

A lot of problems that we see in society are big. Rarely are big things solved by any individual. It often takes multiple people, multiple organizations. There’s a lot of inefficiencies when you collaborate, whether it’s remote or in person. It’s just inefficient.

For example, people want to share information that they have in common rather than share information that they don’t have in common, which could help them solve the problem faster. I like collaborating, so it’s natural.

Rarely are big things solved by any individual.

Aruna Balakrishnan

You’ve been on the academic side, the corporate side, and now the non-profit side, how does that change things? is actually a B Corporation, a private company that has a civic or social good mission. But, yes, it’s different. Companies like IBM and Google have a lot more resources to hand out.

At or in academia, sometimes you have to be scrappier. You have to think longer and harder to get to the core questions that you want to solve and prioritize.

Do you find the need for "scrappiness" to be advantageous?

Obviously, if we had more resources we could do more research. But if a researcher just goes and does some research, writes up a report, and hands it back, it’s just you, telling them your opinion. People haven’t witnessed the findings. 

With limited resources, you rely upon your colleagues more to get help. I’m a research team of one, but I rely upon a really close collaboration with my colleagues who are not researchers. With this deep collaboration that I have with people on the marketing team, product team, engineers, and scientists, they all feel responsible for the findings because they were there for the user studies. They were there for all the interviews. They took notes. They helped me do the analysis.

I believe and have seen that joint ownership really enables research to have more influence. I think that’s been such a huge win for me to be able to make an impact in the company.

I believe and have seen that joint ownership really enables research to have more influence.

Aruna Balakrishnan

I would think that at a company of smaller size, other people would have even less time to help. But they’re the ones making time?

I’ve been very lucky at Change. They’ve been hungry for research from day one. When I joined the company a year and a half ago, they had a long list of questions that they needed answered. We’re not even halfway through that list.

Do you have a favorite research method?

That’s like choosing amongst your children! The best is whenever you can closely marry quantitative research with qualitative research, I think that is where the magic happens.

If you liked this, check out's user research case study conducted with dscout.

Kari Dean McCarthy is a seasoned brand communications strategist, award-winning filmmaker, and gnocchi expert.

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