Building user-centered products from a remote office
User-centered design is an iterative process that focuses on an understanding of the users and their context in all stages of design and development.

If you’re a designer, you’re probably familiar with the different design techniques around this — user interviews, surveys, card sorting, focus groups, prototype validation, etc. But with the growing popularity of remote offices and work, how can product, design, and engineering teams deeply understand users that live half a world away?

At Instawork we have two product+engineering teams — one in San Francisco and one in Bangalore. But, all our users are in the US (for now!) — so we’ve been faced with the challenge of building empathy and products for users across the globe. We’ve experimented with a few different approaches and here’s what we’ve found works for us.


1. Meet your users where they are

Ultimately, there is no real substitute for meeting your users in person and understanding their behavior in the context of where / when / how they use your product.

So, we’ve made the decision and investment to send each member of the product and design team to the US twice a year to spend time in person with the local teams and Instawork’s professionals and partners. This is expensive and time-consuming, so not a decision we’ve made lightly. But, we’ve learned that a well-executed trip can pay significant dividends if you do it well. When someone from the team goes out and spends time directly with users, everything they learn and experience ultimately gets shared with the full team back home. When one person from the team visits the US, a little bit of every other team member also gets to share in the journey.

Trip Preparation

We take preparation for these trips seriously, in order to maximize our learnings. We also try to plan trips around the beginning of each quarter so that the things we learn can impact our product roadmaps for that quarter. Here are a few things we do before each trip:

  • Define a clear goal
  • Build hypotheses and user questions for achieving the goal
  • Build a research plan to validate our hypotheses

We plan our trips down to the hour and will have a full agenda scheduled beforehand to ensure a great use of everyone’s time.

Onsite User Research

There are a few forms of user research we employ during our trips to help our remote teams understand users and how we can help them.

a. User interviews

We invite users to tour our San Francisco office and have face-to-face interviews. This has worked well when we have specific questions related to one of our objectives for the quarter.

b. Visiting a gig

For context, a gig is typically a catering event where the event organizer books staff (e.g. Servers, Cooks, Dishwashers, etc.) through the Instawork platform.

Instawork Professionals at work, at a gig I visited during my SF trip in Oct 2019

On our trips to the US, we’ll make sure to visit at least a couple of gigs and observe them happening in real-time. This is a great way to understand their work context and understand the offline dynamics of the Instawork experience. While visiting gigs, I’ve had great conversations with users who were struggling to use the app and have walked away with a new appreciation for the challenges we face.

c. Working a gig

The absolute best way to build empathy is to put yourself in the user’s shoes — literally in this case. This means donning the industry standard black bistro or chef’s coat and going to work at a big event or restaurant kitchen. There are many types of gigs available on the Instawork app and we set up everyone who visits the US office with a gig that they can work. This is the best way to truly understand the experience of using Instawork and what it means to be an Instawork professional.

During my first trip to the US with Instawork, I worked a gig at DOSA, a South Indian restaurant in San Francisco. Most of their staff was also from Tamilnadu (where I grew up) and it was great to hear their stories and speak to them in Tamil. It’s a small world!

Building empathy by working a gig

2. Remote research

While we invest a lot in making sure our remote teams can meet with users in person, building empathy for users doesn’t stop when we return to India. There are a few research methods that work well remotely, and we’ll regularly use these as follow-ups to in-person research or validation of something we’re working on.

  • Surveys (we’re big fans of Typeform!)
  • Data analysis
  • Remote interviews
  • Doing support tickets

3. Documenting learnings

Since we have teams spread across multiple offices, we’re very diligent about documenting our learnings and storing it centrally so that it’s available for everyone across the organization including future colleagues. This is how you get extraordinary value out of sending people across the globe. By building a culture of documentation + sharing, everything they learn can more easily be learned by everyone else.

But sometimes just getting it documented centrally isn’t enough. After a while, a lot of research will pile up and it can be overwhelming to go through our central wiki. So, one of the things we’ve been doing in the Bangalore office is a virtual ‘lunch & learn’. We’ll choose one great piece of research from our Wiki and everyone will read it together at lunch and talk about it. This is a great way to make sure everyone on the team is engaging with the great user research available to them.

If you might be interested in joining a product and design team that operates like this — we’re hiring for product managers and designers in Bangalore!