Service Design

Moringa and Mangoes

Ideate Innovation

About the Authors:

Ariba Rafi and Nayyab Naveed are Senior Service Designers at Ideate Innovation, a human-centred research and design agency in Pakistan. 

Devika Ganapathy is the founder and a researcher at Anagram Research, an Indian user research consultancy.  

About the Blog:

In this blog, Devika, Ariba, and Nayyab draw from their field experiences to highlight the similarities in researcher-participant relationships in India and Pakistan. They share their methods for building these relationships and discuss the influence of cultural norms on their research planning and interactions. They also acknowledge the diversity within India and Pakistan, and note that the cultural observations and norms shared may differ significantly or in nuanced ways across various regions and user segments in each country.

The popular Indian expression ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ (A guest is akin to God) highlights the cultural significance and importance that Indians place on the host-guest relationship. In Pakistan, ‘mehmaan bayis-e-rehmat hain’ is a similar sentiment which reflects the belief that guests are blessings from God, bringing good fortune to their hosts.

Such sentiments often set the tone for research interviews in our countries - professional, yet warm and personal.  This stands true even when the interactions are formally scheduled by a recruitment agency.

Moments of Kindness

Researchers who have worked extensively in India and Pakistan are familiar with the hospitality extended to them by study participants.

In one such exchange, Nayyab visited a woman at her home in Bahawalpur to speak about mobile money services. Upon entering their home, she noticed some fans lying around on a charpayi and was intrigued by their shape and design. They looked like they were handcrafted, and she made a note to ask the participant about them later.  

After the interview, the participant brought out some fans and handed them over to Nayyab. She had watched her admiring them and wanted to gift them to her. She explained that the women in her village handcraft these out of plastic straws, and give them to their daughters as dowry.

We have experienced being on the receiving end of gifts many times. In an Anagram Research research study a couple of years ago, Tilak and Devika visited a family in Bangalore who insisted on giving them each a mango from their village as they were leaving. Mangoes have an important place in Indian and Pakistani homes, and are regarded as special gifts during summer. Despite being aware that the family was from an economically weaker segment, the cultural and social significance of gift giving in India made it impossible for the researchers to refuse the mangoes.

These situations might possibly have felt less lop-sided in pre-UPI days – when the researchers could have reciprocated with the participation incentive in a festive envelope or in the form of a gift wrapped present. However, UPI has enabled quick digital payments that are convenient but rather impersonal, especially in comparison to mangoes and handcrafted fans.

Another way in which Indian and Pakistani participants extend their hospitality to visiting researchers is by offering refreshments during or at the end of the interaction. More often than not, breaking bread with participants triggers a subtle shift towards a more relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Sharing food facilitates more informal conversation and sometimes invites ‘off-script’ sharing that adds richness and depth to the interaction. This time may also be used to get referrals to other potential participants in the community.

However, at times, this can be easier said than done! In some South Asian communities, offering guests pre-served individual plates of food is a common cultural practice. Despite strong dietary preferences, small appetites or low spice tolerance, we accept such gestures, as rejecting the food would be considered impolite or create unintended power imbalance.

Navigating power dynamics

Besides hospitality, there are several other things we’ve picked up over the years of doing research that help us navigate the power dynamics between participants and researchers.

One way is to play into our weaknesses in front of participants, especially at things they are experts at. An example of this was when Ali set out to speak to farmers about a tech product for agriculture that Ideate was redesigning. Although he was fluent in Punjabi, there is a stark difference between how the language is spoken in the city, versus the fields of Southern Punjab. 

The farmers found Ali's conversational Punjabi, and his mixing it with Urdu, quite amusing. When he realised this, he played along with it and addressed it in good humour. The farmers felt relaxed when speaking to him because they were given an opportunity to display their own strengths rather than be intimidated by the researcher’s foreignness or level of education.

Another is to tactfully and respectfully balance culturally acceptable behaviour with research etiquette.

A few years ago,  Devika visited an elderly North Indian gentleman living in Delhi.  Several minutes into an insightful discussion, he casually mentioned that he had created a WhatsApp group to let friends and neighbours know about the interview, and had invited anyone who was interested, to drop in through the evening. As she tried to explain the unsuitability of doing this, she understood that they were also being observed on a webcam by his son who lived in another city.

Despite the urge to end the interview, Devika also understood that these actions merely reflected his world view and his pride in participating in the research, rather than any sinister motives.

It was mutually agreed to switch off the webcam and have neighbours visit only after the interview. Devika also left a copy of the interview for him to share with his son later and stayed on a few minutes after the interview to socialise with neighbours over tea.

Embracing the unexpected

Many participants view research interactions as a way of inviting us into their world, rather than just a time-bound scheduled activity. We see this when they offer moringa bhujia from their trees, talk about favourite parts of their homes, or make us meet important people in their lives like neighbours or family members. 

In a study about women’s financial empowerment, Ariba and Manahil met a participant who invited them to take a tour of her new house, proudly showing off the interior design she had so meticulously put together. Such unplanned interactions often lead to valuable input for the research. In this case, we learnt more about her quest for financial independence, her motivation to be in control of her finances, and how she had strategically saved and invested to be able to afford her new home. 

As researchers, we go into interviews with professionalism, outlining specific project objectives we have planned to meet. However, we cannot expect our participants to view these discussions as equally professional exchanges. 

Conversations, especially one's where we invite them to be vulnerable and honest, can mean different things for different participants. 

For some participants, it might be the first time in a while when someone is asking them about their lives. In one interview, Ariba sat down with a participant who did not seem to want the discussion to end. When it was over, she was profusely thankful for Ariba’s time and said she hadn’t conversed with anyone about herself ever since she got married. “It’s all about the kids and the husband now. Life has changed a lot since I was a single girl in university.” This passing comment became a major insight for the project, which was aiming to discover whether housewives have a real need for community.

For other participants, research is an outlet to express frustrations, fears, hopes or desires that may not be socially acceptable and cannot be openly discussed.  In an Anagram research study about digital abuse, a participant plainly stated what several other participants implied more subtly - participating in the research ‘felt like therapy’ and made them ‘feel heard’. They were able to unburden themselves by speaking about their abuse experiences openly and in a way they did not feel comfortable doing even among close friends and family.

The openness of South Asian participants to creating space outside the structured interview allows for deeper sharing and unexpected insights. This is why researchers can do well to keep buffer time for such interactions in their research plans.

The familiar phrase ‘Indian Stretchable Time’ that usually refers to late appointments, and careless schedules, can be embodied here as time which makes room for deeper, more open sharing.

While meandering into conversations about moringa trees growing in the house can appear counter-productive, it is from this space that unexpected insights might blossom.

In the end, all the stories we have shared are laced with the ethos we started this article with: of Atithi Devo Bhava, guests akin to gods, or guests as blessings.  

When participants treat us with this sentiment, they teach us an important lesson: that we too can treat them with the same respect, generosity and kindness. This can look like showing sincere curiosity towards their lives, viewing them as more than just research subjects, and handling their vulnerability with responsibility. That is not to say that we forget our professional boundaries, rather have them coexist with compassion.

Such thoughtful care is what we advocate for at Ideate and Anagram Research.