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Amplifying the individual voice

A People Nerds interview with Kat Lee of Square

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Kat Lee has had an affinity for artifacts since childhood. Born into a family of avid travelers, as a kid she spent quite a bit of time overseas, visiting family and friends in China, Taiwan and Tokyo. In the early 90’s, right after China had opened its borders to tourists, she and her parents took a trip to some of the more remote areas of the country. They visited the small village in the Henan province where her grandfather had grown up, and she recalls being amazed by the weavings and costumes produced by the Miao minority tribe in Hunan. It was that trip, she says, that inspired her lifelong wanderlust and fascination with indigenous culture and craft. For Lee, who has continued to collect handmade textiles and art as an adult, the value of these pieces is more about the process than the final product. “Craftsmanship isn't about perfection," she says. "It's more about the passion, self-expression, the patience, and the pride people take in mastering it."

Her curiosity about people and objects led her to study industrial design at Carnegie Mellon, and from there Lee logged time as a design manager at Procter & Gamble, a researcher at Added Value Cheskin, and on the product innovation team at Samsung. Today she heads up UX Research at Square, the mobile payment company that made it possible for anyone and everyone to take credit cards.

Her desire to explore the local landscape, however, is still very much alive. Over the last six months Lee launched an exciting research initiative at Square called “Outside the Bubble” combining remote ethnography with field interviews. She and her colleague set out on a road trip to meet local sellers in Kansas and Oklahoma, taking a documentary film crew along with them to capture the process. The project aimed to better understand the challenges facing small business owners in rural areas in the United States—places that, Lee and her team discovered, also cultivate a strong connection between the local landscape and the cultural identity of the community. Lee even found a way to create legacy artifacts to share her team’s findings with others at Square once the project had concluded. The company installed physical “listening stations” within the corporate headquarters, where employees can hear short videos recorded by sellers, and read firsthand stories from those who participated in the project.

We sat down with Lee to talk about breaking out of the tech bubble, the importance of individual voices, and what it takes to make a true “People Nerd.”

dscout: You’ve worked in design and research at a number of different places, Procter & Gamble, Cheskin Consulting, Samsung, and now Square. You’ve seen and worked with a lot of different “People Nerds”—how would you define the term?

Kat Lee: I think People Nerds are just naturally curious about what makes people who they are. They look at the history of a person, as opposed to simply taking them at face value. Researchers, especially in the corporate world or at public companies, have a tendency to want to label and segment people, and I understand professionally why we have to do that. And I love looking for patterns, I think that's just a natural passion of mine. So perhaps that's what’s helped me survive at these bigger companies. But I think that People Nerds have a greater sense of empathy. There’s a personal obligation to bring out people’s individual stories and voices and make sure they aren’t lost.

So it's more than just a curiosity, it's a feeling of responsibility to people that you’re doing research with, that you’re taking time from. An obligation to really understanding their experience and spread that to other people.

Yes. I can think back to when I worked at Cheskin, and there are people I still remember so vividly, because of one or two little stories that they told me. I feel like that’s the definition of a great researcher, when you can get people to let their guard down, and have those moments where maybe they even get a little teary-eyed.

I feel like that’s the definition of a great researcher, when you can get people to let their guard down, and have those moments where maybe they even get a little teary-eyed.

Kat Lee

I'd love to hear a little bit about what you think really goes into the work of storytelling. You clearly take it very seriously, honoring people’s stories, but you’re doing it in a business context. At the end of the day, it’s goal-oriented, ROI-oriented.

A lot of people associate storytelling with highly exploratory research, but I think you can tell a great story with just data. For me it’s finding those patterns, whether it's through pictures or words or data or combination of. Maybe the word is misinterpreted—maybe “narrative” is a better word. It’s about having a strong point of view. There’s a tendency for researchers to want to cover too much, and it doesn't necessarily hold together in the end. It’s really key to have a clear point of view on something, and then being able to support a narrative with quotes, testimonials, or specific data points.

Let’s talk about your work at Square—you’ve been able to engage in some really open-ended research projects there, which is interesting, because as a company Square is very technically oriented.

We’re definitely a tech-heavy company, and data drives a lot of things. But our CEO Jack Dorsey and management staff are always very conscious of ensuring that employees—we call ourselves “Squares”—feel connected to a greater purpose of economic empowerment. We talk a lot about enabling and creating this whole breed of small business owners that just would not exist if not for Square.

Did you come to Square with a specific roadmap for what you wanted to do?

I was hired to lead the UX research team, but what I found out pretty quickly after coming on board is that UX research at Square encompasses multiple areas. It's design research, it’s market research, but one thing that was surprising to me is how much we’re dealing with outreach-like projects, which stems from the fact that we’re largely serving a B-to-b audience. (I think about it as “B” to “little b” because small business owners are far from large organizations and have many qualities that are similar to consumers.) One of the challenges has been that Squares don’t necessarily have exposure to using the product themselves because they aren’t small business owners.

We’re actually just piloting a new outreach program that we're calling “Seller Apprentices.” Essentially, we’re finding businesses that will host Squares for half a day to work, anything from running Point-of-Sale operations to folding t-shirts or scooping ice-cream. It's meant to be an immersion, allowing Squares to go "beyond the interview" and work alongside our sellers and their employees—building empathy and fostering a deeper understanding of every facet of running a business. Ultimately, that allows Squares to leverage their learnings to create better products.

One of the big projects that you’ve taken on lately is the “Outside the Bubble” project, which looks more closely at what it’s like to run a small business in rural America, outside the bubble of the tech world and the city. What was the genesis of that project?

I'd been pushing to do more research with sellers outside the Bay Area and New York City, but the election was the big wake-up call. I had one of our analysts pull data on how many of our U.S. sellers lived outside the most populous cities, and it was a pretty significant figure. I felt like that alone rationalized a closer look—for any project, you do need to find that one clincher or that one shocking stat that will get people's attention. So while it started as a red state-blue state conversation, once we looked at the data the focus shifted and became more about population size and density.

Can you walk us through the various stages of the project? What was the process?

It actually started over the 2016 holiday break. I started communicating with around twenty sellers from all over the country—the Midwest, parts of Appalachia, South Dakota and Montana. Once we had a group of sellers on board we started with a two-week research period—we used dscout for that, collecting information and simply just trying to understand their motivations as small business owners. We asked if there was one motto they'd live by, what would that be? We talked about their communities, asking them to capture pictures and videos of people and local landmarks, local traditions, to get a sense of the things that hold them there. We also talked about ideas for community improvement, and the misperceptions that they believed people outside of their communities have of them.

We had a concentration of people in Kansas and Oklahoma, so we decided to make a road trip out to visit some of them and do some good old-fashioned networking. We asked them to introduce us to people in their community, and some of those were other small business owners (both Square sellers and non-Square sellers), but some were also just people that were key influencers in their community. It was very helpful to talk to that broad range of people, because it gave us a bigger picture. We were able to triangulate, in a sense, all the different forces and factors that need to come together to make businesses successful.

You ended up making a short documentary as part of the project. Was that a part of the plan from the beginning, or did that just come about as the project took on its own life?

We had planned to do the documentary, but the central themes and how we decided to approach it really became clearer after those first two weeks of research. There were so many directions it could have gone in, and that initial phase helped us identify which themes were surfacing with sellers across the various markets. But it also left us with some open questions, and taking the road trip helped us fill in some of those holes, and really helped drive some points home. We really focused in on identifying the tensions that small business owners deal within these areas.

Like what?

Well, in a small town physical presence is really important. If a business closes in a highly-populated city, you may not notice. But if something closes in a small town, it's significantly more noticeable and it impacts the community in a different way, because people start to think, "Is the economy going down?" It's about a sense of security, in a way. And often a place is seen not only as a place of commerce, but also a place where community members can gather. The sellers very much want to have lasting relationship with the community.

It was eye opening to see first-hand just how many things can influence their success. In one community, we were all set to meet with the president of the Chamber of Commerce, and the day before our meeting her position was eliminated. That was an awakening for me, realizing that for some of these business owners, they can’t even fully depend on their local government. It’s really just on them.

In San Francisco our sellers often talk about high rent costs and not being able to afford space when we ask them about capital and cash flow. Throughout this project I often had to check myself a little bit to ensure that our conversations and questions were grounded in a small-town perspective. At the end of the day, business owners have some common issues regardless of where they are. But it's important to understand how those challenges manifest and why they exist.

You got some pretty deep insights about what it means to run a business in a smaller community. It's not just about being a small business owner, but tied to these specific locations, how that experience is different. Is there anything you'd do differently if you had the chance to do it over?

One thing we didn't anticipate was how many spontaneous conversations people wanted to have at the community events we attended, or even just spontaneously when we were visiting small downtowns and Main Streets. It was very humbling how many people just wanted to talk to us, simply thank us for being in their town and recognizing that they were on the map. I wish we had built in more time to allow for that.

What’s the reception been like within Square?

We presented the research and the film at a company-wide meeting, and had a really great turnout, which was terrific since we’re such a small team that typically stays behind the scenes.

And then we set up listening stations on one of the floors in the office, with a combination of the videos and written entries sellers shared in the dscout project. Squares can just walk up and put on headphones and tap on different sellers. The listening stations give people an opportunity to hear those individual voices, and get a sense of people’s personal stories, which I think is important.

The project has some important big themes, but there were so many great individual stories that I didn't want to get lost.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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