As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Haraway.
Holding a PhD in sociology from the University of California-Davis, Sam has a decade of experience using qualitative and quantitative research methods to solve complex problems. One of Sam’s primary interests in the product space is bridging the gap between social scientific research methods and user experience in order to efficiently deliver robust insights that directly inform product outcomes. He is currently building out an Agile Research program that articulates social science methodologies with Kin + Carta’s agile design and development processes.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thanks for having me! I found out about Product Design and UX Research while completing my PhD in sociology at the University of California-Davis. I had been looking around for non-academic careers for social scientists and saw that a fair number of my colleagues were beginning to flock to the digital design space. It’s really the perfect place for people with strong research skills, given the field’s emphasis on understanding users and solving their problems.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It took me about one and a half years after finishing graduate school to break into the field. I definitely made plenty of mistakes along the way, particularly around how to articulate the applicability of a social science background for the digital product space. Pretty early in my career transition I was fortunate enough to meet the Director of Customer Experience for the company I was working at the time. I made the mistake of presenting an overly critical argument about differences between sociology and psychology. Not only was this person a trained psychologist — as I later learned — but the kinds of disciplinary battlegrounds that were ingrained in me throughout graduate school just weren’t relevant in many business contexts. This was one of the moments I look back at and wonder what I was thinking, but I didn’t know the language of business and digital yet, and still found it challenging to articulate the value of my experience for this new world. The takeaway, for me, was to never stop at critique — as we often do in academia — but always work toward a solution.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yeah, that’s for sure! There are tons of people who helped me get into the product space; far too many to name. One person who has been especially helpful in my career trajectory is Becky Pierson. Becky is currently the Director of The Studio — our rapid discovery sprint service at Kin + Carta — and is a fantastic mentor and one of those people who is genuinely interested in helping people grow their careers. When I met Becky for the first time I was still on the fence about whether to commit to a career in design. I’ve been working with her at Kin + Carta for about a year now and she’s still just as impactful on me as she was when I first met her.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
One of the early breakthroughs for the Kin + Carta West office, at the time known as Spire Digital, came with the work it did for the budding e-commerce site, eBags. The success of this project helped Spire become an important player in the emerging e-commerce space. Our primary value of transforming businesses through design and technology was nonetheless approached with a responsibility toward our clients and employees, and we avoided the “boom and bust” mentality that characterized the era. We have maintained this responsible approach to technology, which is one of the reasons we were recently awarded B Corp certification.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
Kin + Carta is a global transformation business. We are a consultancy of creatives, strategists, and technologists who strive to use our skills to make positive impacts on our clients and communities as a whole. We believe that by transforming the ways our clients do business, we are inherently improving the experiences of their workers as well. For example, by updating a business’ technology, we have an impact on everyone who comes in contact with that technology.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
For a company that has been around as long as Spire Digital / Kin + Carta, we’ve seen a lot of disruption over the years and our principles and values have allowed us to adapt and keep going. For example, the influence of Artificial Intelligence has certainly been transformative within the technology industry and it will continue to (re)shape the products we build.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
One of the demands resulting from AI has been the need for highly-personalized user experiences within the products we build. Our Agile Research program, an approach that integrates rigorous user research and testing with our agile development process, has allowed us to leverage the needs and goals of our users into the experiences we deliver for our clients. User research is hardly new, although it does have the misconception of extending time to market and blowing budgets. I’d argue this is an outcome of a poor research process rather than an inevitable outcome of research itself. We’ve been able to articulate social-scientific research methodologies with agile development to rapidly deliver research insights that impact the workflows of our designers and developers. The specific value add comes with the vastly reduced refactoring process and ensures the product solves real user problems rather than materializes the whims of your executives.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
Good question! Our clients have been looking for ways to integrate AI into their platforms for years. I would say we’d had a series of moments that led to our full commitment to a research program. In the example of creating personalized experiences, it’s pretty difficult to do so without a deep understanding of a target user group. Not to mention that building an experience based on assumptions isn’t a viable product or business strategy. We needed a way to learn about the needs, pain points, behaviors, and particularities of each group for whom we built products.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
Our research program is one of the key drivers of our product delivery strategy. User research and testing add so much value to our products because we are able to validate every problem we aim to solve, and test our digital solutions with real users to ensure the product will have the impact we intend. Moreover, the integration of research and agile has been a game changer for us. We implement what Marty Cagan champions as “dual-track agile development,” which helps us run recurring research cycles throughout our projects. Not only are we executing research cycles faster as a result, we are also able to conduct more of it because of its strategic value for our roadmaps and the trust our clients have in our process.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
I once joined a project midway through its completion. For a number of reasons there was some friction between our designers and the client. Nothing contentious or anything, but it was difficult to come to an agreement with the client on designs sometimes. We added several research cycles to the project and were able to demonstrate — with data — why we were advocating for particular strategies and product features. Research can have an incredible impact on a project because it provides so much context for a team’s decision, which in turn, helps build confidence and trust between a product team and their client.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
In my view, a leader needs to provide direction and support at all times and especially during periods of uncertainty. The most effective leaders with whom I’ve worked over the years are those who strike an effective balance between providing a path forward and trusting others to execute as best they can. This is the balance I try to achieve as well.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
One of the challenges of leadership, personally, is to recognize the variety of personalities and working styles with whom you interact. The most effective leaders are those who not only recognize this about their co-workers but also learn to adapt to this variety. If you can be empathetic enough to recognize there’s not necessarily one way forward, and flexible enough to cater to the unique needs of your co-workers, then I think you’re well on your way towards effective leadership.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
Here are my five recommendations for leaders who need to pivot, and I’m going to stick with my example of building our research program.
1. Support game-changing ideas. Our company had dipped its toe into the UX research space before, but didn’t fully embrace research at the time because of the added timelines, increased project expense, and difficulty translating research into an agile development process. This time around, however, we developed a different approach that married social science research methodologies with the flexibility and efficiency of agile, hence Agile Research!
2. Create space for innovation within the company. The development of Agile Research might not have happened without the spaces we have for innovation. For example, we hold monthly Lunch & Learns for thought leaders at the company to bring up new ideas. We received tons of multi-disciplinary feedback from folks with whom we might not have interacted with if we didn’t have this space.
3. Create and grow a culture of innovation at every level of the business. The above is presupposed by how our leadership encourages innovation throughout the organization. I was in a junior-level role when I began defining Agile Research, and it’s credit to how our leadership approaches innovation that I was able to bring this way of thinking to the forefront.
4. Invest in the future. Whenever possible, hire junior employees and grow talent from the ground up. Hire people with backgrounds that are non-traditional to your industry. Create the space and mindset of cross-functional collaboration. Yes, these practices involve a financial commitment, but the payoff can be immeasurable.
5. Familiarity is the enemy of innovation. Spend time researching other companies, leaders, etc. The status quo way of thinking and doing things almost inherently creates blinders that are difficult to overcome. Build a way to cross-pollinate with other people inside and outside of your industry, and never discount a fresh set of eyes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Bet on yourself.” Taking risks is scary, but they can also be necessary to overcome disruption. If someone hadn’t given me this advice after graduate school, I don’t know if I would’ve made the leap to transition into design.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’m on LinkedIn, so please feel free to connect and chat if you’d like!