interviews

Sharan Sumal, UX and Product Innovation

Elyssa Macfarlane
Sharan Sumal, UX and Product Innovation

I was extremely excited to connect with Sharan, as she is a UX specialist at Apply Digital and the head of product innovation at Daily Hive.

In my opinion, UX is really a beast of its own nature. In order to be excellent at it you have to have an in-depth understanding of interaction design, development, and product management. It’s difficult to simply hand off to someone who isnt’ familliar with all of these concepts as UX has an incredible impact on the company’s ability to deliver on business objectives.

When I’m speaking with Sharan, I always feel like we’re on the same page. We’ve both studied web development, we both love talking about Vancouver’s tech scene, and we bothget excited about working on projects where we’re forced to think on our feet.

Between working as hard as she does, raising a son, and making time to be involved in Vancouver’s tech scene, Sharan is a hustler at heart. This is why I’m happy to have her showcased on Meditations on Tech.

Interview

Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you ended up travelling down a career path in UX:

So role wise, I’m a UX Specialist at Apply Digital and am a Founding Member and the Head of Product Innovation at Daily Hive. I’m also a wife and a mother. UX was sort of a natural career progression for me. I had spent eight years in the Mental Health and Addictions industry practicing empathy while understanding human behaviour and I was also involved in the formation and growth of a company developing a digital product. UX wasn’t an obvious career path for me right in the beginning though. I first began experimenting in programming languages before I realized that UX was the route that was calling me. To really test my passion for this career path, I joined Apply Digital and realized very quickly that this was where I needed to be to really grow and excel as a UX Designer.

What does your typical day-to-day entail?

I work on multiple projects at once. My day-to-day can range anywhere from a full day of workshopping with clients on one project to getting deliverables out the door at a rapid pace on two projects in the same day. The nature of agency life entails no consistency in your day-to-day, and I love that about it.

Without getting too deep into the inside baseball, what are some of your favourite projects that you’ve been able to work on at Daily Hive and Apply Digital?

My favourite project so far at Apply Digital was developing a product strategy for a major US client alongside the brilliant minds of Scott Michaels and Gautam Lohia. As a team, we dove really deep into the research for this project. We did a comprehensive competitive market analysis, conducted both stakeholder and customer interviews, and distributed a survey. All of that research, although it took a lot of time, was rather straightforward. The last piece of quantifying our qualitative research was the most complex part of the whole project. For most stakeholders to understand the importance of qualitative research, it’s important to quantify it - and that is no easy task. This project, because of that complexity involved in conveying our findings to our stakeholders in the right way, was one that pushed me to grow in my craft. Working at an agency that creates products for the F1000 sector pushes you constantly with every project. Those companies expect the best and to be the best you have to step up each and everytime.

On the Daily Hive end, having been with the company from the beginning, I have many favourite projects and milestones. One that stands out the most was when we launched Vancity Buzz into its first new market, which was Calgary. We didn’t have a lot of resources for market research so we travelled to Calgary and did some guerilla research. We visited major neighbourhoods and conducted contextual inquiry interviews which consisted mostly of observations but also a small set of questions. That helped to inform the content we would produce for that city. We’re a bit beyond that at this point so now, I employ pretty much the same research methods and techniques as I do at Apply. Aside from research, I also help our team to implement a design thinking approach to product development and keep us up to date on what technologies are coming out and assessing whether or not they are a fit for us.

In terms of advice for those entering into UX, what are some huge no-no’s that you see quite frequently?

Projects that you work on are exciting and what people pay you may be surprising, but do not name clients, never show your work, and don’t talk dollars. Understand your NDAs and protect your client’s IP. For example, some of the projects I just spoke about are not yet live, so I’m careful about what I say about them. You have to understand that there is almost always a race to market and leaking vital information about a product, or revealing who the client is, could have a severe impact on the success of the product. Aside from that, you’ll also lose your job and credibility in the industry.

I think one of the resounding cries from technical people is the frustration experienced by non-technical people having expectations, or ideas, that aren’t feasible or go against the data. When you’re experiencing this, how do you approach these conversations?

First and foremost, technical people have a lot of problems understanding business goals. Non-technical people have the same frustration from technical people. The problem is communication and empathy. You have to be empathetic to a non-technical person’s understanding of what it is you are trying to explain. You have to meet them where they are at with their particular knowledge of the subject. If you truly are a subject matter expert in what it is you are trying to convey to your stakeholders or team members, you will find a way to help them understand. Sometimes that means getting them more involved in the process from the beginning; workshopping with them, presenting work more frequently, or understanding what their stakes are in the project and helping them to achieve success. That cry we hear so often is usually boiled down to the mismanagement of a project. There isn’t always one particular person to blame, but rather the process. You have to understand and set expectations right in the beginning. It’ll save you a lot of time and headache.

Can you tell me about one example where you’ve expected one outcome, but research and testing has (interestingly) indicated that another [method] will work better?

All of my work is behind NDAs which means I can’t share a case study, so I’ll do my best to speak generally on this topic. When you work in an agile team and use a design thinking approach in product design, the process is always iterative. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily pivot, but generally you either build on what you have or strip away some things. Research and testing will inform what direction you take and you do that during your sprints. No one has time or money to fail six months into the development of a product, so you “fail fast”. That’s the bare bones of agile or lean product development and it’s a standard way of doing things in today’s world.