Beyond the Button, Q&A with Kat Li, Head of Product at Digit

Kat Li is Head of Product at Digit, a popular automated savings tool that lets customers ‘set and forget’ savings with a simple messaging-based user experience. At Digit, her team focuses on the core product experience of saving, with the goal of helping people build better financial health. Kat previously worked at Quora and Stripe, and is a graduate of Stanford University where she studied linguistics and psychology. Aside from designing behavior-changing products, her passions include recognizing and reversing patterns of oppression, indoor gardening, and DIY crafting.

Speaking at Uncharted Minds: Beyond the Button, Design for Conversational User Interfaces on May 24th. Click here to get 20% off tickets to the event.

Q. When you were growing up, were you always interested in technology?

A. Growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley (San Jose), with a father who worked in tech, I had a lot of exposure to technology from an early age. I was fascinated especially by toys that incorporated some element of technology into them, whether it was a simple mechanical contraption (like dolls that flew or danced) or more complex, like tiny, tiny music players.

Q. What were some early influences on your career choice?

A. I’ve always been deeply fascinated by what makes people tick. During my master’s in psychology, I especially enjoyed taking neuroscience classes and behavioral change classes. These were probably some good clues that doing a job where I spend all my time figuring out why people do what they do and how to change their behaviors would be a good fit.

Q. What did you study in college?

A. Linguistics (BA), Psychology (MA)

Q. What did your parents do?

A. Mother is a teacher; father is a software engineer.

Q. Tell me about your first high tech job.

A. My first high tech jobs were actually internships at research and development centers (Bosch, NEC) where I contributed to NLP projects as a linguist. I spent a lot of my internships running experiments on real people, whether it was to see how much music choice could stress out people driving or how people perceived interactions with robots of different sizes and physiques.

Q. What were some early lessons that shaped your approach to product design?

A. Work on products that you deeply care about. It’s not enough to be aligned with the vision — you need to be genuinely excited about the product that exists today.

Learn how to differentiate between UX decisions you deeply care about and ones you just have opinions about.

Design product experiences with more than just the user in mind — design with an understanding of their interpersonal dynamics, how your product makes the user a hero in the eyes of people they care about.

Q. Tell me about why you joined Digit.

A. There were 3 reasons:

  1. I really liked and respected the CEO and CTO. Meeting them, even briefly, I knew I could work with them and learn from them.
  2. It was a great personal growth opportunity to come in as the first full-time product person and help define both what the vision was and build out a product-centric culture.
  3. The problem space resonated deeply with me. I’ve never considered myself as someone who’s good with money so I immediately understood how important it was to help people become financially healthy, in spite of themselves and their human irrationality.

Q. What do for inspiration? How do you generate ideas and stay inspired?

A. In my free time, I spend a lot of time making things. Whether it’s learning to use a sewing machine, baking complex desserts, or building gardening-related things, I like to get my hands dirty with physical objects too.

I also get a lot of inspiration from reading and go through a mix of both fiction and nonfiction to learn new things and ways of looking at the world.

But the most important way I find inspiration is through talking to people who make me think smarter and with whom a conversation will spark all kinds of new thoughts and questions.

Q. What career advice would you give to people today?

A. Be honest with yourself about what you want to be doing and then be brave in going after it. Getting into product management as a non-technical woman of color was definitely a battle but I’m so glad I didn’t give up along the way.

Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of developing an innovative product?

A. There are no existing paradigms or best practices for what we’re doing. We set the (current) best practices every day and thus need to refine a deep intuition and then trust in it.

Q. What’s your favorite aspect of developing an innovative product?

A. Going deep into understanding the underlying context and essential details of the people we’re building for. At Digit, we’ve done this by investing in user research from an early stage and it’s really paid off.