Editor’s Note: The following interview features a GreenBook Future List honoree, Katherine Duong. The GreenBook Future List recognizes leadership, professional growth, personal integrity, passion, and excellence in the next generation of consumer insights and marketing professionals within the first 10 years of their careers.
Introducing Katherine Duong
Katherine is a purpose-driven design researcher who applies Human-Centered Design to complex societal problems. Katherine’s current role as Senior Insights Manager at Target involves learning from communities whose stories often go untold, for example, historically underinvested Black neighborhoods. Prior to Target, Katherine worked at Kaiser Permanente’s Innovation Consultancy, City of Austin’s Innovation Office, and Worrell. She’s led insights projects across an array of topics. In Austin, TX, she worked on issues like Recycling and Homelessness. In healthcare, her portfolio ranges from Transgender Patient Experiences to Aging in Place to Hip Replacement Technologies. Katherine studied Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and now lives in Minneapolis with her husband.
Since starting your career in market research, what would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
I’ve been lucky enough to have worked across various industries – healthcare, government, retail. I have also worked on a variety of topics – aging at home, the transgender patient experience, increase recycling behaviors, supporting historically underinvested communities. The consistent theme is that I am always looking to apply research for social good. Even though I am proud of all the things I’ve worked on, one of the topics that means the most to me is addressing homelessness in Austin, TX. I led a large qualitative research endeavor where we heard from over 120 people with current and past lived experiences of homelessness. Their stories and experiences were brought back to city leaders and community partners to humanize homelessness and helped people move away from stereotypes and preconceived notions about why and how people become homeless. This foundational work helped key leaders make decisions driven by empathy rather than fear, assumptions, and biases.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your career, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Experiences that feel like professional or personal failures are never as bad as you think, and those will be your biggest catalysts for growth. For a young professional, a project going awry, a bad presentation, or receiving negative feedback during an annual review can feel like the end of the world. It is absolutely true that those experiences are extremely painful in the moment, but after the dust settles, you will see that you came out the other end having learned a ton and a better researcher/collaborator/professional because of it.
What do you consider to be key characteristics or qualities of a leader? How does this play into market research?
In my experience, one of the main qualities of a great leader is their ability to truly care about every individual on their team as people first, and employee second. It is about putting the health, safety, and happiness of their team before all else – projects, deadlines, external pressures. When leaders truly care about individuals as real people, they build real connections. It is that connection that motivates people to want to do better, want to stay on the team, and want to model care in their own behaviors creating a positive and welcoming team culture. This translates to market research nicely because it is about truly understanding people and building empathy for people. People first is a core tenant that guides both great leadership and market research.
If you could change one thing about the insights industry, what would it be?
I would love for the insights industry to consider how we can approach research planning, data gathering, and analysis in a more equitable way. The act of doing research can be, and often is, extractive and biased. The researcher holds all of the decision-making power – who gets selected to be in the research, how the information is interpreted, which information is important enough to share, what happens to the data – while the research participant often receives very little (besides monetary compensation) in return. Equitable research is especially important to consider when studying communities that are often marginalized or exploited, or exploring topics that can be sensitive and triggering. I would love to see the insights industry rally around the practice of doing research in a more equitable, thoughtful way so we don’t inadvertently cause harm to those we are studying.
How did you get your start in insights? Did you know that this is what you wanted to do, or did you fall into it?
I definitely fell into insights! Growing up as a child of immigrants and the first one to go to college in my nuclear family, I didn’t have guidance from my parents as to what I should study in college or what my career path should be. I ended up getting a degree in architecture because I liked art and I was good at math. I quickly learned that those two qualities are not enough for a successful career in the demanding field of architecture. But one pivotal architecture class did steer me in the direction of insights, though I didn’t know it at the time. This class was about how the built environment can impact people’s behaviors and emotions. I was fascinated by the focus on people and how design, intentional or unintentional, can have a significant impact on people. To follow that curiosity, I started learning about Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design. I pursued jobs and teams that leveraged those methodologies. As I learned about more Human-Centered Design, I gravitated towards the upfront discovery and empathy part of the process, and over time, honed my skills as an insights professional.
Is there a specific experience, internship, or job that best prepared you for your career in market research? If so, how and why?
My first job out of college laid the foundation for the rest of my career. Right out of undergrad, I joined Kaiser Permanente’s Innovation Consultancy as an intern and six months later, transitioned to a full-time design and research position. During my tenure at Kaiser Permanente, I learned something new about research, design, innovation, collaboration, and leadership every single day. Those cumulative five years powered me through the next few career moves and continue to drive my approach to work today. That team and role was a great entry-level position because it allowed me to explore many facets of research, design, and innovation. It helped me to figure out where my passions lie and what I’m good at (research and insights!) and where I had less energy and talent (design). The incredible individuals on that team also demonstrated what exceptional leadership, collaboration, and culture look like. That experience helped me identify the right subsequent career moves based on the types of work I wanted to do and the teams I wanted to be on.