As a graduate from Stanford, I participate in a fairly active “design” email list originating from the various design programs. The email list allows fellow Stanford alum to post questions or raise topics related to the broader field of innovation and is invariably a fascinating source of trends and introspection.
A few weeks back, a fellow graduate started a tsunami of debate by posing a very simple question: “Juul - Product design gone wrong ... or terribly right?” Making the responses all the more interesting and personal, the founders of Juul (Adam Bowen and James Monsees) are Stanford Product Design grads themselves who famously met during a smoking break and conceived of the underpinnings of Juul while in the product design program.
I don’t know Adam or James. By all accounts, they are brilliant product designers and entrepreneurs and judging from the popular press they seem like pretty thoughtful and well-intentioned individuals. I have no idea if they lurk on the email list. It would be interesting to know their reactions to the debate.
Responses ran a tremendous gamut from those who deeply admired both the mission and execution of Juul to those who strongly felt this product had crossed a line of which designers needed to be very wary.
In trying to parse my own thoughts on Juul, I was left with a number of areas for introspection and reflection that go far beyond this particular product. For years, it seems that the design community has argued for a more relevant and influential seat at the table (whatever that might be). We’ve portrayed our role as deep strategic thinkers who do much more than functional or aesthetic design and engineering. Rather, we help set strategies, drive businesses forward, improve society and life, etc. It seems a little disingenuous if we fall back on saying, “Well, we’re just the product designers. We’d didn’t know and can’t be responsible for the implications of our designs.” I’m in no way saying the founders of Juul said that, just a commentary that ran through my mind as I thought through how I might have reacted.
I also suspect our insatiable drive for unicorns and exponential business growth creates a cultural environment where employees – if not founders – begin to rationalize all sorts of actions and strategies as they respond to incredible pressure, exuberance, fear, greed, and the heat of the moment.
This isn’t unique to startups. Plenty of medtech and pharma companies have set lofty ambitions at the highest echelon only to find rank-and-file employees pushing off-label use in a desperate attempt to achieve sales goals – responding to both fear and greed. The question isn’t whether executives at that company explicitly dictated that behavior. I’m guessing that few pharma executives push for off-label use any more than the founders of Juul pushed to target and market their product to children. The question in my mind is whether it’s reasonable to have predicted that pushing the ethical boundaries of the business would be a natural result of their strategies and goals.
As others have pointed out, the situation facing Juul is particularly complex because it contains a ready-made rationalization for the product, which is the reasonable assumption that vaping is probably better for you than smoking. I suspect this provides a spectrum of rationalizations ranging from “I can sleep with myself at night” to “I see this product as a savior of lives.” ALL product designers do this to a differing extent. We design products we know consume the earth’s resources and rationalize providing a bit more pleasure, relaxation or safety in exchange for whatever negative attributes might accrue from our efforts. This is an intensely personal and human debate each of us engages in.
But the fact that there are monetary implications and incentives muddies the water for everyone, every time. Juul simply highlights this in a profoundly public manner, but it isn’t unique. I have learned that even the most altruistic of product design exercises can often be motivated and driven by some very pedestrian motivations including making money. In fact, some of the most altruistic of projects create some of the most vexing and problematic dilemmas for the designer as their altruistic aims face reality.
Further complicating Juul in my mind is the understanding that much of the harm has been caused not by Juul but by lower-quality, competitive knockoffs. Again, one wonders to what extent Juul carries responsibility for anticipating this, if any. I can see thinking it’s not their fault and I can also see thinking that as the virtual creator of the market they need to accept ownership for all that entails.
There will be much “looking back” in the press, government, and popular opinion on Juul. Perhaps there is a time and a place for this, but I think humanity is better served if we look forward. As opposed to debating how we got here, who’s at fault, and who’s to blame or punish, I think a more healthy and productive debate for our society and our leaders would be to look at this series of logical decisions, actions, and intentions that led us to an undesirable space and figure out what we do now.
Back to the original question: Is Juul product design gone wrong ... or terribly right?
Looking back, I’d say it’s brilliant product design with some really crappy consequences. Not looking back but looking forward, I believe this is a product that should not exist in its current format. I don’t see children getting hooked on nicotine gum and patches. If we want to conceive of a tasteless, uninspiring smoking cessation version of this product, that’s fine. But the manifestation of this product necessary to generate a $40 billion-dollar business creates more harm than value. Just my two cents.
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