June 18, 2018

Gabrielle Guthrie: simplifying systems to design better products

Gabrielle Guthrie

Gabrielle Guthrie

Co-founder & Product Designer, Moxxly

Gabrielle Guthrie is a designer, entrepreneur, and co-founder of Moxxly—a company with the mission to “build boss products for badass women.” We chat about her startup’s user-centric design philosophy, and the challenges that occur when research needs to take place with a vulnerable audience like new mothers. We also talk about prototyping at the right level of fidelity, and creating simple, delightful products.

Eli Woolery: Gabrielle Guthrie, co-founder and product designer at Moxxly, welcome to Conversations on DesignBetter.Co.

Gabrielle Guthrie: Hey, great to be here.

Eli: Great to have you. Could you walk me through your story of creating your product and why you decided to work in this particular space.

Gabrielle: I’d be happy to. I’ll start with why this space.

As you mentioned, it’s not a space a lot of people are in. It’s definitely a labor of love working in hardware and being a hardware co-founder. For me, the journey started during my Master’s thesis project.

I was working with a team to design products for women. We started there because we knew women make 80% of consumer purchase decisions and, yet, they make up around 8–12% of industrial designers and mechanical engineers. So you have this big gap, and as it turns out, a lot of funny products can fall within that gap—including breast pumps.

I met my first breast pump when I was 29, and it was a bit shocking to realize that what was available is the best women have when returning to work after maternity leave. They’re using this device, this professional tool, three times a day in order to pump milk for their babies. The device itself looked like somewhere between a medical device and a baby toy. It seemed completely out of sync with the context in which it was developed, which is for professional women to use on the go. That’s the “why I’m here.”

In terms of “the how,” at Moxxly we’re very user centered. All of our products—all of our decisions—start with users, whether it’s an interview or an idea that’s developed into a prototype. It quickly gets tested with women to get feedback to make sure we’re in step with what people actually want to use.

Eli: That’s a nice transition to the next question I have here. You’re working for users who are at a vulnerable time in their lives—a time when you don’t want a lot of outside people necessarily talking to you if you don’t know them well. I imagine that can make user research challenging. How do you approach that? How do you talk to people in this phase of their lives where they are very inward-focused?

Gabrielle: That’s a great question. It is a very emotionally charged situation. Women are renegotiating a lot of their lives and adding things on—like trying to maintain a sense of self while adding this new level of complexity of motherhood, right?

So, we have steps in place to establish trust in order to connect with people as soon as possible. A lot of my job when we go out is, honestly, to get strangers to take their shirts off within five minutes of meeting me. In situations like this, you have to establish the trust early and quickly.

We’re fortunate enough that women are very passionate about this space and they want a product that will help them make their lives easier because it is such an emotionally charged moment. They’re willing to do a lot in order to help facilitate that. Our users are awesome and they go above and beyond for us, showing up and being really clear and open about what they want. We have that benefit.

Eli: I was looking at one of your profiles on Designer Fund and you mention that you like to “simplify systems and delight people who use your products.” Could you talk about simplifying systems and some of the keys to making a really delightful product?

Gabrielle: Sure. So, in terms of simplifying systems… again, I think design always starts with context—thinking in terms of the context in which a particular design is going to be used. What is the context in which our product is going to enter people’s lives?

Then, think through all of those questions—whether it’s with journey maps or something else—and think through the systems already in place in a woman’s life. So, for example, there’s the system of childbirth, there’s the system of motherhood, there’s the system of work and returning to work. Our user is at this crossroads of all of these areas, so how can we come in and help connect those for her and help simplify all of those connections so they work together as opposed to being at odds?

That’s the way we think, in a very high-level way about what the most important aspects of the product are.

Then, in terms of in-house simplifying, a really easy example I’ll give you is thinking through the prototype process and how we know a prototype is ready to go out to users. We want to respect people and make sure we’re what we’re putting in front of them is worthy of their time and their feedback. We have systems in place that go from idea to prototype, and then a system of exit criteria that allows us to know the product is ready to go out.

In terms of delight, I heard a great idea about this from Anisha Jain, who is currently at Dropbox. She thinks about design in terms of a person. This is really applicable to hardware and software—you have a design that’s in your life and you think about it as a friend.

Would you want your friend to interrupt you when you’re in the middle of something? Would you maintain your friendship with someone who constantly tells you to drink more water when you’re trying to get something else done? Again, thinking in terms of context, but also layering on this personifying element to your design, whether it’s hardware or software, can help lead to insights that make it easier to delight.

Eli: You’re talking about prototyping and getting a prototype at the right level in front of people. Can you explain a little more about prototype fidelity and what is the right prototype to bring to somebody and at what stage? How do you know it’s ready?

Gabrielle: Prototypes are questions. You have to focus on the question you’re really trying to ask to get its answer. We try to create prototypes as quickly and cheaply as possible that ask one question and one question at a time. When we run through the test criteria, we ask ourselves, “What’s the question we’re trying to answer, and is this prototype answering it or not?” Then we know it’s ready to take out to users.

Eli: Out of curiosity, do you have an app or digital component to your product? What type of things does that help track? What are some of the features that app has, or that it helps?

Gabrielle: We do. We have a working Android app, so we look at the software side of development as well. The Moxxly Flow app automatically tracks milk flow and volume so women are able to take one thing off the list of things running through their brains. They can automatically track these things and see trends over time—and also see what’s unique or normal to them, as opposed to being barraged by outside voices saying what to expect.

Eli: When you were working on prototypes of that app, did you learn anything surprising along the way?

Gabrielle: With the app, we started with foam core cutouts. We like to learn from ugly and get prototypes out as quickly as they’re ready while making sure we’re respecting people’s time.

So, we started with those foam core cutouts of the app before moving into other prototyping services. I think the biggest learning from the app was that people want access to information, but only if it’s actionable. So having data that you can’t do anything about is stressful, overwhelming, and not helpful in a product.

Eli: So that comes back to your principle around simplifying systems.

Gabrielle: Yeah, incredibly so.

Eli: Great, so the one last question I try to ask all our guests is if are there any books or resources you would recommend that helped you in your design career along the way.

Gabrielle: Yes, tons of books. I just finished reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which is a great one for helping understand the evolution of the species. I also recommend reading more than just design books, and expanding your bookshelf in that way. 

Eli: Sapiens is great.  I am about halfway through it right now. I tend to have about 12 books in rotation. Right now, I’m also reading Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. For fun, I’m reading a fictional book about the expedition that went up to explore the Northwest Passage and got stuck on the ice for two to three years. They actually made it into a television series called The Terror. It’s a page turner, for sure.

A few weeks ago, I finished listening to Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I’m not a huge horror fan, so I’ve never read any of his books before, but this book is really great if you ever do any writing, I highly recommend it.

Gabrielle: I just started listening to audiobooks because I had this big insight that if I listen to books I can fit in another hour worth of content a day. So I just started listening to Creativity, Inc. It speaks a lot to systems—and something else I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, which is balancing managerial work and individual contributions.

A few other recommendations would be:

Eli: Thank you so much, Gabrielle, for being on the show.

Gabrielle: Cool, thanks for having me.

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