Category: Culture

Guest Post: Designing With Empathy

It’s no secret that smoking kills a lot of people every year. According to the Center for Disease Control, “cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure. This is about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths every day.”

Knowing this, I asked myself: why do adult smokers still smoke?

As a designer, my job is to create experiences that are meaningful and add value to and impact people’s lives. I do this by being empathetic to the audience of whatever product I’m designing. Because I don’t smoke, and never have, I have to rely on published facts and the experiences of those who do. The CDC lays out an abundance of striking data around cigarette-smoking, very openly and clearly. How I respond to these facts determines what kind of designer I am, and what kind of designer I want to be.

Finding empathy for adult smokers

Most adult smokers are trying, but have not yet found a way to meaningfully change their relationship with nicotine. Shouldn’t we be finding solutions to help these people and those around them? Don’t these millions of people deserve a better alternative?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming adult smokers for their plight. Not only is this cruel, but it’s also unhelpful.

Behind every smoker is a complicated personal journey into smoking. Knowing and respecting that journey — and designing an alternative path forward  — is designing a new life. I, myself, have loved ones who still struggle with a 35+ year history with cigarettes. I’m doing this for them.

Adult smokers deserve an alternative to combustible cigarettes.

Like many other designers, I want to make an impact. I want to design based on empathy. I want to design based on data. The design problems that we tackle for adult smokers, through technological innovations, have the potential to be profoundly impactful worldwide, and that’s exciting. As a designer at JUUL Labs, my ultimate intentions when designing our future products are:

●  To design an intuitive experience that gives nicotine users insight into their usage;

●  To create a pathway to provide users with  greater control and visibility into their usage;

● To build on this technology in a way that helps adult smokers and prevents unauthorized use, including underage use.

“If a consumer wants to quit our product, they can,” said James Monsees, co-founder of JUUL Labs in TechCrunch. “We will give them the toolset to do that in the smoothest possible way.”

What resonated with me about this quote, discussing a potential future state of JUUL Labs products, was the clear focus on giving the user control over their experience.

“I’ll probably smoke until I die,” was a phrase I heard in one of our research interviews, said with an air of nonchalance. I realized that this was the voice of someone who felt that they had lost control over their relationship to nicotine.

The crux of our approach has to be the empathy we show our core demographic — the adult smoker. We have to practice what we preach, design products that give our customers greater control and visibility , and empower them with innovative features.

We have to give them a path towards control that works for them.

As part of the design process, we evaluated a lot of existing apps that help you track and measure behavior. Many of those apps require you to do chore-like maintenance; regularly inputting data without helping the individual reach the goals they set forth. This in-turn has an adverse effect on the individual, and can present more opportunities for them to feel like they are failing.

While I don’t know what the perfect solution looks like yet, I certainly know what I don’t want – I don’t want users to feel like this is yet another chore on their to-do list; I don’t want to ask for any information without offering the user something in return; I don’t want to shame users or set them up for failure; and I don’t want them to feel alone in their struggle. I want any experience I design to feel as seamless as our physical product does — no buttons, no maintenance, simple, and unobtrusive.

Digital behavioral change that works with minimal effort.

What does it look like and when will we get there? I don’t know, we have the privilege to “think big” — one of JUUL Labs’ company values.

Our mission to eliminate cigarettes is ambitious, and requires insight into how adult smokers rely on combustible cigarettes in their daily lives. Accessibility is an incredibly important part of the conversation as we, as a company, approach our design challenges, because it dictates whether or not our product is useful to people who need or want to consume nicotine.

I’m excited to come to work everyday because I get to be a part of a myriad of projects that, together, could present a holistic, realistic approach to switching off of cigarettes, managing nicotine use, and preventing youth access to vapor products. Prior to working at JUUL Labs, I worked on consumer-facing health management app that began to pivot into tackling problems like cigarette-smoking. Now that I’m at JUUL Labs, the scale of possibilities for positive impact is so much bigger.

If you’re reading this and still think, “I still just can’t get behind nicotine in any shape or form,” that’s completely understandable. I know this touches a deeply emotional vein for people who have seen their loved ones suffer at the hands of cigarette addiction, or any addiction.

Because, for me, it hasn’t been enough to tell them, “please stop smoking cigarettes.” I want to work on a viable alternative, and designing at JUUL Labs allows me to do exactly that.

P.S. We’re hiring!


Our mission is simple: to improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers by providing the first true alternative to combustible cigarettes.

“We started this project with the firm belief that innovation could address all the problems associated with smoking.”

JUUL Labs’ cofounders, Adam Bowen and James Monsees, first began developing alternative technology to combusted cigarettes as graduate students together in the product design program at Stanford University. Smokers themselves, they first conceived of the idea for disrupting the worldwide cigarette industry during shared smoke breaks for their masters thesis project. As they continued to go outside for smoke breaks, they wondered why, in an age of incredible technological progress, there had yet to be a product that could offer an alternative to combustible cigarettes.

Video of Adam and James’ master’s thesis presentation at Stanford University.

Even a decade ago, when Adam and James first presented their graduate thesis, they were steadfast in their mission to improve the lives of the world’s one billion smokers. “Adam and I were interested in working on design for social change, and we acknowledged right away that smoking was probably an easy target,” James says in the recording of their thesis presentation from June, 2005. 

“We would hear these anecdotes from 10-year or 20-year smokers. They had tried other e-cigarette products and nothing had worked.”

The clarity of purpose has been a constant for James and Adam — from the inception of their first prototypes to their leadership at JUUL Labs as Chief Product Officer and Chief Technology Officer.

Applying their backgrounds in product design to the challenge of finding a satisfying alternative to smoking, Adam and James labored for years over dozens of product iterations before landing on the design and features of the JUUL device.

"I would tell people, you know, anyone who would listen: Fifty years from now, nobody's going to be smoking cigarettes. And now I think it's actually going to happen must faster, in large part because of the progress that we've made."

Their work eventually evolved into the product JUUL Labs offers today, which has helped adult smokers make the switch off combustible cigarettes. Studies have shown that 40 to 55 percent of adult smokers who purchased and used the JUUL product fully switch from combustible cigarettes within 90 days of use.

Almost four years after the launch of JUUL, the cigarette industry is now facing unprecedented declines in sales volume, with year-over-year losses that have not been seen in the past 5 years of available data. Multiple factors have driven the long-term trend in cigarette declines, but the company believes the largest recent contributor, particularly over the past several months, has been the growth of JUUL products as a true alternative for smokers.