What do elegant kitchen tools, speakers and the Disney Magic Band have in common? Max Burton of Matter explains how to make empathy a cornerstone of any business in episode 4 of The Control Room: Conversations for Growing Companies.
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Josh Beser: Okay so I’m here with Max Burton. Max, thanks for joining me.
Max Burton: Oh, pleasure.
Josh: Max is the founder of Matter, which is a San Francisco based design and innovation firm.
Max, do you want to just get started by telling us a little bit about Matter?
Max: Sure. I started Matter about two years ago and as you mention we focus on product development and product innovation. And today, that includes both physical and digital because a lot of products in our world are connected. So we design basically the entire customer experience from the physical product side, what it is physically, and also the interface with the product whether that’s something on the product itself or an application that goes with the product.
Josh: So you’re looking both at a physical, a tangible product that you would maybe buy in a store and then also if you’re interacting with it on an app, for example with an app on your phone, you guys would also be designing the app.
Max: Yeah, correct. And just one thing that’s particularly interesting nowadays is that a lot of the interface isn’t just on the app. It’s actually on the product itself. So whether it be some kind of interface that the customer can see or it’s interface that they can touch, like for a speaker for example to increase the volume or change the track or pause the music, that’s interfacing on the actual physical product then sometimes also replicated in the app as well.
Josh: That’s really interesting. So you’re designing the products. Are your clients coming to you… let’s talk through this a little bit. So when a client comes to you for the first time and says, I want to build X. Are they saying… we can take the speaker example, if you want. Are they saying that I want to build a speaker, help me design it? Or are they coming to you more with a problem that they’re trying to solve? What does that look like?
Max: Well, often they do come to us with the initial idea. Like I want to design a speaker. But then once you dig into the program, it usually turns out to be a problem that we’re trying to solve, and we sort of level up a little bit, see the problem or the opportunity from a higher level. And then I think the way that we structure the programs is really to think about the problem from a holistic point of view. And the way we do that is to create a customer narrative or a story. And the thing about doing it that way is if you think about the consumer’s experience or the user’s experience of a product, you can detach yourself from both the physical and digital interactions and kind of just think about the user first. And once you do that, you can say, well, in this real life situation, what the user would actually do is touch the product as they walk out the door. And so why don’t we put an interface on the product as opposed to the app and requiring the user to take up an app on their phone every time they want to interface with the product? So that’s kind of how we approach design or product development is through kind of narratives and story boarding. It’s similar to the media industry if you like. It’s how, we put a story together with personas and this is usually the target customer and design the entire experience. And then after that comes a physical solution and out of it comes a digital solution.
Josh: So you’re starting with somebody coming to you and saying, I want to build a speaker. And then you go, okay, what does the speaker do, who is the speaker for, what does the person really want out of this or what maybe do different sets of people want out of this? You build stories based around those things to sort of back it out and figure out how the thing that you’re trying to do can solve the problem that they are really trying to solve and then you just sort of design the physical thing and then the digital thing around that?
Max: That’s right. Exactly. So for example there may be four key users let’s say in a household you’ve got the parents, and maybe the kids, or you’ve got a visitor to your house. So you have to imagine all of those different types of users interfacing with the product, and we do what’s called a day in the life of. Somebody waking up in the morning approaching the speaker, getting the music going, walking out the house and maybe still listening to the music on their phone. So we’re kind of thinking it would be the entire experience.
Josh: How do you figure out those users are? I mean it sounds like that might be one of those really difficult questions to answer? Or maybe not. Maybe you come up with 10 or 12 or every conceivable user and then you whittle it down to what you think the most likely users might be, but is there a sort of process that you guys go through to sort of come up with specific use cases?
Max: Well, I think if… some of the companies that we work with have a little bit more evolved sense of who their customer is. And if they do, they know at least from a marketing perspective, like who their target customer is. So that’s sort of more helpful for us, then we don’t have to do so much research. We can focus a little bit more. And then we really take that target customer and create these narrative or story boards around them specifically. So we don’t see it from a marketing angle, we see it from a use case scenario. So we’re a little bit more practical and thinking about, okay, what does this person actually doing in their life? What are they doing from one minute to the next, or hour to hour, rather than from a marketing angle you’re thinking about how to sell a product to somebody. So it’s a little bit more practical standpoint. But I will say, like a lot of the start-ups we work with don’t have a very evolved sense of their customer. And so we have to do a bit more research and help to find the customer for them and create… usually we work very closely with our clients and to find that customer to do a kind of screening process in which we figure out who that person is. And often that involves interviews with those people in their homes to get really a much deeper understanding of them and their needs.
Josh: So that really, in some places I guess it is not always so clear where the line is between what your sort of core activities are and where people might think of marketing fitting in? It sounds to me like that kind of depends on the company and what their capabilities are or the client and what their capabilities are, and then you can try to fill those gaps.
Max: That’s right. And I think some of the more mature companies, even if they are start-ups but they’ve been around for a few years, they do have a fairly good idea of their customer and have probably defined very clearly who their target user is and what they want their target user to expect from the product. So a very clear story, a very good articulation of the brand. But others, honestly some of the start-up companies that we work with today, they’re pre-funded, so they don’t have the resources to pay for the research phase of a program. And in those cases we don’t do what we call primary research which is face-to-face meetings with the end customer. They’re more likely to say, okay, we think our customer is a 25-year-old hipster tech geek. And then we kind of have to like create a story around that person without actually doing the deep primary research.
Josh: What percentage of pre-funding tech companies think that their target customer is a 25-year-old tech geek? I think it’s all of them?
Max: Pretty much all of them. That is actually a good problem. Or it’s a good observation, is that, is to help our clients understand that might not be your customer. Not everybody is like you. And in fact you have to think about somebody who’s elderly, who’s not so familiar with technology. Or someone who’s just not interested in gadgets. And they just want something to make their lives easier. So you really have to help, I think what we do a lot is help our clients understand that their not designing for themselves, but they’re designing for another customer, somebody else.
Josh: That makes a lot of sense. You mentioned something, and I kind of want to go in a little bit of a different direction even though I planned because I’m really interested in this. You’ve done a lot of work in wearables. At Nike, with the Disney Magic Band, and I believe in others, if you’ve done others, definitely say so, that we would know. You mentioned target customers not always being like you and you mentioned the elderly. I’m interested just generally, whether it’s the elderly or not, what your thoughts are on wearables and how that market is evolving and maybe what types of problems we can try to solve with technology like that?
Max: Yah, it’s a really good question. I mean, I was very fortunate to be part of Nike during the beginning of Nike Plus. And I think it was really, what’s very unique about Nike and also sports is that you have a very focused function. You’re literally recording and demonstrating through some kind of data manipulation and visualization, you know, activity and movement and let’s say running speed or calories or how many miles you ran. Those are very focused functions. So it kind of makes a lot… it’s great for the designer because you can really connect the user who’s an athlete with a product. The other end of that is something like a smart watch which is more of a universal device that is sort of like a smart phone that does many things. So I think there are those two sort of opposite ends of the spectrum. When it comes to wearables you have the very specific features and functions that work for one use case or a certain kind of user versus like the new Apple watch which is a universal device. I think that’s probably going to be the future. I think we’re going to continue to see these universal devices and function-specific devices. That’s two avenues. And then the other thing that’s really exciting and what happened while I was designing the magic bands for Disney is that the environments are getting smarter and the environments have connectivity. So that in a way I think is probably a third avenue that is going to be really interesting and I would say is the more likely future state of wearables. So if you imagine, right now, with the Disney Park is that you… this band is fairly simple in what it does. But you have lots of life in the park so you use it as a ticket to get in the park, you use it as a payment device, you use it for personalized interactions with the characters, you can use it for buying merchandise or food in a restaurant. So it does a lot of things and with very little interface. If you imagine that sort of smart environment being a city, a city of the future. So you’re walking down the street and things are personalized experiences just for you or access to places that are seamless. Transport – you just get on a bus, you don’t have to worry about getting into your pocket and finding money or specific entertainments or advertising directed to you as you are walking down the street. So I think that to me is the future of wearables. It’s technology that we’re wearing on our bodies somewhere that connect with the environment.
Josh: That’s crazy. I’m just kind of thinking that through. I mean, that sounds really interesting. And you know to some degree we see some of that now with phones, where you have like geo-fencing for example, where by walking into a particular area, you can get certain things on your phone or your phone can interact with devices, I mean, I know with Canary for example, I know our device will arm or disarm based on whether or not you’re physically in place. This is really taking it a step further, right, and saying you’re going to wear this thing, I mean, potentially all the time. I mean, for example at Disney are you wearing this band 24/7 while you’re there?
Max: Yeah, you’re actually using it pretty much all day. I mean you can take it off at night but you’re pretty much using it all day. I think the nice thing about this sort of future state is that we can move away from screens. So these interactions become part of the environment. I’m working with clients where the walls or the surfaces of buildings become interactive. So that’s an exciting future state. So you don’t have to necessarily take out your phone every time you want to do some kind of interaction. Everything from messaging somebody or doing a bank transaction. All of these things could be done without necessarily using your smart phone in the future.
Josh: Wow. Yeah, it’s very, very cool stuff and I’m sure from where you sit you get to see people and help them really imagine these states that most of us just don’t see day to day. It’s very, very cool. Sort of off of that idea, you’ve been working in design for over 20 years, right? How do you think the role of design has changed and particularly in start-ups over the last several years? Maybe it’s since the last decade or the last…?
Max: Well, I think the biggest change I’ve witnessed in my career is that design used to be not the primary thing people thought about when they wanted to start a product or a company or even at bold companies. But I think in the past decade, design has kind of moved up to the forefront and it’s become a lot more strategic. We see designers and design being discussed at the boardroom level. So design has really become very central in design and technology and business. I think that’s the biggest change. I think there probably is one company that’s really made that change for everybody and that’s Apple. It’s kind of… their level of sophistication around design has increased the bar for everybody and everyone now has to meet this new bar. But I think also why it’s so important for start-ups is that in a way design is kind of like a branding tool or a marketing tool. It helps these start-up companies to sell their products or sell their services to their customer. And what I mean by that is, a product is not just a functional thing. It’s like an icon of their brand. It’s an icon of often software services. So when you have something tangible, physical to point at, to look at, to touch, it makes the abstract software services a bit more real and understandable for the customer. So taking your company as an example, the product itself is what people think about when they think of Canary. So it becomes… but there’s more to your company than the product itself. There’s everything behind it. So I think that that’s what we’re seeing, is that physical products become these icons, brand icons for companies, and the ongoing revenue might come not from the sale of the physical product, but from the services that come with the product. And that’s particularly true with computers. When you buy a computer, you’re buying a vessel that will allow and enable ongoing software to be used on it. So the better you design that vessel, and the more quality and premium you make that vessel, the more likely people will be invested in it and then invested in the services and software it enables.
Josh: So I’m curious. Something that I’ve heard people say, hear elsewhere in reading about start-ups and working with start-ups for a long time is that you’ll hear people say that sometimes they’re a user-driven company or they’re a customer-driven company or a product-driven company or a design-driven company, something that you hear. Does that mean anything to you? And if so what do you think a design-driven company is?
Max: It certainly does. I think some of the… I was fortunate to work at Nike. Design is very high there, very high on the agenda but it’s actually brand that comes first there. So it’s brand, design second and then everything else third. But at Apple I think it was design first, and then technology second. So I think it does shift the conversation although we are sitting amongst engineers and technologists, we just put the emphasis a little bit more on the user, their needs, and having a little bit more empathy. And I think we kind of need that today. You can’t just sell a poor product to anybody anymore. Once upon a time you could make a product and then advertise it to the consumer and be able to sell it. I think today the customers or the people out in the market expect something higher and they expect quality and they expect it to work for them. And they don’t want a poor quality product that is going to be… either break or be difficult to use. So I think having that empathy with the user or the customer has just shifted the conversation a little bit and I think in the end it’s better for the companies because they are connecting with their customers better and it’s better for the customer because they get a better products.
Josh: Can we dig into empathy a little bit? So I’ve just been hearing what you were saying. You mention utility or that the product works. You mention quality a few times and of course we feel like we want to… everybody should feel like they’re trying to build quality products. But I don’t know, to me, empathy for the user feels like it’s more than building something that’s high quality, that works. What do you mean when you say that we need to have empathy?
Max: Well, there was an expression, if you truly want to understand somebody you have to walk in their shoes. And I think that’s what designers do. They try to get as close as they can to the end user and really understand that person’s needs. And that often means going into their homes. It means shadowing them. It means going back to them during the product development cycle and showing them prototypes and ideas and getting their genuine feedback. And that’s so different to the traditional focus groups that were very popular in decades past where you had a bunch of consumers behind a mirror and it was kind of very detached. So I think having that connection with the end user in their natural habitat being the home or at work or wherever they’re going to be using the product is very key. And the designers just have a way of looking at the problem and a way of really empathizing with the end user and an underlying desire of trying to make their lives better. It’s not about… the designers don’t typically think, I want to sell a product. They’re just thinking about, how can I solve this problem for this user? How can I delight this user? How can I make them happy? So they’re really just thinking about the user and not thinking about selling products. But the end result is you’ve got a product that connects to the consumer and they love it. And therefore it’s more profitable and it sells more product.
Josh: Makes sense. Is there anything you look for in a client? Turn it around. If somebody wants to work with you, they’ve found you, they’ve learned about you, they’re excited to work with you. But what do you want out of them?
Max: Well, a very good question. Every client is as different as a human, like each have their own unique personality and approach. I will say it’s a lot easier to work with a client who either has design in-house or somebody within the organization who understands and values design. So I think we tend to look for that in a company. There’s somebody who’s an ambassador for design or they have a chief creative officer. That definitely makes it a lot easier. We don’t have to educate or sell our process. It’s kind of more easily understood internally. So that’s kind of ideal. But I will say also that it’s really fun to work with start-ups who have no design backgrounds because you have a lot of influence and you can really shift the needle. And with the lot of start-ups, although for example my expertise is physical product design, we’re now doing, as I said earlier, we’re doing digital design, we’re doing branding, we’re doing packaging, we’re doing web design, we’re basically touching every emotional touch point that a consumer would have to the experience of a product. And that’s just really fun.
Josh: Is there anything that stands out to you that you’ve learned from a client or from clients that have maybe changed the way you think about what you do or have impacted what you do?
Max: I think, I mean, it’s probably one client in particular I’ve worked with. Sonos, which is a connected audio product.
Josh: I have a Soundbar.
Max: I think as a company they really do value design at a very, very high level. It starts with the CEO who appreciates and understands what design is and what it can offer and I think it helps me appreciate that a company that has such high expectations and high regard for design. It’s just marvelous. Working with them is a fantastic experience. And it kind of reminds me of the Italian Medici family in the Renaissance who supported the arts. They understood that it wasn’t all about financial gain. It was a desire to truly put something out there that’s going to benefit some people’s lives and that’s a pleasure to work for companies like that.
Josh: Sure, sure. Do you have time for two more questions? Are you good?
Josh: Okay great. So two things I wanted to hit on. One is, you’ve had an impressive career at some incredible companies working on incredible things. You decided a few years ago to start out and found Matter. And I’m always interested in the origin story. How did you end up deciding and what made you decide to start a firm on your own?
Max: Well, I think honestly it’s something I’ve wanted to do for my entire career, basically run my own shop or my own studio. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. But I also knew I had to get some experience in other places first. And I’ve worked at Smart Design in New York City, which is a consultancy, which was great for understanding that kind of world and then going corporate and looking at Nike, which was really fantastic, seeing how it works on the inside of an organization. And then I went to Frog which is a very famous innovation firm that worked on Apple and AT&T and Comcast and got to work with some major corporations. But after four, five years there, I really felt that I wanted to start an organization that focuses on things I really cared about, that was, number one, doing great work, and working… really believing it, really about the work. Number one, like the output of what we do. Number two is creating a culture that would be fun for people to work in and work with each other. So that’s my two primary things. And then honestly I put financial as a third. Because I think if you get the first two right, the finances will come. So that’s the way I kind of… sort of the premise for my firm and so far it’s been very successful in that we’ve grown to 18 people now in three years and I think that’s partially because we’ve put excellence in the work first and culture. That’s kind of my motivations and it’s a lot of fun to… I guess, the other thing, it’s great spending a career crafting products. Now I get a chance to craft an organization.
Josh: Are there any principles or things that you think about when you talked about, specifically you talked about culture and crafting your organization, things that help guide you to make decisions within the company or how you’re building your company that are consistent as you’ve started to, or as you’ve continued to grow?
Max: I think the important thing to realize when you start an organization is that, it’s always going to be, you have to kind of reframe it every year or so, especially if it’s growing. So first year was me and five or six other people and it was very easy to sort of organize and communicate and get things done. But when you scale to the level we are at now, 18, 20 people, you have to really think differently about how you structure the organization. So I think that’s what I have been focusing on recently. What I’ve learned is that you have to build these underlying systems or infrastructure that will enable the company to work without my personal involvement in everything all the time. And also I need that for work-life balance.
Josh: Is that hard? To pull yourself out of things where you’ve otherwise been making decisions for the last couple of years?
Max: It is. I think that I have to remind myself a lot to let other people in the organization to do the work and allow them to sail, if you like, and allow them to learn from their experiences. So I think you’ll find that most designers are somewhat obsessive compulsive and like to be involved in everything all the time. So it is a natural tendency for designers, so I’ve really had to try and educate myself out of that practice.
Josh: I think that that’s probably pretty common among founders, among people who have spent a lot of time building something that they believe in strongly, that letting go of that control is tough anyway.
Josh: Alright, last question, which might be a tough one. I don’t know that… as you know I’m a lawyer, I don’t think that the… the primary audience here is lawyers but I’m sure there are plenty of them who will listen. How can lawyers benefit from design thinking or design principles?
Max: Hmmm. It’s funny because often designers as consultants we look at how the legal firms are run and think, they’re doing a lot better than we do it because they need to have it nailed down, so it’s interesting you’re asking me the other way around. I mean, it may be similar things about customer or empathy first. Trying to think it through that lens. I don’t know, that’s a really hard question.
Josh: I think you’re on to something with empathy.
Max: I’d like to think that the lawyers I’ve met and I’ve enjoyed talking with and working with are kind of renaissance people. They have a lot of diverse interests and can often speak very well about different subjects. So I’ve always personally enjoyed interfacing with lawyers on a business level and also on a social level. So I think there’s some commonality there perhaps. But honestly I don’t know how… I think it’s maybe about just understanding the customer. It’s probably the primary thing to focus on in future for lawyers.
Josh: Makes sense. Great. Max, thanks so much for taking the time. Matter is at matterglobal.com. Are you on Twitter or is the firm?
Max: It is but I don’t have it quickly.
Josh. No problem, I’ll have it on later.
Max: Thank you.
Josh: Anywhere else to find you or things that people should check out?
Max: We’re on Medium, we’re on Facebook and Dribble and a few of the other social platforms. You can often find us at conferences such as the industrial designers association. The wearable tech conference, which is coming up in San Francisco in July. We try to get out there and we’re trying to also do more PR this year, so I hope you’ll meet, you’ll hear more about Matter this year.
Josh: Cool. Max, thanks so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
Max: Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you so much.