João Planche, VP of Design at Beats Medical, shares real cases that prove the importance of growing businesses by building strong and ongoing relationships with users.
Holly Camponez: Thanks for joining us today, João! João has over nineteen years of experience in UI and UX and has led design endeavors at companies including Nike, McDonald’s, LG, Caixa Geral de Depósitos, Fidelidade, and many others. João, given all of the experience you’ve acquired at these big-name brands, what does design mean to you?
João Planche: For me, design is all about creating seamless and highly enjoyable experiences that solve problems. Sometimes that means business problems, and sometimes, as with Beats Medical, it means helping people manage their daily lives.
HC: Has your understanding of design evolved over the years?
JP: Definitely. As you mentioned, I’ve been working for almost twenty years in digital design, and when I started, the landscape was very different than it is now. The maturity level of UX was really low, so design was all about creative experimentation. What I’ve learned is that we need to adapt ourselves to the evolving needs and technologies that we have available.
The biggest change I saw in my career was the launch of the iPhone. Suddenly that opened an app world we could explore, which meant designers needed to evolve and learn new technologies, as well as develop a user-centered approach to design. That growth helped me understand and better engage with what design is. I actually changed my career path from working in digital agencies to working for a consultancy because it was more aligned with a user-centered approach instead of just working to create something really beautiful.
HC: Tell me more about this – why was the consultancy model more user-centric?
JP: I think it’s a question of timing. About six years ago when I was making the decision, there weren’t too many companies in Portugal focusing on design guided by user experience, but I had this opportunity at the consultancy because I was the one hiring people. I built this into the team, which was multidisciplinary and consisted of UX and UI designers, service designers, and also people from the business and technology side. For me, having involvement from all these parties is really important to delivering a high quality product.
HC: Absolutely. We work in a consultancy model, and the very act of consulting means meeting someone where they are and understanding the needs of the user, whether that user is a consumer or a company. That consultative approach requires design thinking.
Earlier you were talking about designing to solve problems and make a change in people’s lives. Tell us about what you’re creating at Beats Medical right now.
JP: Beats Medical works with the central nervous system and rare diseases. Our flagship product is Beats Medical Parkinson’s App, which was created to help Parkinson’s patients. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease, so you will never get better, but our product helps patients manage their symptoms and better their daily lives through a series of exercises, including basic mobility like walking.
The results have been amazing. Patients who used our app for 12 months had an increase of 102% in behavioral change, actually improving their physical activity, which is key for someone with Parkinson’s. For example, one of our patients, John MacFee, actually walked the whole length of the UK from North to South using the Beats Medical App.
HC: That has to be so rewarding to see the results of what you’re creating!
JP: It is! It’s probably the first time in almost twenty years of my career that I’m doing something that actually improves people’s lives, because a lot of the time you’re “helping people,” but there’s a business behind it. Beats Medical is still a company, but our goal is improving lives. That's the best reward I could ask for.
HC: It must be very difficult in the medical world to think about the complexities of so many different personas. How do you manage this when you’re dealing with so many different diseases or even variations within the same disease?
JP: You’re right. People assume Parkinson’s only affects an older population, but there are a lot of people–especially men–who are being diagnosed with it in their 40s. Our app serves a large spectrum of people, from young working professionals to people who are in their 80s, and their needs are completely different. Our approach is always user-centered. We can’t add anything just because it’s fun. Our patients have a very close relationship with us, so they will actually call us and ask: “What’s in it for me?”
It isn’t possible to create a product for each demographic, so we have to think very carefully about how to create something that works for everyone. Every exercise we recommend is tailored to the particular user. Our core system is based on AI and machine learning, so it’s always learning from your exercises and improving your experience day by day.
HC: I talk to so many designers who feel disconnected from the impact of what they’re creating. Not every setting allows for in-depth testing and user feedback. What did you do to foster this kind of relationship with your users?
JP: At the beginning, it’s more on the commercial team who helps patients set up an account. The process isn’t just pressing a button, because we want to know details to understand how we can fit the product to the specific person at the outset. I try to be in these set-up calls so users know me from the beginning, and I also speak with patients from time to time afterward. I still don’t call them directly – I always go through their main contact at the company.
Fostering a connection with the user is key for anyone creating a digital product. If you don’t, you’ll hear about their experience from someone else, but with their perspective added to it, so the reality of the experience slowly distorts. Speaking with the people who are using the product is my highest priority.
HC: Is there ever a tension between business stakeholders’ needs and users’ needs? If so, how do you reconcile this?
JP: I actually don't think there is a tension, because the goal of our company is to solve patients’ problems. If they speak well of our product, other people will hear about it and we will grow.
HC: I talk to a lot of design leaders who are sometimes asked to take shortcuts or do something that’s fun rather than useful to the user. Sometimes I think designers can feel like the people pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, and nobody wants to hear it. Do you have any advice for other design leaders out there who may be facing this kind of tension?
JP: This goes back to what I said earlier about the importance of building a connection with your user and actually speaking with them. When you speak with them, it’s easier to understand their needs and pain points, and then it’s easier to show business stakeholders that what they want isn’t what the user wants. This makes it easier to get them to compromise their requests rather than compromising their users’ needs.
I spent five and a half years working for the banking and insurance industry, and I remember a case where a company wanted to create an online product. I actually went out into the streets and spoke with the target audience, and I found that not a single person wanted it. So I was able to show very tangibly that no one would use what the company wanted to create.
Instead, we spoke with the company’s agents and realized that the problem wasn’t getting prospective clients interested in the company, it was the time that agents took to provide insurance quotes for them. Based on this, we created a completely different project. This was only possible because we spoke with the users, got the right insights, and had tangible proof. As soon as you can show that the company will pay for something that won’t work, business stakeholders will probably reevaluate. So get to know your users. Speak with them. They will give you the best insights and the best ideas.
HC: Let’s talk about another kind of user: the team you work with. I know it’s important to you to make sure that your team is thriving. How do you create this environment?
JP: What I try to do is put them in professionally uncomfortable situations. For example, if I have someone who has only worked in digital their whole life, I’m going to have them create a logo. They’ll definitely be uncomfortable because it’s not their area of expertise, but they are designers, so they should be able to create something that’s visually interesting, and I’m there to give them support. I want them to be challenged to do things outside their normal scope of work, with my mentoring, to help them grow into better professionals.
HC: That’s such a gift of trust you’re giving to people. I wish this style of leadership was more common. How did you learn it?
JP: I tried to learn from the best creative directors I had the opportunity to work with. Another key factor is finding good people to hire. I can help people grow professionally, but I can’t change them personally.
HC: Thank you so much, João. I love your thoughts on leadership, design, and users. This has been so refreshing. Do you have any final thoughts you want to share?
JP: Yes – have fun while you work, and create good relationships with your coworkers! For me, this is the most important part of my entire career. Most of my best friends I made at work.
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Holly Camponez is the Director of Design & Creative Services at Avenue Code. She is passionate about the potential of design thinking to create a positive impact both socially and economically. Holly lives in Northern California with her husband, son, and three cats.