See the original story in Japanese
Clue is a Berlin-based startup that has developed a period and fertility tracking app. The simple, yet fresh and beautiful, visual design has been attracting users from all around the world.
Recently in Berlin, we had a chance to talk with Mike LaVigne, the lead designer and creative force behind Clue. He shared his journey, the perspective of a man making an app for women, and the philosophy behind the product with MEMOPATCH.
My professional background is that I worked as a creative director for Frog Design. I helped them open up a New York and Shanghai studio. I’ve been working for big brands including many Asian brands, and some of my past clients include Japanese companies like NTT Docomo, KDDI, and Sony. I’ve also helped European and American companies understand how to approach Asian markets. So my background has been purely consulting until this journey began.
As a strategic consultant, most of work I was doing was influential to the companies I was working for but generally a lot of things didn’t make it to the market. I was also becoming more aware of what was happening globally and wanted to use the skills I had developed for something good. So I quit the job at Frog and decided to take the opportunity here in Berlin at Fjord, which is another big design consultancy company. I started working there as a creative director again.
I had to become a designer again.
I came to Berlin and met Ida and Hans, founders of Clue. And I did a small design workshop for them which impacted their product in a variety of ways. They had a wireframe but no prototype. They had yet to create anything real. During our collaboration at the workshop, I told them how I was looking for something meaningful to do and they offered me the chance to join the team. But I refused because I was not a visual designer. I had not been doing design work for more than 15 years. And I am not a woman. My thinking was that they need at least one of those categories — a designer or a woman — or ideally both, especially at the early stage of growth. So I said “no” a bunch of times, but at one point I decided to give it a try.
Becoming a designer again was something big for me, especially the first 12-18 months. I had to convince myself that I was capable which took quite a long time. In terms of the Clue iteration perspective, we had three major iterations and I never really showed the first two because they were really bad. I refer to the first two iterations as “ugly little monsters”. There was a huge quality gap between them. By the third iteration, I finally felt that I’d gotten something. But it took a considerable amount of time. It was a slow process of me becoming a designer again, in addition to the fact that I had never designed an app before.
If you are great, you are usually very self critical. You become a critic of your own work. But this can become a vicious cycle and you will never achieve anything because you are too critical. I went through that and I was not confident at all.
I perceived that a man making an app for women was a problem, but nobody else perceived it that way.
I was extremely hesitant especially because I was doing all the customer support and I was talking with women about their cycles and periods over email. Hundreds of emails. And now it’s getting to thousands of them. I was definitely not confident about that. But I found that it was actually my concern about my lack of knowledge that was exactly what was needed to bridge the gap. I expressed that I am concerned and that I want to communicate effectively and people never had any issues. There were only two times where a woman I was speaking to preferred to speak with a woman rather than a man.
I think that had a lot to do with our approach. My background was human research, qualitative not quantitative. I did a lot of user research at Frog. I had a lot of experience dealing with things I don’t know anything about. I think that helped bridge the gap. Another thing was studying. I read a lot of books about fertility, pregnancy, and fertility awareness methods. Whenever I got questions, I researched in a way typical people do. And I looked at the consistency and the errors in the information. I started collaborating with more scientific-minded people in order to acheive validity for my assumptions, as well as gain a deep level of knowledge.
My perception that it was a issue had been the issue itself. I had perceived it as problem, but nobody else perceived it that way.
I was accumulating enough information about the psychology of what it is like to deal with these topics from a woman’s perspective and was able to develop a design empathetically. So the design emerged out of that. It has sense of humour, a very empathetic sense of humour. That was developed so that people using the app can relate emotionally.
One of my secrets is that I’m an Android user. I actually graduated from my Nokia feature phone relatively recently. Even when people everywhere were using the iPhone I held on to my Nokia on purpose, because I didn’t always want to think of things in terms of Apple’s design patterns. As a strategic consultant I thought it was important to be somehow detached. When Android came out, I switched my phone to Android. I made the intentional decision to stay away from a highly refined style so that I can be free in my own decision making.
And we made the early decision from the design perspective to be flat. We started designing and released the app prior the release of iOS7 and the flat trend that came along with it. We wanted Clue to have a fresh feeling and to be contemporary from a design perspective. It also had to apply to a broad market — a global market. So the design was created with an awareness of localisation, in order for the app to be offered in many different languages and cultures. That was a very early-stage design strategy decision. Clue’s original design was based on being fast and beautiful. Just these two. Beautiful is just pure static design, and you can break beautiful into small pieces like empathy, sense of humour, and all of that. Speed was the reason for the interactive interface. For example, in terms of data entry, it is 100% button components. The user has only two choices: to enter data or exit. We even tested the interface without words and people still retained the same level of accuracy.
The main value to be gained for users of the app is the knowledge of when their next period will begin. The female body has a cycle and women have to be prepare for that. People tend to forget when their period will arrive and suddenly remember it at an inconvenient time. First of all, we wanted to solve this issue of surprise. Beyond that we want women to identify the rhythm of their cycle. Each cycle is like a story that repeats over and over again. And throughout their lives, the story of the cycle changes. We are helping women identify their own rhythm based on their own data.
To make something equally successful in the US, Europe, and Japan is very difficult because of the different aesthetics.
It’s challenging to navigate with iconography and create design language that applies globally with the ability to hit the right tone aesthetically. Every country has a different idea of aesthetics. To make something equally successful in the US, Europe, and Japan is very difficult because of the different aesthetics.
In Asian design, including Japan, the way they treat functionality is so dense. There is a high density that packs everything into one place. When I was in Shanghai and I presented design to clients, I was often told “It’s nice, but please add a little bit extra…”.
I think what I was hoping for in the design is to come closer to the openness that is presented in Japanese aesthetics. It is combination of the openness, lightness, colours, and beauty that is presented in old Japanese architecture. When you go to countryside, the houses have movable walls, big open spaces, and you can set a bed on the floor. Things like that speak to certain type of design. I am not saying that Clue was designed exclusively for the Japanese market, but I wanted it to be successful in Japan. These things are part of design strategy.
To come back to product strategy, the Japanese market is unique in terms that it has a drastically lower percentage of usage of contraceptive pills. It’s almost completely the inverse of here in Germany. And there’s much more use of the basal body temperature method which uses subtle change of body temperature to detect when ovulation is occurring. That’s why the Japanese market offers a greater range of hardware and software solutions for that need. So I think we have a lot more competition in Japan compared to other markets.
One thing about Clue that is intentional is that we actively take positive aspects on sexuality and gender issues. We never reinforce it with the negative. With our iconography, we always strive to convey a feeling of positivity, fun, joy, and playfulness. Including sex. We don’t judge people based on the sexual choices they make. We also have 10 pages of scientific information about fertility — when you can and cannot get pregnant. We cover all those topics. If we are successful, this level of openness may be challenging in some cultures. We may hit a wall. Maybe there are some cultures that don’t work like this.
It was my idea. And also speaking of the icon for withdrawal, my initial idea about withdrawal was an off centered target like a target has been missed. But that was actually not the experience of women I spoke with. The experience of women was cleaning up. The inspiration for most icons came directly from women, including the icon for sex. The suggestion came from women that the icon should be a guy. But we ran into a trouble with that when lesbian women using Clue voiced their own opinion. Because in their case, a male icon for sex does not make sense.
Currently, Clue is normalized around heterosexual couples. But we’ve removed almost all references to women in the texts and replaced them with “person” or “people”. We are not activists, but we want to support openness about issues related sexuality or gender. So we support the movement that removes the heteronormative. We have had asexual and transexual people who have reached out to us and our goal is to have an option that allows people to customise the interface based on what they want to track and change Clue in a way that makes it most relevant to their own life.
Thank you again to Mike for taking the time to talk to us!
Mike LaVigne on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mikelavigne_
Clue on Twitter https://twitter.com/clue
Clue on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Helloclue