In the latest episode of Civilized's new podcast 'Cannabis & Main,' host Ricardo Baca spoke with JJ O'Brien - Vice President of PAX Era, one of the top cannabis vaporizers on the market today. Ricardo and JJ discussed the importance of user experience, cannabis tech and the PAX Era's goal of letting consumers fine-tune their seshes down to the precise temperature they prefer for vaping.
Transcript, 'Cannabis & Main: Cannabis & User Experience'
Ricardo Baca: Hello, hello, and welcome to Cannabis & Main, a Civilized podcast where we extract one sliver, one tiny little slice from today's cannabis scape, and go deep. I'm your host, Ricardo Baca - founder of Grasslands, and The Cannabist - and it's great to be with you today. Of course you can learn more about this show, alongside the Marijuana News and the cannabis lifestyle coverage you crave, from Civilized, found on the worldwide web at civilized.life
Now this week, we're going to shine a light on cannabis and user experience, with a guest who is an executive at one of the world's largest cannabis technology companies, definitely a brand you're familiar with.
M. Gould Stewart [excerpt from a 2014 TED talk]: What does it mean to design at a global scale? It means difficult and sometimes exasperating work to try to improve and evolve products. Finding the audacity and the humility to do right by them can be pretty exhausting. And the humility part? It's a little tough on the design ego. Because these products are always changing, everything that I've designed in my career is pretty much gone, and everything that I will design will fade away. But here's what remains. The never-ending thrill of being a part of something that is so big, you can hardly get your head around it, and the promise that it just might change the world.
Ricardo Baca: Now even though user experience is a legitimate buzz-phrase in 2018, a lot of people still don't know exactly what it is.
I remember talking with my wife about user experience a few years ago while we were perusing Roku for something to watch, and recognizing that as the perfect opportunity for a teaching moment. I told her, "You know how easy it is to search Netflix for what you want to watch, and how it's designed so intuitively?" And she nodded, yes, she totally got it. Then I told her, "As you also know how clunky and non-user friendly the Showtime app is, and how every time we want to watch 'Shameless' we have to click an arrow and click to get to the next episode?" She totally got it, and of course, user experience impacts much of our modern lives thanks to the ubiquity of technology.
That includes our cannabis consumption too, which often centers around smart devices like vaporizers, connected via Bluetooth to smart phones with apps that open up a world of opportunity. So, cannabis and user experience? I like it. Producer Vince, let's do this.
My guest today is JJ O'Brien, who's the Vice President of PAX Era. PAX is the friendly neighborhood vaporizer company that brought us the PAX and the PAX 2, the PAX 3 and of course, the PAX Era. JJ, thank you for joining us.
JJ O'Brien: Thank you for having me, it's great to be here.
Ricardo Baca: Thanks, man. Yeah, the PAX Era, what a success story for you guys. When I was putting together this episode on user experience, I thought how fantastic to be able to bring on a representative of this company. Because you guys quickly set the industry standard, and now you have a number of companies coming after you with design and aesthetic-oriented devices that feel good in the hand. UX seems like it was very at the front of PAX engineers' minds, when they developed the first product. Is that accurate to say?
JJ O'Brien: Yeah, we're more than just a pretty device. I think that at the heart of what we were doing, was how do we deliver a best-in-class experience in a form factor that's appealing to the eye. So, that involved things like on Era, you can change the temperature just by waving the device and popping out the pod top. There's no buttons, you use the LEDs to figure out where your temperature is. Now, is it the most straightforward off the bat? No, but once you learn it, it's there. You don't have to pick up the app every time you want to change the temperature. But doing that in a way that didn't diminish that look and feel.
What were the consumer touch points? I even think in the way our app has come about, it was important not to flood it with feature after feature. If we had launched an app with every feature we've come up with, A: it would have taken us three years, and we're like, "No, let's get this out to market." But B: we held things back because the education of the consumer, and how they're now inserting this into their life — we're not just converting new consumers away from let's say joints or something like that. We're also installing new cannabis users who've never really used cannabis before.
So those needs are different. And not only are you servicing the needs of those formerly joint smokers, you're actually now having these new needs that you need to design for. That's crucial in making sure that while we are building products that budtenders love. Budtenders and brand ambassadors, they're our biggest advocates. They're the ones interacting with folks at retail, they're the ones that hopefully have an Era in the pocket telling - whether it'd be a new to market consumer or somebody who comes in every week - that this is something they should need to try. But at the same time, not building something that is lost on somebody coming into the space. How can we hold their hand along this journey and hit them with what they're looking for and what speaks to them?
Ricardo Baca: Maybe a little bit of education is probably needed here because, while you guys are a top vaporizer company, inevitably there're probably a couple of people listening who are like, "Wait a minute. Tell me more."
JJ O'Brien: What makes Era unique - and using Era specifically here - is our ability for precision-controlled temperature. We are the only vaporizer on the market right now that allows you to control temperature down to a single degree. The ability to control temperature allows you to really pinpoint the ideal vaporization for a combination of terpenes and cannabinoids. Cannabinoids vaporize at very different temperatures than terpenes. If you raise your temperature too high you burn off those terpenes. Terpenes are what drive the therapeutic benefits of cannabis. If you lose those terpenes, if you're not vaping them, then you're getting a diminished experience.
JJ O'Brien: Now, that is not something that you can very easily describe to a new user. It's not something that you can describe to even an occasional user that goes into a store once a month. Getting across why temperature matters then, we had to break it down. You had to kind of present it to folks in a way of saying, "Hey, this is something you can do with our app."
For a while it's the only thing you could do with our app besides play some games and change the lights and stuff like that. But by having it there and not having it embedded with three or four other things it could do, we found amazing engagement in folks understanding that temperature is something they should think about when they vape. That temperature is something that they should play around with to find what's optimal for them. That this is actually part of their experience they should want to customize.
Ricardo Baca: All too often that's a customization that was previously relegated to desktop vaporizers. I have a volcano unit and it is the house unit. It almost never leaves the house except for the occasional work party, but I can go down to 362 degrees to vaporize that flower, should I choose to. And that's valuable - that you guys have added this customization to a pocket-sized unit.
JJ O'Brien: Yeah, and I think the next step is what else can we start doing? So we also recently introduced our session control. Now this was kind of the next step along this journey, especially among those new to market consumers. You go and mute people and you hand them an Era for the first time and they're like, "Well, how much should I take?" They're intrigued. It's a welcoming device in the eyes of somebody who's a little bit more timid.
Ricardo Baca: Totally, and it's a great question for them to ask.
JJ O'Brien: But it's the first question a lot of them ask. Or, "I don't know, I don't want to get too high." Well, with session control, we allow folks to customize the length or the amount of material they vaporize, anywhere from a micro-session to a large session that doesn't matter how many puffs you can take. You could take 10 puffs to complete your large session or three massive inhales, and it's going to be the same [amount] vaporized - no matter what kind of pod [or] what the outside air temperature is.
That's really with the goal of giving users an ability to feel a level of control, to know what a microdose does to them or micro-session does to them. To know what a small session, a medium session, a large session [does], so that they can revisit the experience. They can have a bit more customization and really use cannabis in a responsible manner that meets their needs a lot better than most other platforms do today.
Ricardo Baca: I want to get into the psychology of PAX's UX. In so many ways this reminds me of that first generation iPod which when it came out with such genius. It was this device that was capable of so much and yet it was so simple, with barely a button on it. One little button and it could accomplish so much from games to storing tens of thousands of songs. I remember holding the air in my hand for the first time, downloading this app, recognizing that this tiny device has power, and yet there's no button. It's a very simple experience if you want it to be. And if you want something more from it, then you can study it and learn it and get more out of it.
And I'm guessing that's intentional and built into the design and functionality. Can you talk about that a little bit?
JJ O'Brien: The first PAX 1 was really designed in that same realm of the iPod. It was designed around that same time, the kind of design aesthetic for technology products as technology products started becoming something that was more involved in your life. Before the iPhone, most people didn't have this electronic device that they kept with them at literally all times. Yeah, you maybe had a Razor phone and stuff like that, but again, you were starting to see a group of hardware products that were starting to take on a design value of what incorporates in your life everyday. And those aren't flashy, those aren't awkward. They're simple, they're clean, they work.
And we have a 10-year warranty on our PAX 1 device — we have since the day it launched. Because one of the big things we want to get home was this is a product that's built to last. Yes it's simple, yes it's sleek, but it's built to last.
That's really been a lot of what has made PAX successful. A lot of what our brand was built on is, yeah, that thing that could be part of your everyday life. And if something is going to be part of your everyday life, it needs to be designed to be flexible, to not be out of place in certain environments, and to really live up to that aspect of being part of your daily life.
Ricardo Baca: That's interesting because you talk about experience, convenience, but I think that at some point they become kind of the same conversation. User experience includes that convenience and, I mean, the genius of that original 510 vaporizer that was based on the e-cigarettes of the early days.
JJ O'Brien: I always think it's fascinating to think that this is a first consumer goods market that is developing in the digital age, in the age of IoT, in the age of technology and information and et cetera. How will that change behavior? What role will technology play in that, and especially in that user experience? When you're defining the rituals for so many users today, those rituals that are prevalent today are just going to continue to get weaker over time.
Ricardo Baca: This is a good time for a quick personal story; I was not consuming cannabis six years ago. I don't smoke, I don't smoke anything, I never have successfully. Certainly I've tried joints and pipes and it just never worked for my lungs and so I was like, "It's not my drug. That's okay. There are others to enjoy." And I did. But it really was when I was 35, 36, probably five or six years ago, my friend was passing around a joint. I passed it without hitting it and he noticed. Eventually we met inside and he was grabbing another beer, I was grabbing another cider and he's like, "So, you don't get high?"
I was like, "Yeah. I just don't smoke."
He's like, "Do you want an edible?"
I was like, "Mmm, I would want control over my experience."
He's like, "Well, I buy these from the store, from the dispensary."
Colorado had the first regulated medical marketplace in the world at the time and I was like, "So, how do you know how much is in there?" and he showed me.
"I know there are 10 milligrams of activated THC in this square of chocolate." So I kind of broke it into loose quarters and I ate it. And instantly the next morning I woke up and cannabis was my chosen substance over anything, including alcohol, and I do not smoke to this day. I do vaporize multiple times a week and consume edibles daily.
JJ O'Brien: No, and that case in point is, I think, what a lot of these new users are going to fall into. Listen, we're placing a bet on vape. We're placing a huge bet on vape, because I think that at least with the delivery mechanisms in the market today, vape has the most reach. It hits you immediately. It is much more easy to titrate your experience than it ever is of edibles, but it's all education now. So, for us like our focus is, yeah, not only are we building out the best hardware, but we also have to build out in essence our app store. That's what our brands are. They are that app store, and we need to make sure without them we don't have a product or a business.
We love what all of our brands are doing, we're constantly looking at what different markets are we seeing, how are things in Colorado versus Washington versus California, and what user experience can we bring through both our hardware, and in this case like the apps or the software that sits on top of it.
Ricardo Baca: I love that you have the metaphorical app store with all of the providers. But let's talk about the app itself because we have talked about the hardware - the various PAX products as well as the Era. But now they interact with this app. I'm wondering, were there any lessons learned with the PAX app as you've explored and as the Era has grown and matured over the course of these last 18 months?
JJ O'Brien: What we've learned first and foremost is people actually want to - or there's a willingness to engage in an app at all. When you think of this being a cannabis vaporizer, the fact that there's an app there, some people may laugh and say, "That's so Silicon Valley." But people actually use it. They like it as a source of information. They love the child lock feature. One of the biggest surprises that we found out is that I actually think it's used more as a roommate lock than it is as a child lock.
Ricardo Baca: A roommate lock?
JJ O'Brien: You talk to budtenders in Colorado and every single one of them is like, "I love it. It's my roommate lock."
Ricardo Baca: I love it. That is really good.
JJ O'Brien: It's an easy way to keep people off your stash. That's why we call ourselves a technology company servicing the cannabis space. We are no longer just a hardware company. We are a platform, which the app is a very crucial piece of. It is a point of user experience. You've seen some changes in the app. Session control. We've added a sleeker design, delivering these experiences in ways that don't overwhelm consumers since a lot of them didn't even know these that - especially since [with] a lot of these features, consumers maybe didn't even know the need was there. They may have never even known that they needed to control their temperature, they didn't know that they actually wanted this ability to control their session, that they wanted other features that are coming down the line.
So for us, it's also, the way the technology was built. Given the app, we don't need to sell you a new device to improve your user experience, and that's been a really crucial part of the system as a whole. Our ability to allow folks to control their session without buying a new device, by just updating the firmware on their existing device and downloading the new app, that's pretty cool. And the ability to push stuff through the app onto the device and continue to enhance that experience is something that's crucial and it allows us to keep hopefully user retention high, user happiness high.
I don't like the word retention because for us, it's consumer happiness. Like are you becoming an evangelist of the product? Because we all at PAX are - not just because we work there [but] because we love the product as well, and making sure that everybody that touches it has a great positive experience. That's constantly changing.
Ricardo Baca: Well, especially if we're talking about user experience. I think it's such a fun, happy surprise that this function of a child lock works for that but it's also turned into a roommate lock. And I think that's one of those great learning moments.
JJ O'Brien: In this industry especially, these habits and these use cases aren't fully formed, and so it's been a lot of we don't want to be overly prescriptive. We want to kind of give it to you and learn. And we always are constantly doing interviews and pilots and focus groups of our customers. Our customers have been our customers from before we launched Era. Our customers are our biggest source of information because they care about what we're doing, which is great. They want to give us feedback to make the experience better. So yeah, the power of today's world is you can understand a lot by just giving somebody a feature and seeing how they use it.
Ricardo Baca: I have one note for our listeners, especially our listeners with PAX devices, but friends, is your PAX app updated? When was the last time you updated your PAX app, because you might want to check it out because there are some new features in there that you might be unlocking.
JJ O'Brien: My ask is, when you see that slightly annoying, "You need to update your firmware" [alert], just go through it in a minute and update your firmware. We're not asking you to do it because it's a pain in the ass. We're asking you because we're giving you something pretty good in return.
Ricardo Baca: They generally make it pretty easy thankfully.
JJ O'Brien: We try.
Ricardo Baca: JJ O'Brien, Vice President of PAX Era at PAX, thank you for joining us at 'Cannabis & Main.'
Cannabis & Main is a Civilized podcast. Our executive producers are Ricardo Baca and Derek Ridley. We are produced by a Katie Labrie and Vince Chandler along with Civilized, ƒ/4.20 Films, and Grasslands. We are hosted by Ricardo Baca and directed by Vince Chandler. Interact with Vince on Twitter @vinniechant, or Ricardo @bruvs, and Civilized at @civilizedlife. Our music is by Johan Glossner. Thank you to JJ O'Brien, VP of PAX Era, for joining us on this episode of Cannabis & Main, Cannabis and User Experience.