UX Is Changing How We Get High

Medical and/or recreational marijuana use is legal in 28 states. Amid the boom, companies are thinking harder about design.

We’ve had a tumultuous relationship with weed over the decades–it’s been viewed as a vehicle for degradation, vice, and insanity; heralded as a medical marvel; revealed as a key player in the social inequity of mass incarceration; and has starred in a handful of movies and television shows.


But recently, marijuana has become something that it hasn’t ever been before: legal, en masse. In the 2016 election, four more states voted to allow recreational consumption, bringing the total number of states that have legalized some form of cannabis use to 28. It’s an industry that some analysts estimate could swell to $50 billion by 2026. In 2015 alone, legal marijuana sales generated $5.4 billion, up nearly a billion dollars from 2014, making it one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States.

So why are we stuck in the Cheech & Chong era when it comes to user experience? A handful of marijuana entrepreneurs have already gotten wise to the importance of user-centered design, creating handsome dispensaries, enlisting big-name graphic designers to orchestrate elegant packaging, and building brands that sell experiences versus products. For the most part, these are exceptions to the rule–but that may not be the case for long, as designers and entrepreneurs apply user-centered design practices to their budding industry.

The Toronto-based marijuana lifestyle brand Tokyo Smoke sells everything but weed, including these rolling papers.[Photo: Ryan Bolton]

A New Focus On Research–And Users

Prior to the 2016 election, recreational marijuana use was legal in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Washington, D.C; now California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts have joined the ranks.


Despite the growing ubiquity of legalized marijuana, designers working in the cannabis industry faces challenges–for example, in simply understanding marijuana users. Unlike other design fields like furniture, products, and tech, there just isn’t much preexisting research on users, either in terms of what challenges they face or what they’d like to get from an experience. Moreover, most designers have little experience designing for weed. At the same time, the lack of precedent and research offers some new opportunities for designers.

“There are very few industries designers can work in where they’re building something from the ground up,” says Jason Wisdom, cofounder of Design Gym, a consultancy based in New York. “Usually, we’re taking a structure that’s existed for a very long time, seeing what’s broken, and figuring out how we can make it better.”

Recently, the consultancy Smart Design hosted a charrette that explored what the legalized marijuana landscape could look like for a trio of users: the medical user, the habitual user, and the newcomer. The firm invited designers to create a design-centric business around one of these three user groups. “With broad-scale legalization gaining ground and the floodgates to innovation opening as a result, there is no better time than now to start defining a well-crafted vision for the cannabis industry,” says Nicole Bacchus, associate director of strategy at Smart Design.


Wisdom was one of the judges in Smart Design’s charrette, and prior to the exercise, he didn’t have any experience in the cannabis industry. The most valuable lesson he gleaned came from interviews with users themselves, who gave him a deeper understanding of the possible role designers could have in shaping our medical and cultural relationship with weed. Medical users who have chronic pain, for example, struggle with social isolation that results from their medical conditions.

“With medical use–as with any industry–the toughest part is being able to interview people,” Wisdom says. “We were very intentional that each one of these teams [had access to interviews]. Many teams had some exposure to the industry, but the vast majority did not and didn’t understanding what people were going through.”

One woman who has chronic pain explained in detail the complicated process of getting a prescription from a doctor, the trouble with finding specific strains to achieve a certain numbing effect, and getting a prescription renewal. In response, one charrette team came up with a business that simplified patient access to medical marijuana through an online portal and a so-called “sherpa”–a medical professional trained in pain management–that makes house calls to ensure that the customer is getting the relief they need.


Thinking about the myriad diverse cannabis users, and tabling stereotypes about who “typical” users really are, is the first step in weed’s UX revolution. User research is the backbone of human-centered design and should absolutely be applied to cannabis.

Basic Isn’t Always Bad

Now that millions of law-abiding citizens who abstained from using marijuana have the government’s blessing, the cannabis industry is significant growth opportunity with a growing consumer base.

Participants in Smart Design’s charrette mined familiar consumer experiences to inform their vision for the future of weed UX: One team conceived of a Blue Apron-style delivery service with recipes and ingredients for edibles. Another team came up with a retail concept that categorizes weed strains by the type of experience they offer–like a body versus head high–using an icon language. The concept also involved having an Apple-style “genius bar” with approachable consultants who could explain the experiences a user might expect, and how to achieve them with their products.


In essence, these designers applied mainstream user experiences to a nascent industry–a strategy that’s growing increasingly common.

Alan Gertner, cofounder of the cannabis lifestyle brand Tokyo Smoke and a former Google employee, agrees that mainstreaming will play a significant role in redefining the UX of weed. “The biggest opportunity for growth is in recreational use and normalization,” he says. “In alcohol, 10% of the drinkers consume over 50% of all drinks, but none of the marketing is created for alcoholics. In marijuana, all of the marketing is created for stoners. When I think about the normalization opportunity, it’s creating brands for the masses and niche cultures, not just one monoculture.”

In other words, one strategy is making weed as basic as a pumpkin spice latte.

Alan Gertner of Tokyo Smoke [Photo: Gloria Chik]

Gertner argues that the budding mainstream marijuana industry has a lot to learn from coffee’s cultural metamorphosis. Today, a cup of coffee isn’t just a cup of coffee. It’s a single-origin roast, a Frappuccino, a nitrous oxide–filled can, and a K-cup. There are as many coffee experiences as there are coffee drinkers.

“It wasn’t that long ago that coffee experience was singular–every one drank black coffee in America,” Gertner says. “Black coffee at the diner or at the office, that was it. Coffee only had one measure of quality, which was potency. The only way it was good was if it was strong. You had a single product and a singular measure of quality and that’s similar to the early days of marijuana. Then Starbucks came along and introduced a nomenclature. No one drinks Frappuccinos because of the [caffeine] potency; they do it because of the experience.”

To that end, Gertner has built a stylish coffee shop, hosted gallery shows, and created a fashion line around his interpretation of what a today’s marijuana brand could be. Tokyo Smoke doesn’t actually sell weed, but it licenses its name to growers in Canada, showing just how powerful the right branding can be. Soon, Tokyo Smoke-branded weed will expand to dispensaries in Washington state, Oregon, and Jamaica.


“A modern marijuana brand is disconnected from the stoner stereotype,” Gertner says. “There are users who don’t want to be defined by their marijuana use, just like they wouldn’t be defined by the coffee they drink.”

Cindy Cappobianco, founder of the edibles company Lord Jones and a former VP of marketing for Gap, is also trying to appeal to a mass consumer with her brand. “Our goal was to make our products relevant to people outside of ‘stoner’ culture,” she says. “That’s where the future lies.”

Lord Jones, an edibles brand founded by a former Gap VP, is one of a handful of companies who believe good design will mainstream marijuana.

Borrowing From Coffee Culture And The Tech Industry

The Starbucksification analogy makes appearances in many entrepreneurs’ visions–including that of Native Roots, one of Colorado’s largest and most successful dispensary networks.


“We intentionally created an experience that is consistent and creates a comfortable, inviting feel,” says Josh Ginsberg, CEO of Native Roots. “We custom designed a signature wallpaper that is carried out through all aspects of touch points to accessories, packaging, branded vape pens, and now apparel. All of our stores have the same consistent design aesthetic no matter the size and shape of the building. Much like a Starbucks.”

That said, Ginsberg believes a cookie-cutter approach spells a UX disaster, so he designed his retail experiences to offer customization with the help of staff members he refers to as “concierges.” He says the cannabis industry as a whole can learn the most from the experiences in high-touch, service-based companies. “Starbucks and Apple have this dialed in, and it’s the reason why people come back time and time again,” he says. “I think a terrible user experience is one that is not personal, where guests are not provided a chance to ask questions and gain an education on buying and consuming.”

For Pax, a manufacturer of high-end vaporizers, the experience strategy centered around thinking of the brand not in the context of the cannabis industry but as a tech company. So far it’s worked. Since two Stanford design school grads established the company in 2007, Pax has sold over 1 million vaporizers worldwide. Ten years ago, there was little investment in research and development of smoking products, and the experience was subpar.

Native Roots, Colorado’s largest and most successful dispensary chain, bases its retail experience off of Starbucks and Apple.

“The founders understood that smoking products needed to be technically superior but also user friendly,” says Richard Mumby, Pax’s chief marketing officer. “When the company started, we saw an opportunity overall to rethink the smoking experience with the brand itself.”

In Pax’s preliminary market research, the brand found that less than 10% of people who smoked marijuana defined themselves as weed smokers. They didn’t perceive themselves in the context of a cannabis brand. “We view ourselves as a tech company, and, as a tech company, we follow market demand and consumer interest,” Mumby says. “That’s a big part of it–create something that’s emotionally interesting and culturally relevant, not stuck in old references from the ’70s and earlier.”

Pax’s vaporizers don’t look anything like the clunky contraptions typically associated with cannabis delivery. They have metallic finishes like iPhones and are small enough to fit in your pocket. They’re discrete and easy to use.


“The way we brought the brand to life is to think about [our products] through the whole consumer experience,” Mumby says. “Like speakers integrate music into your life, technology is about experience more than the tech itself.”

Pax’s next challenge is evolving into a closed system where the company can control every touch point in a user’s experience, according to Tyler Goldman, who was appointed CEO in August. “In an open system, users have to do a lot of work and have to figure out how to combine devices and materials,” he says. “When you get the two together, like dose control, you can really have consistent experiences. Closed systems are really going to drive greater and greater value.” For example, Pax designed an empty concentrate pod for its Era vaporizer, and wholesales them to vendors in California and Colorado who can fill them and retail them.

To Goldman, Keurig–not Starbucks–is the coffee brand from which to learn. Each of the single-use coffee pods guarantees that every cup will come out more or less the same. There are different flavors, but each time a user makes a cup they know how it will taste. “There’s lots of choice and consistency,” he says. “Not that we’d mimic what they’ve done, but there’s lots to learn.”

Pax 3, a new vaporizer for loose leaf or concentrates, takes its cues from the tech industry.

Jeanne Sullivan, an investor and founder of the venture capital firm StarVest, also draws parallels between the marijuana and consumer tech industries. She bases her investments in cannabis companies using the same criteria as tech companies.

“The tech sector is a proxy for what’s happening in cannabis,” she says. “The pricing was fractured, and there were’t investors [in the early days]. This is exactly what’s happening in cannabis–fragmentation and uncertain pricing and business models.”

Just as a focus on user experience separated successful Silicon Valley companies from the failures, a focus on UX can make all the difference between a successful brand and one that goes up in smoke. And investors are paying attention. “These four pillars are important to me and my team [when we invest],” she says. “It starts with management, then the product or technology or service. Next we look at the market size. Is there a market or can it be created and can it scale?”


Bryan Ellison–cofounder of Funnel Design Group, the firm behind Native Roots’ branding–believes that creating a great user experience begins with thinking about what a great UX is in the first place, marijuana brand or not. “Create the perception of the company as you would for any other client,” he advises. “The design and storytelling will set it apart. Otherwise the company will sit with thousands of others in the coupon sections of daily papers.”


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.


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