Heather Cutter is chief innovation officer at the nutrition startup Habit. She spoke to Co.Design columnist Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.
Doreen Lorenzo: Tell us about Habit; it’s a unique company.
Heather Cutter: Habit is the world’s first personalized nutrition company. Food should not be one size fits all. We look at what foods are right for your body, with an understanding that everyone’s body is unique. We have a test kit that we send to consumers’ homes. We take DNA swabs and a fasting blood test, and then we give folks a challenge beverage that mimics a traditional American breakfast loaded with carbs, fat, and protein. Then we take blood at two intervals after that. We ask questions about how you like to eat, your goals, your lifestyle. Then we’re able to give you a personalized recommendation based on your biology, preferences, and behavior.
Beyond the recommendation, we make fresh food tailored to your biology and preference, and deliver it to your door in the Bay Area. We want to be your trusted source for food products and information. Down the road, anywhere you are out in the world eating, we want to be there.
DL: How did you get to this position?
HC: I worked with Neil Grimmer [Habit’s CEO and founder] at Plum Organics, the baby food company, where he was the cofounder and I was the head of innovation. I joined Plum early on and was there through the sale to Campbell Soup. Now Neil and I are working together again here at Habit, along with a couple other folks from Plum.
Technology enabled-food is really where the industry is going, so for me joining Habit was a great opportunity to jump into food tech in a place where I felt comfortable. I felt at home with consumer products. That’s what I’d been doing. But tech is different, and so I felt like it was a place where I could use what I know but learn something new.
What’s clear is that the trends of health, technology, and food are coming together. So for me, that opportunity to be in the middle of one of the biggest trends is the most innovative thing that I could have possibly landed in.
DL: Who are the people joining this?
HC: We have a lot of early adopters. But we’ve been doing a lot of work to better understand our consumer. I think the people who will join us are highly motivated, curious, and information-driven. What we’re asking people to do, it’s not magic in a bottle. It is incorporating real changes into their lives. It takes a motivated type of person. I think we’re going to find lots of those people, but we’re working on the way that we message so that we get the right type of person who’s going to stick with us.
DL: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned?
HC: One is that it’s important that everyone working on designing a product understands the “why.” First of all, why would somebody want this product and how would they use it? But also, why are we doing this? You can be perfectly wrong when you get to market–you might have executed it brilliantly, it works, it’s beautiful–but it’s not solving the right problems. There have been times where we have launched a product in competitive response. And that’s not a very good reason why.
DL: How is design influencing what you’re doing?
HC: Experience design is one of the most critical parts of what we’re doing. We’ve been deliberate about making sure that our science is very credible, but we interact with consumers with a lifestyle-focused approach. So when you go to Habit you see beautiful imagery and clear communication that is hoping to tell the consumer that they can adopt this lifestyle; it’s a habit. We believe that in order for people to really make these changes and keep with them, it has to be incorporated into their lives, and we’re using design to explain it.
DL: How do you think it will impact the food industry? What role will it play?
HC: When you get a product, off the shelf in a store, it has a nutrition fact panel that says, “Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, this is what you should get.” We aspire to break that. What I need may not be the same as what you need–in fact it’s certainly not. It needs to be looked at in a different way, because different people need different things.
DL: You started the company with this design mind-set. Do you think it’s different when you try to retrofit design?
HC: All of the companies that I’ve been working on in consumer products are design-led companies. It influences so many decisions. One of the biggest ones is hiring. What type of a person do you want to hire? When it’s a design-led company, I look for people who are insanely curious, because we use design thinking throughout the organization. So if you want that to be part of your culture it’s something that certainly works best if you start there.
DL: You’re in the innovation business. How do you get people on the team to agree and start moving forward?
HC: Having some basic process where everyone gets involved at different parts of the journey is important. I’ve tried to bring that type of clarity and expectation setting to all of the organizations that I have been part of. Here, when we talk about products, that’s a very holistic term. It’s digital products; it’s service; it’s physical products. All of those things are a little bit different, but having the right check-ins with the right people at the right points–and not too often, because if you get everyone involved all the time it will slow it down–is critical.
DL: Does gender have any factor in what you do?
HC: I’m an incredibly objective and logical person by nature. But I think as a leader I try to lead with heart and be empathetic. I’ve learned that skill from great leaders of mine, both men and women. But I think that empathy and understanding what’s going on in people’s lives is important. I’m a working mom and balancing that is a challenge, so for example I work hard to make things flexible for working parents who are on my teams, and I want people to feel like they can be kick-ass at their job, but also to kick ass outside of their job.
DL: What are some of the other things you’ve learned?
HC: At the end of the day you can have the best design idea in the world, but if it doesn’t get to market and people don’t use it and touch it, it’s just an idea. When I was in consumer products I got good at seeing around corners and understanding the relationships between the cross-functional teams. But here we had to be extra vigilant about communicating how people impact each other. Think about science. A scientist’s work is never done. There’s always a wide explanation. Being able to get clear about when we need to make a decision is one example. Similarly, I think the agile process that takes place for digital work is similar to rapid prototyping that we do in the physical product world. Finding a common language while still valuing and celebrating the differences has been key.