Interview with Graham Rittener, Founding Partner at Zinc
Graham Rittener is one of the Founding Partners of Zinc, a Design & Innovation Lab, based in Barcelona and London. He has spent most of his 20 year career helping to grow and develop some of the best creative consulting firms in the world, spanning many disciplines including innovation, human centred design (physical & digital) branding and interactive design.
Graham has always been fascinated by the macro picture of the world, looking at how people, communities and cultures innovate, evolve, and develop to improve the human condition. He is particularly excited at the innovation opportunities stemming from the major paradigm shifts happening in society, largely driven by the exponential rise in technology.
He and Blake McEldowney, both previously at Smart Design, established Zinc to help foster entrepreneurial innovation both in corporates and startups and bring their visions to life through world class design. Working with both established brands and early stage companies and specialising in human centred design in the field of technology innovation, Zinc helps create new products and services through the design of physical and digital experiences. In doing so, technology becomes accessible, meaningful and desirable.
Zinc's team works across many different technologies, ranging from Augmented Reality to Blockchain, but the whole field of Internet of Things (Connected Home, Wearables, E-health, Smart Cities, Robotics) is a particular strength due to their expertise in designing across hardware and software. Working on their own innovation ideas, its team is currently designing a new global digital health platform for women… so watch this space!
Graham, how did you get involved in product and service design and then designing FemTech products at Zinc?
My Co-Founder, Blake McEldowney and I both worked at one of the world’s most reputable design / innovation consultancies - Smart Design – headquartered in New York, although we met in the European studio in Barcelona (now London). I believe Smart Design was the first ever major design consultancy to have their own specialist studio dedicated to designing for women, called Femme Den. Led by some of the female designers there, they realised that too many products were designed by men without real empathy for women. So Blake and I were already very conscious of the differences in gender when it comes to designing products and services. When we launched Zinc, an old contact of ours got in touch because he was starting a new venture, developing a wearable system for pregnancy. They were our first ever client and that led to many other female focused projects. It’s curious how an agency launched by two guys get so many projects orientated around women. Luckily we have some great women working at Zinc ☺
How many people are there in Zinc’s team and what are their roles?
We are about 15 people in total we are generally split into 3 areas:
Hardware: Industrial design / Design engineering / Electronics engineering
Software: Interaction design / UX and UI / visual design (including branding)
Insights and Innovation Strategy
What were Zinc’s key challenges in designing FemTech products and how did you overcome them?
I guess the main challenge with Femtech is that it is such a new area for innovation, that we are starting from scratch, we can’t learn from the mistakes of others! Historically (until recently) there has been very little empathy for women when it comes to innovation. Products were typically designed by men for men or ‘everyone’, but rarely for women with real empathy, so for us, empathy is key. For all projects we did a lot of user research, prototyping and testing to really understand the people we were designing for and to test out and co-create prototypes as we went through the process. We always used female researchers to ensure the participants were relaxed and open to talking about any potential sensitive issues. Also, our Product Design Lead, Insights Lead and Visual Lead are all women, so that helps ☺ It’s a relatively new area for innovation which is why it is both a challenge and an opportunity!
Zinc has worked with both established brands and startups in New York, San Francisco, London, Madrid, Eindhoven, Rome, Paris, Colombo (Sri Lanka), Doha (Qatar) and Barcelona. What are the differences and challenges in working with such different companies at different stages of their life and how do you overcome those challenges?
You have to approach projects with big brands and startups with a different mindset – they have very different cultures when it comes to innovation. However, we also have our own culture so we try to stick to our principles, whomever we work with. There are many differences to working with these types of businesses but if I had to summarise, I would say that corporates are risk averse and take forever to make decisions. Startups often think they know best or are willing to take the risk without adequate validation of their market. Both mindsets bring their own challenges, and we try to steer them as best as we can without imposing ourselves too much ☺
Have you seen or encountered any differences in working with a team in USA vs. team in UK/Europe?
The main difference is mindset. Europeans are more conservative and this is true of investors too, so there is less money and less appetite for risk in Europe. US startups tend to be wildly ambitious. I think there are pros and cons to both. Sometimes you wish the Europeans could be more ‘gung ho’ about their ambitions but I really appreciate most of them are trying to solve problems and make real revenue through paying customers. In the US, they want to grow as fast as possible and often the mindset seems to more focused on the next major round of funding, rather than trying to solve problems and organically grow through great solutions. These are huge generalisations of course!
What has been yours or your team’s favourite product to design and why?
Tough question! I’m not sure there is one answer to that question. We loved designing the UI for Turn (wall switch / controller for temperature, lighting, curtains, blinds in a connected home) because it was such an interesting project from a design perspective. The user interface was about the size of smartwatch, that’s a lot of constraint and a fascinating design challenge. However, both Bloom and Carin (Lifesense) were great projects, not just because they were meaningful products for women, but because we were working across hardware and software to create fully integrated experiences.
What exciting projects are the team at Zinc working on at the moment?
It’s an exciting time. We’re working on new digital health platform for women (our own project), we are working with a startup in Barcelona – iBreve – to design a wearable (initially for women) to enhance breathing patterns and reduce stress, we’ve got further collaborations lined up with our Femtech client, Lifesense Group, we’ve just taken memberships in a new female focused working space in London (Blooms) to help grow our business in the UK. But we’re not just about women and FemTech! We’re working with some exciting startups in London designing their digital platforms that required some serious UX strategy and design. We’re working with a couple of startups in the US, one is a research project on the future of 3d body scans for made-to-measure clothing and the other one is the design of a new device around personal identity and online security.
You’ve spoken at amazing events internationally (e.g. Connected in Paris, Uprise Festival in Amsterdam) and in Barcelona including Webvisions, Barcelona Startup Weekend and more recently, facilitated the Wearable Technologies Picnic in Barcelona. What have been your key takeaways and messages at these events?
I’ve been attending events for many years, both in a speaking capacity and as an audience member. There’s no doubt that appreciation for the crucial role of design has massively escalated in the last 10 – 15 years. It’s all about the rise of the internet and technology. The old innovation model prior to the internet was heavily influenced by marketing. You could get away with creating mediocre products if you had great advertising…a good era for marketing, bad for innovation. The internet changed all that (user reviews, social media etc) and brands couldn’t get away with it any more, products had to be created and designed to solve problems, be easy to use and / or enhance experiences and delight people. We have to give credit to Apple too for showing the world what great human centred design can achieve. This has been the main takeaway from events for me – just how much more the role of design is appreciated and understood, both in innovation and more recently in marketing. All the big marketing agencies are now having to take on ‘design thinking’ and user experience principles in how they engage consumers.
Being based in Barcelona and in London, do you see a difference in maturity between the 2 cities in terms of products coming out?
London is quite a bit ahead of Barcelona in terms of maturity, but that’s partly due to just being a far bigger city. There is a lot more investment in London that’s propelling the ecosystem. However, Barcelona has really accelerated in the last few years and the startup world has grown tremendously, including some quite high profile exits. There is a growing tech / startup / creative community that loves the lifestyle Barcelona offers, and as that grows, so does the talent pool and the investment vehicles. Spanish government has made efforts to become more startup friendly (tax, regulations etc) but that part still needs a lot of work if they want to seriously compete with the other major startup hubs.
Where do you see the future of wearables and health tech in the next 5 years?
It’s a very exciting area with a lot of potential. I think we will continue to see a lot of innovation with very specific use cases, ultimately empowering people ever more to both treat and prevent health issues. However, I don’t think we will fully appreciate the differences for another 10 years or so, for two reasons. I think wearables / health tech products will become much more compelling when there is more consolidation in the industry and we get more cohesive and comprehensive services. Most products I see are still working in isolation, focusing on their little use case, but when all these things become much more joined up, then it becomes really beneficial for the user / patient. The other thing is data and the macro picture. When we can seriously start making sense of all this anonymous data that will be collected through wearables etc, then that could provide massive insights for healthcare in general, in turn leading to huge breakthroughs in how we prevent and treat conditions. So, 5 years will bring lots more interesting innovations, but 10 years before we see the really big changes for the better.
Read our blog on the FemTech event here!
This interview was sponsored by Zinc and was conducted by Michelle Hua. Based in Manchester UK, Michelle is the founder and CEO of Made With Glove and Manchester Ambassador of Women of Wearables. Visit www.michellehua.co.uk or follow Michelle on Twitter @MadeWithGlove.