The Pivot Interview: Grace Hwang, VP of Design and Experience

Grace Hwang and her team of product and experience designers are the people most responsible for the Pivot user experience—from the brand to the app itself. In other words, when you encounter a touchpoint anywhere in the Pivot journey, you’re interacting with something conceived of and designed by Grace and her team.

In her two decades of design experience, Grace has bridged multiple categories and genres of design. She’s worked with organizations like Samsung, ConAgra, and Planned Parenthood, and in everything from consumer electronics to healthcare to organizational transformation. She’s designed cold, hard objects—literally, in the case of healthy frozen food packaging and presentation. She’s also designed technology solutions like the future of email for Microsoft and a telematics service for Honeywell’s jet engines.


Those worlds frequently meld, as they did for Grace during a 12-year stint at design behemoth IDEO, where she headed up the company’s food and beverage and healthcare practices. And now she brings that multidisciplinary background to Pivot.

“Innovation often results from the convergence of a lot of different ideas from seemingly unrelated areas. Think about crossing a retail and health clinic experience or the principles of game design with consumer health engagement. There’s a lot to draw from outside of the space you’re actually designing.”

How do you describe what you do?

Grace Hwang: My personal mission is to design for behavior change. That means working with the team to craft the hardware pieces—specifically, the CO (carbon monoxide) sensor, the experience around the hardware, and the digital touchpoints that help to craft our story. Then we deliver our messaging in ways that are both empathic and unexpected—because we’re trying to change the conversation around smoking.

We hear the term “design thinking” a lot. Could you explain what that means?

GH: It’s an approach to problem solving that involves a foundational understanding of human needs and a highly coordinated application of creativity. Needs and desires frame both the problem and the solution. Innovation happens at the intersection of those needs, business viability, and technical constraints. Solutions aren’t any good if they lack relevance and adaptability to peoples’ lives.

Identifying needs gives us the inspiration to experiment, prototype, and iterate. We’re a motley crew of collaborators—a diverse team that includes behavioral scientists, designers, software engineers, hardware engineers, product managers, and our clinical team. If we’re not all grounded in the needs of our participants, whose decision has the most merit? Design thinking gives us the language and the insights we need so that we’re all aligned and working toward a common goal.

Do you have an example of a solution that didn’t match a need?

GH: We built a map with GPS functionality in the Pivot app where people could track where they have smoked. In theory, it was a good idea. Turns out, many people have pretty set routines around smoking. They know where they smoke. We should have asked users what they thought about it before we took the time to build it. We might still turn the map into something relevant to people by basing it on richer insights we now have on the behaviors and desires of smokers.

How do you test new design features for the app?

GH: We use continuous feedback from our consumers and clients to inspire, refine, and validate the ideas we develop. For instance, we regularly convene a group of smokers we call Pivot Partners. They provide feedback on concepts, co-create solutions, and help ensure that we are developing something that fits into their lives and will, hopefully, one day help them quit. They keep us honest.

How does design thinking play out in a healthcare setting?

I think that many people are unhealthy because they feel isolated, feel lonely. They are lonely. Maybe there’s an older person who’s incredibly lonely. How to design to bring her, involve her, into a community? How to build connections? The doctor-patient relationship often stays very clinical. As opposed to, “This is what’s really going on in someone’s life.”

For example, a doctor may be trying to get the medication right, whereas the patient may have an abusive spouse and no place to sleep tonight. Design has the ability to bridge these conversations. That’s the kind of work I have done in crafting patient experience for Planned Parenthood, for pharma companies: to help them understand the human experience.

In Pivot, coaches provide a system-level acknowledgment of someone’s progress. That’s hugely important. People going through the program often feel an extreme sense of isolation. They keep it quiet, don’t tell anybody, don’t want to be seen as failure.

So we bring back a sense of engagement, acknowledgment.

Like being awarded 50 points for noting what causes me stress?

GH: That’s a low-bar example. We’re working on more meaningful feedback. Like, “You’ve spent X hours in the Pivot app. That’s X hours of time not spent smoking.”

As serious as the subject of quitting smoking is, the app and the website have a bit of a light touch. That’s intentional, I assume.

GH: We don’t want to be flippant. But we don’t want to double down on the seriousness, so there is a bit of lightheartedness. It’s a really delicate balance. We emphasize what works from a clinical standpoint, but we also want to lower the stigma of smoking and make our program as friendly as possible.

Do users cite the app as key in their ability to quit or cut down?

GH: Absolutely, along with the CO sensor, which you currently can’t use without the app. Seventy percent say the sensor increased their motivation to quit. The app also delivers conversations with your coach, the educational component, and the activities.

How does the sensor increase motivation to quit?

GH: I’ll give you an example of one woman who was smoking two packs a day. She had read all the literature about the detrimental effects of smoking. But those are long-term; they’re not immediate. The carbon monoxide sensor is immediate. She called it “Satan’s whistle.” She said it was super helpful because it was telling her the truth. “I tried it, and was shocked when I saw my CO levels.”

From there, she started engaging with her coach, even though she said she wasn’t the kind of person who would normally engage with a therapist or coach. But she said she found the coaching “weirdly helpful.” She also went through every piece of content, from what CO is to how to build a quit plan. And she quit smoking.

What surprises users about the app?

GH: Well, like with this woman, the biggest surprise often happens when they take their first breath sample. It’s the first time they’ve seen the effect of smoking quantified. It’s like stepping on the scale after Thanksgiving dinner. Also, people tell us that they thought they knew their patterns around smoking, but they didn’t. The app articulates the extent, impact, and frequency of smoking—tools that help them start to make changes.

Do you have a BHAG, a big hairy audacious goal?

GH: Well, the big one is helping people to quit. That’s at the heart of this. And to help them stay quit. Being able to catch them when they fall is a big challenge.

But an equal goal is helping people to be their best selves. Many people start smoking when they are very young, before they’ve learned skills about coping with issues in their lives. So my BHAG is to use design to understand the core needs of the people we’re serving, to look at their lives holistically, and to apply our solution to address not just the challenge of smoking, but to help them address other challenges in life.