When we think of technology, so often do we overlook any human involvement in them, thinking more of them as machines. Contrary to that kind of thinking, Michelle Maryns founded We Sparkle, an AI-powered SaaS social enterprise that incorporates human-centered design into their work. Michelle brings up the importance of human-centered design to products and services as well as their relationship with the users. She also gives her insights on AI assistants, chatbots, websites, plugins, and more, as well as the beauty of social entrepreneurship, the entrepreneur roller coaster, and being bootstrap entrepreneurs.
Listen to the podcast here:
Human-Centered Design Products And Services With Michelle Maryns
I’m very excited to have Michelle Maryns. Michelle is the Founder of We Sparkle another human-centered design tech company in the metro area here in the Twin Cities. I felt like I won the lottery when I got to meet Michelle at Enterprise Rising, Casey Allen’s conference, as I don’t run into too many other tech founders that are also using human-centered design. Welcome, Michelle. Why don’t you tell a little bit more about yourself?
Thank you, Amber. Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m the Founder of We Sparkle, which is an AI-powered SaaS social enterprise. We incorporate human-centered design into our work and everything that we do. I’m excited to talk to you more about it.
One of the fun parts about human-centered design is I have people ask me, “Human-centered design?” How would you tell people in English, as normal people speak, what does that mean?
To me, this means taking a look at the user, the person, the human who’s using the product or service and understanding it from their point of view, having the empathy to see how are they using it, why are they using it, and being able to design that in a way so that it optimizes the experience for them. One of the examples that I’ve seen that I like, and I’m a very visual person, was the photograph that I saw. I think I saw this probably on LinkedIn or something like that, but it was a photograph of a perfect sidewalk. The cement was nice. It was perfectly laid out. To the side of the sidewalk, there’s a little path that had been carved out into the grass. You could tell that many people had biked that route and walked that route and it was the shortcut. To me that exemplifies human-centered design where you might have a perfectly designed sidewalk or building or software, whatever it is that you’re building, but then people will end up going the route that makes sense to them and is easiest for them. When I think about that visual, it helps me to understand human-centered design. It’s trying to understand what the path of least resistance is or what’s the best experience for people? Because that’s the path that they’ll usually take and that’s how you should be designing.
Tell us more about We Sparkle and what you’re building over there.
I was fortunate to win a fellowship called The Innovation Fellowship. It’s a brand new program. We were the guinea pigs. It’s specifically for our social entrepreneurs. In my career, I started off working in the federal government. I worked as a consultant in the private sector and then at nonprofits. I wanted to bring all of those experiences together. Social entrepreneurship made so much sense to me because not only are you working in a for-profit company and making sure that your products and services are helping to sustain the company, but it’s also having a positive social or environmental impact. That resonated with me and I was excited to join the program here in Minneapolis and work with a few other fellows to flush out our social enterprises. Because of the fellowship, I was able to buckle down and research, interview and observe small business owners, which is our target audience. We create software for small businesses, especially appointment-based service businesses like hair salons. Through that experience, not only was I able to talk with salons, but I worked part-time at a salon.
Tell us all about that. What was that like?
It was amazing. I learned so much that I didn’t know about salons before. I’ve been to a salon to get my hair cut as a customer, but I’d never seen it from the side of working at one. What’s interesting about them is that they’re almost a community hub and I didn’t realize that until I started working at one. I worked at the Beauty Lounge Minneapolis, which is a multicultural hair destination in the Northeast. We have people from all walks of life coming in with all textures of hair, different backgrounds. You have a lot of regulars and they love coming to this salon because it’s their time to de-stress, do a little self-care, talk with their stylists. Some of the things they tell their stylists are probably more than what they tell their therapist. They have a very dedicated relationship with their stylist. It is a community hub. Families would come in and we even had mothers who would come in and say, “I’m so thankful that you’re here because this is the first time that I’ve been able to go get my hair cut at the same place as my child.”
In particular, this was a mixed-race family and so they had different textured hair and there aren’t a lot of places that are equipped to handle people with different textures of hair. It was neat working there because I learned so much from that. I also learned about the challenges that salons have. Especially if you’re a small salon or even maybe a solo entrepreneur or maybe you’re freelancing and doing this on the side. There’s so much admin that you have to do and this does apply to anyone else. Making sure that you’re working on the things that are the highest priority is a challenge. Something I often heard from the business owners that I research and interviewed was that they felt like they were working in their business instead of on their business.
This is a recurring theme. I talk about that a lot too. It’s the same thing I look for solopreneurs and small businesses as well. You don’t have time to work on the business because you’re so busy in the business. As you’re looking at some of the different segments, tell us more about what you’re building.
Our first tool is a conversational AI assistant or a virtual assistant and it text messages back and forth with salon customers to schedule appointments, answer frequently asked questions and also with the marketing efforts. Because sometimes salon owners are so busy, they don’t necessarily have as much time to do some of those marketing things. It’s upselling products and services and then messaging the salon customers after the appointment to ask them to leave a review. That leads to more referrals and word of mouth hopefully drumming up more business for that salon. Those are the forming features of our first tool, this assistant.
Let’s talk about chatbots a little bit. For me, I’ve been super careful about what level do I put chatbot capability there so that it doesn’t feel like a robot. I’ve had a few chatbot experiences where the responses had nothing to do with what I was talking about. Walk us through a little bit more about building that and where do you even begin to tackle that a challenge.Social entrepreneurship is not only about working in a for-profit company, it's also having a positive social or environmental impact. Click To Tweet
Chatbots has evolved a lot over the years and I totally agree with you. Sometimes you have a bad experience and that often happens when maybe the chatbot is doing too much. Which is why we designed our focus on four main things that it does. If you expect to do too much, then the amount of questions and variations you can get continues to multiply and it’s exponential. The chances of it breaking or not responding appropriately are much higher. Because of a lot of the tools that are out there nowadays, it makes it a lot easier to build chatbots that understand the synonyms and do a lot more of that natural language processing.
That makes it a lot easier to build out a chatbot that can answer things appropriately as long as you train it with the right phrases and information and data that it’s able to respond. Always make sure that you have appropriate error handling and that if the assistant or the chatbot gets a question they can’t answer, make sure that’s immediately directed to someone, a real person, to a human who can handle it. Because you want to make sure that customer experience is the best it can be. That’s what human-centered design is all about. The reason why we designed this assistant was not only did we interview and observe salon owners, we also interviewed their customers to see what is it about their experience booking an appointment that is difficult or challenging.
Tell us more about what you heard there.
I saw so many websites that were not quite updated, which makes sense. If you’re a busy owner and you’re busy cutting hair, styling hair or coloring, you don’t have time necessarily to be updating your website. That experience was interesting. Most people they can call, but if they call, they’re only open during the phone hours. There’s this phone tag thing that happens. If a salon has an online booking system, sometimes you click the book now button and then it takes you away to another page. It’s not branded for the salon. You have to click through a series of screens in order to get what you want to be done. I’ve seen people with two tabs open. One is the salon website that has the description of their services and then the other tab is the booking one because there isn’t the right description in the booking process. They have all these questions and so they have all these tabs open, then they give up and they just call. I’ve even seen booking systems where you have to download an app. That’s another hurdle and barrier for people. I’ve also seen booking systems where you have to remember login.
That’s problematic. If I can’t remember my salon login, I pick up the phone and call. I can’t even imagine going on their website and booking it.
At the salon where I worked, I would see multiple accounts sometimes because people would forget their logins.
They create a different email address because we all have about fourteen of those email addresses now.
It was my job to try and merge them all. On both sides there’s a lot you can do in terms of understanding the user, both from the salon owner, business owner’s point of view, but then also at the end customer and their customer.
It’s interesting you bring up about how websites are being maintained. I’m a fangirl of the small business revolution. I saw Julie Gordon speak at a local event here and she was talking about it and it was an absolutely wonderful event. I didn’t know anything about small business revolution before this. Given that I sell to solopreneurs and small businesses, I wish I’d known about it sooner, but it was interesting. One statistic that they’d shared a number of times was something like 55% of small businesses doesn’t even have a website. I’m not all that surprised to hear the statistics you’re talking about around small businesses because a lot of them don’t even have a site, much less multiple pieces of that process.
I don’t think it’s necessary to have a website to run a successful business. A lot of the salons I’m working with, they just have social media accounts. They have a Facebook page, an Instagram account, and they’re able to communicate with clients that way. They don’t have to worry as much about maintaining a website. Not everyone uses Instagram or Facebook. It is good to have a website. I would definitely recommend that. It’s about keeping it simple so that it’s easy to update and make sure they are checking every once in a while. Because I found a lot of websites where there was wrong information and so you could be losing customers because they don’t even have the right number or the right location or the correct information to be able to contact you.
Does the chatbot integrate with Facebook if someone manages their site via a Facebook page? Does it also plugin if you manage it via let’s say a WordPress site as well from a technology perspective?
Yes. We can run it on a salon’s Facebook page and it’ll pop up in Facebook Messenger and that’s how it messages back and forth with the customer or on a salon website. It would be embedded as a widget on the website, similar to chatbots may be that you’ve seen.
Intercom or Drift or any other the help desk type ones.
If you clicked the Book Now it would pop up probably in the bottom right corner and message with you that way.
I had gone through an alpha test before I went beta out to the market and you’re going through a beta test with your first customers. Tell us about how you are structuring your beta test. What are you hoping to learn? How long will it run? Help us understand more about where you’re at in getting into the market.
We’re excited. We’re doing a private beta and we had a lot of people who were interested, but we wanted to make sure that the salons who participated in this private beta were well cared for and that we made sure everything works smoothly. We narrowed that down to four salons. They’re in different parts of the city but they provide similar services. It’s been great working with them. Going back and forth because it’s a beta, I’m doing things a little bit more manually and more high touch than I would do it once we launch the full version. What’s been exciting is that we won a grant to help us perform this data. That allows us to pay for Facebook Ads that will then drive people to use this system so that we can test it out and make sure that it’s working for a large number of people. That’s definitely exciting.
Tell us about that grant.
It is a $10,000 grant. What we’re testing and what’s unique about us is that when I talked with salons, this is all about human-centered design. One of the things that I learned from them is that the brand is important to them. It’s how they differentiate themselves from each other. I didn’t necessarily see that reflected in the products that are available. If you’re clicking to another website and it just has your logo but everything else looks like you’re on a different website, you might be confused and say, “Am I on the same website?” I wanted to make sure that the assistant not only was embedded on the website or on the Facebook page, but that as much as possible, it could have the same voice and tone as that salon.
What we’re going to be testing is these different brand personalities and does that affect customer behavior. Some assistants, for example, might use emojis or GIFs and others might be more traditional. There are also salons that want to use emojis and GIFs and be more playful, as there might be salons that just want to be a little bit more traditional as well. We’ll be experimenting with that to see if that affects customer behavior in terms of the upselling and in the reviews that are posted. There’s more to come on that. We’re excited about that, but that’s what we’ll be testing during the beta.
That sounds like a ton of fun. I can’t wait to hear. We might have to do a follow-up after all this because it’s always so fascinating to go through that testing process. Because they always say no product survives in the wild the way it was originally envisioned and thought up. Even the initial designs and things will continue to evolve and iterate. For me, what’s fascinating about human-centered design is where those people involved in it can help take you because they’re customers that are aiding you on the journey. They don’t control everything, but they provide a lot of valuable information to make those decisions about what kinds of things are needed in that market. It’s just interesting.
The fun part is when people start using it. It’s the next step in the journey. We were talking earlier a little bit about the entrepreneur roller coaster. I would tell you it’s been years since I started getting conceptual and been in the market for a couple of months in our paid beta out in the market. It’s been such an up and down roller coaster. There are many things that you realize you do know or you don’t know as you get out into the market. There are some days where I feel like there’s a roller coaster and there are other times I feel like I’m in a tunnel and I’m not sure if that’s a light at the end or a train.
I said that as well. There are many tunnels, that’s the problem. You see the light at the end of the tunnel, you get to the light and then there are another tunnel and another light that you see. It’s never-ending of tunnels and lights.
You never know if those are trains or lights. There’s an occasional train that will flatten us and we get back up and get going again. It’s all part of the journey. That I think for me was one thing I have been aware of. I had one day where I was walking in the first meeting with my coach. All of a sudden out of nowhere, I had this thought, this is before I launched. “What have you done? I have a comfy life. What is this?”
We don’t do it because it’s easy. We do it because it’s hard.No product survives in the wild the way it was originally envisioned and thought up. Click To Tweet
That’s exactly right. You do it because it’s hard. I was at the peak and that other world. Maybe it was because it was the next hardest thing to do. “Let’s build a tech company.”
That and being a mother maybe are the two hardest things.
I don’t have experience with the second one, but the tech one’s pretty challenging. Pretty daunting.
It’s like giving birth, creating something new and the amount of dedication and time you spend on it. I can see similarities.
There are parts of your soul in this. I think for me, it wasn’t just about creating a transaction. It was about trying to change the way how people plan because I wanted to help affect their life to make it better by being able to minimize stress and get things out of their head and all that. It’s the same idea about what you’re doing, you want to make it better. For small business owners, it’s a fight. It’s anything you could do that helps them to make progress in that fight and to keep up with the tech. Because I imagine even as small business owners, they’re interested in the tech, but get intimidated by that. Is that something you run into a lot? Tell me more about that experience.
A lot of the salon owners that I met are the first to admit that they’re not the most tech-savvy people. I had zero idea on how to color hair. They’re experts in that, all of the different ingredients and things that they use is beyond me for processing hair color. For them, doing websites or even buying Facebook ads can sometimes be a confusing process. I think what’s nice is that we’ve been able to work together and they do what they do well. Hopefully this technology enables them to do more of what they do well and not have to worry so much about whether it’s for you prioritizing and calendaring our assistant in terms of helping them upsell their products and services. I think that technology, it’s a double-edged sword. You can use it for good or it can be a time suck in a way in terms of you spend a lot of time but not getting a lot of payback.
That’s a huge balancing act. That’s I think where the human-centered design comes in. How do you give them that path of least resistance to accomplish things while not turning it into a giant time suck? Because then they’re going to abandon it and they’ll go back to other processes. One of the things that are super interesting to me in what you’re doing is in allowing them to upsell to the product, that’s how your margin business too. Essentially if they’re able to add on and sell a product and other things as well as part of that service, you’re improving their overall profitability as a company for the small businesses.
That feature was inspired by this human-centered design methodology as well. Because one thing I noticed when I was working as a salon coordinator was that a customer would be sitting in the stylist’s chair and it’s wintertime, it’s very cold here in Minnesota. They’d be complaining about, “My hair is so dry.” The stylist, because they’re the experts, they’re like, “You should do a deep conditioning treatment. That’ll help hydrate your hair.” They’re like, “That’s what I want. Let’s do it right now.” The stylists, that would either put them behind with their next client who’s about to come in or their customer would need to reschedule for another time. That’s a missed opportunity. That’s when I came up with the idea for that feature.
That upselling process should automatically happen during the booking process. At least plant the seed and then hopefully you upsell those items. Because a lot of times when I’m booking something, I don’t even know what other services they have and I don’t understand them. If someone were to prompt me and say, “Are you interested in this?” I’m like, “Throw that in. That sounds nice.” Because a lot of times people when they go to the salon, they do want to do a little pampering or have a bit of a treat. I think it makes sense to have them do that upsell and let them know about other services that might be useful for them.
Another thing that Michelle and I have in common that we had talked about before is we’re both bootstrap entrepreneurs. Yes, we keep moving up the contingent of unusual combinations, which is why it’s been such a pleasure to get to know you. You’re someone like me. Thank you, Casey Allen. Yes, that is also another part of the journey. Talk a little bit about why you chose to bootstrap. How do you think about the whole conversation about fundraising? I get that a lot. Are we going to fundraise? I’m like, “Go away. I’m still busy getting some traction in the market. I’ll think about that later.”
Fundraising. What I’ve heard from other funders is had to get through it and that scared me away. I’ve been bootstrapping and I’m fortunate to be in a position where I’ve worked for many years. I always knew that I wanted to start a business someday. My mom was a small business owner and it was always a dream. In my entire career, I’ve stashed away a little bit of money here and there wherever I could. I had been bootstrapping with that savings. I think that I would take on an investor if it was the right investor. We’re a social enterprise. We’re dedicated to helping small businesses because two-thirds of new jobs come from small businesses. I’m interested in economic development and job growth. I think at the end of the day, people just want to wait to be able to support their families, whether that’s as a small business owner or working in a larger company.
For us, we’re especially interested in helping women of color go on businesses because they’re the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs. Their revenues are not on par with their peers. That’s the question or the problem that I started tackling at the beginning of my fellowship program, was trying to understand what’s preventing them from increasing their revenues. What are the barriers? That’s when I used a lot of that human-centered design thinking to try and understand what the barriers are and what are the ways that we can help leveraging our own skills and talents and experience. That’s when I uncovered by observing that salon owners are spending about 40% of their time on administrative tasks like scheduling appointments and answering the same questions over and over again. That’s why we built out this tool is to help with that. For us being a social enterprise, that’s the core of who we are. If we were able to find the right investor who’s an impact investor, an Angel investor willing to work with a very early stage and it was a good fit, then I would be open to that.
Otherwise, I think maybe some of the more traditional investors might not be as interested in us as a business because we are a social enterprise. I wouldn’t want to take on those types of investors because it’s not a good fit. They might be expecting things that aren’t aligned with our own values. There’s a reason why we focused on salons because they’re one of the most popular businesses that women of color want to start or grow. I know this because I volunteer as a mentor with women venture. All the studies show this. That’s why they’re our first target customers. We want to make sure that we’re serving our customers and helping them increase their revenues. We wouldn’t want an investor to detract us from that mission.
There’s another fun thing that you’re up to. Speaking of all things human-centered design, you’re starting to teach more about human-centered design. Tell us more about what you’re teaching in human-centered design.
I’m excited about this. I used to be the chief of strategic initiatives at MEDA, which is a nonprofit community development financial institution. They provide low-interest loans and they’re focused on helping minority entrepreneurs succeed. When I was there, I started a partnership with Junior Achievement and their focus as a nonprofit is to help young people learn about how to start their own business and financial literacy. I enjoyed working with Junior Achievement. It was one of the highlights of my previous job. Every week was seeing the students and watching them grow and helping to empower them to start their own businesses someday or maybe even take those skills and use it in a future career. Even after I left MEDA to start We Sparkle, I continued volunteering with JA and now we have started a new program called JA LaunchU! It is a free program for high school students, from 10th to 12th grade.
I’m going to be teaching them human-centered design and teaching them about social entrepreneurship and just entrepreneurship in general, how to start their own business. The students who complete the program get a $500 stipend to start their own business. It’s a great opportunity. I encourage everyone that knows a high school student to let them know about this opportunity because it’s something that if I had had when I was in here would’ve been huge. It’s such a good experiential learning program and they’ll learn a lot. They’re accepting applications. It’s on the junior achievement website or if you go to WeSparkle.org and also see a post about it if you want the link. It’s a great program. I’m excited. With students, human-centered design resonates with them. They get it and it’s something that they can use no matter what job they have.
I found human-centered design helped me feel less intimidated by the whole process I had to go through to build a company. The different stages and the feedback, for me, I found that so helpful. Even to your point about sometimes it’s as simple observation and people are letting you see what they do, being vulnerable enough to let you see what they do now and let you observe. Because they know it’s a hot mess. I’m not too ashamed to tell you it’s a hot mess. Can you please fix it? It’s fun to go through and build those relationships and that process and because it’s something that you can continue to do to develop your business even as you go forward in a much friendlier way. As we wrap things up here, it’s been such a pleasure having you. Can you tell us how people can find out more about you? How they find out more about We Sparkle?
Thank you so much.
About Michelle Maryns
Connector of people + ideas who specializes in digital marketing strategy and design thinking. Experience working in all sectors and various fields/industries.
Advised startups Ova Woman (OvaWoman.com), Boosted Boards (BoostedBoards.com, YC W18), Skip Scooters (SkipScooters.com, YC S12), 26 Letters (26letters.co), Molly Fuller Design (MollyFullerDesign.com), and Spinning Wylde (SpinningWylde.com). Also served as a Stitch Fix stylist on the side. Contract projects include work with Greater MSP/Make It. MSP./MSP Hello and WORKSHOP. Co-founded a Service Design Network (SDN) chapter in Minnesota that coordinated the Service Design Midwest Conference (www.sdnmidwest.com) along with the SDN Chicago chapter.
Recently led a group of high school students from China on a social entrepreneurship/social innovation learning trip to Panama, where I taught them human-centered design thinking skills to help community members either improve their social enterprises or start new ones: https://www.facebook.com/piedrasgordaspanama.