North staff warned CEO its smart glasses were too expensive, didn’t work well for women

North’s Focals 2.0 smart glasses. North

Two months before the launch of North’s flagship Focals smart glasses, senior product staff at the Kitchener, Ont.-based company warned executives the US$999 spectacles were buggy and cumbersome, and were being rushed to market despite having limited appeal to consumers, particularly women and people with disabilities.

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Talking Point

Focals, the smart glasses developed by Kitchener-based startup North, were clunky, untested and rushed to market, despite having limited appeal to women and disabled people, among others, according to a letter written by senior product staff and presented to CEO Stephen Lake. After laying off staff and slashing the eyewear’s price tag, the company stopped selling them earlier this month and announced it would release a second-generation product sometime in 2020.

“The reality is that this is not a premium product right now, to most users in its current form it’s a $50, or maybe $100 product,” reads an eight-page letter written in August 2018 and obtained by The Logic. North’s product research lead Mélodie Vidal presented it to CEO Stephen Lake and it was also shared with the company’s executives, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.

A significant number of North staff working on multiple teams contributed to the letter, the source said.  

Shortly after the product’s October 2018 launch, the company slashed its price to US$599. Many of the concerns staff raised in the letter do not appear to have been addressed before the company started selling its first-generation glasses. Earlier this month, North—formerly Thalmic Labs—announced it was halting production of the glasses and said it would release a new version, called Focals 2.0, in 2020. 

Neither Vidal nor Lake responded to The Logic’s multiple requests for comment. 

“North operates in a flat leadership structure to encourage transparent feedback,” wrote Sara Wynne, an account director at Uproar PR, in an emailed statement on behalf of North. “The feedback document referenced was written six months before the company was shipping Focals and has no relevance to what consumers received.” North announced pre-sales for Focals in October 2018, two months after the letter was written. Shipments to customers started in January. 

The source with direct knowledge of the situation, whom The Logic has agreed not to identify because they are not authorized to discuss internal company matters, disagreed: “The letter was meant to provide solutions to overcome the challenges the product was facing during testing with prospective customers. It outlined a number of recommendations, and as far as anyone can tell, they were not actioned on.”

Focals pair with a user’s smartphone to give a heads-up display of information in the right lens. North—named Canada’s fourth-fastest-growing tech firm this year—markets the glasses as “a new paradigm of technology.”

The letter, which says it “aims to document the problems encountered by the different user-facing teams at Thalmic,” outlines the difficulties of getting that new technology to market, and in a hurry. Mere months before the glasses were set to launch, the company faced “very low user engagement” among its testers, along with considerable technical problems with the glasses themselves, according to the letter.

“Due to our ambitious release timeline, and numerous last-minute changes to the experience, there is a high number of features or capabilities that aren’t tested internally before being implemented,” it reads.

Among the issues confronting Focals was makeup. “We have seen reports that our display does not work well for women wearing mascara, which is common for professional women to wear,” the letter says. By not appealing to women, “we are skewed towards a technical, male population.”

Staff were also concerned about people with disabilities’ ability to use the glasses. “We are launching sizing without the ability to accommodate handicapped individuals. This is a known problem that will have serious legal implications (as well as long term tarnishing of brand perception),” reads the letter. The company didn’t address accessibility issues, despite them being “raised repeatedly.” 

The accessibility issues were compounded by a general unwillingness among other staff to address problems found with the smart glasses, the letter claims. “There is no perceived incentive to spend time reporting problems, or to suggest improvements. Internal users are dismissed because they are not ‘active seekers’ or are supposedly biased – their successes and happy stories are celebrated, but their concerns and problems are sometimes dismissed.”

Meanwhile, North’s usability test room, equipped with a one-way mirror to gauge users’ reactions, was “often used as a storage room,” according to the letter. 

The letter suggests a number of general solutions, including hiring a vice-president of users, having the product-testing team hold monthly meetings and “pushing to onboard more diverse users among our workforce to better represent minorities.” 

“User research is often an afterthought at Thalmic,” reads the letter. “We are not acting as one community, because we have no common leader. As a result, feedback is scattered across various locations and does not seem as impactful as it should be.”

One former senior staff member agreed, saying the company’s executives focused on developing the glasses without considering a potential market for them. 

“The leaders all come from a hardware background. They didn’t really have a clear vision for why someone would buy this. Sure, it doesn’t look like Google Glass, they kind of look like normal glasses. But aside from that, there’s got to be a reason for me to fork out $1,400,” said the former employee, who wasn’t aware of the letter and who spoke on the condition they not be named.

The letter has surfaced at the end of a difficult year for North that included the layoffs of 150 people and the federal government halting payments on a $24-million job-creation investment. Meanwhile, American tech giants Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Snapchat are rolling out or considering their own smart glasses.

Despite the difficulties, North remains one of the country’s highest-profile tech startups. Founded in 2012 by three University of Waterloo graduates, the company has secured about US$200 million in funding. It released its first product, a motion-controlled armband, in 2015. (The company stopped selling it in October 2018.)

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With North’s only product now off shelves, the fate of the company’s two physical stores remains unclear. The Toronto location has kept its regular business hours, but the U.S. location, which spans two floors in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighbourhood, is now accessible by appointment only.

Still, the company is seemingly bullish on the future of Focals. The 2.0 version will be a lighter, sleeker and more vibrant product than its predecessor—“the most advanced smart glasses ever made,” Lake said when the new version was announced.