The WHOOP Story — Or four requirements for an awesome designer-client relationship!

We just published a full case study for the WHOOP App and Website at Behance and we wanted to seize that opportunity to tell the story of a great relationship between designer and client.

These are four things that I’ve identified in working on WHOOP that can make the designer-client relationship awesome:

  1. A good first impression.
  2. The client knows what he or she wants.
  3. Direction, trust, and patience.
  4. The designer can learn through collaboration.

First impressions

Will Ahmed, the founder and CEO of WHOOP, called me out of the blue in June of 2012 and asked if I had time to take on a new project. He had found my work and contact info online. Back then I was still running a one-man design show in a small shared office in Hamburg and I was packed with work for other clients. I told Will that I didn’t have the availability to accept a new project at that time. Will asked me if I would meet with him the next week in Hamburg so he could tell me a little bit more about his idea. I figured he’d be in town anyway and told him that we could definitely meet to talk things over. It turned out that Will booked a flight from Boston to Hamburg the very next week just to meet me in person and tell me more about his vision!

Early sketches for the WHOOP Device by aruliden

Needless to say I was impressed that the founder of a Harvard startup flew across the ocean just to meet me and I was equally impressed by the man behind that phone call and his vision. Will and I walked all over Hamburg and he told me how he and his two co-founders, John Capodilupo and Aurelian Nicolae, founded WHOOP out of Harvard to revolutionize the professional sports industry. They wanted to build a wearable device together with a software platform to help professional athletes and coaches optimize their training, using comprehensive 24/7 heart rate data. At that point there were very few fitness trackers on the market and they were all aimed at step counting. Will told me about all the deep and meaningful data their bracelet would be able to collect and explained the urgent need to structure and visualize this data. He was adamant, “The presentation of this data needs to be beautiful.” It was unusual to meet the founder of a hardware company who, at the time, seemed much more concerned with the design of his software. As a designer you don’t get the opportunity to build such a comprehensive system from scratch very often. More so, I knew from the brief time that I spent with Will that we could work together. The very next day we signed a contract and Will flew back to Boston. This was of little surprise to Will, who seemed to know exactly what he wanted from the moment we met, and that alone began to reframe my understanding of the designer-client relationship.

Variations of old WHOOP designs that pilled up over the years

The client knows what he or she wants

Turns out that first impression and the relationship to follow was one of the best business decisions I have ever made. You never know how the chemistry between you (the designer) and the client will be until you start working together. Fortunately Will and I had a great chemistry right from the start and we haven’t lost it since.

Will, John and I at Stanford University in Palo Alto
One of the many sport events Will and I have visited.

Will had a very strong point of view from the beginning that design would be key to the company’s success. He wanted the information to be beautiful and summarized in layers: The first impression of the data would be much simpler than a deep dive. Although Will is not a designer himself, he has a very great understanding for both the visual and the conceptual design. Will would tell me that the software and the platform behind WHOOP were just as important as the actual physical device that would collect the data. Many clients say they want good design but then they don’t know why they want it, or what it actually is, or worst of all, what they’re actually trying to design! I pity those designer-client relationships. Beyond a good first impression, the client needs to know what he wants.

You need direction, trust, and patience.

Many clients say that design is important, but it’s unusual to find a client who assigns the time and energy to see that through. Will understood right away that the UI and the UX design are the core parts of making WHOOP a successful product. We scheduled hour long Skype sessions every day: It was morning for him and evening for me. It would start with something like: “We need to demonstrate how Recovery is calculated. It’s unintuitive. I want to know immediately from the number and the color if I’m good to go, but I also need to see that WHOOP has the guts to really calculate it.” I would then come up with the different layers. Different weightings of different physiological parameters. We’d look at color coding. Web vs. Mobile. We’d agree: “It can be red, yellow, green only if we don’t need red, yellow, or green anywhere else on the platform.” I’d go back and try other color options for sections that barely existed yet. In fact, the more I think about it, none of it really “existed” yet. Will wanted to visualize a world — this platform — that could demonstrate the power of its data, the ability to change behavior. He knew if he could show it to others (employees, athletes, investors), they’d understand.

Will would ask others to join our calls from time to time; often John, the CTO and co-founder, who like Will also seemed to trust that this iterative process would work. When you have so much data to deal with, it’s very important that your designs meet technical specifications as well: John was critical for that.

They understood that it takes a lot of time and a lot of iterations to get to a satisfying design solution. Will especially never made me feel pressured. He had aggressive timelines but he still gave me the time I needed to find the right path. It took much more time than I originally expected. I thought this would be a six month project; Now it’s been almost 4 years since we started working together and we’re far from being done! In fact a project like WHOOP will never be done. There are always new ideas to play around with, new features to implement and plenty of room for improvements.

Shot from the WHOOP office in Boston Fenway

Of course I understand that this is a luxurious position to be in because taking your time always means spending more money. But Will never lost his patience and was always positive that a good design foundation would eventually convince investors and customers to invest in WHOOP. And that’s what’s happened. Today WHOOP has raised over 25 million dollars and employs 50 people in their headquarters in Boston’s Fenway. Our customers include professional and collegiate athletes, Olympians, and the United States military. It’s a performance optimization system that’s already helping elite athletes and teams balance training, reduce injuries, and predict performance. And their is nothing more rewarding then seeing actual users engaging with your designs and the product that you’ve been working on for such a long time.

The designer can learn through collaboration.

While WHOOP grew from a tiny team in the Harvard innovation lab to the company of today, we ourselves had the chance to grow with them as their lead design agency AND to learn a lot while doing it. We’re practically nerds now in the field of heart rate monitoring and physiological data — understanding the correlations behind strain and sleep and how they affect your body over time. I think this might be true for all information heavy design projects: You have to become an expert in the field you’re designing for before you can actually come up with satisfying solutions.

I can’t count the different ideas and designs we came up with or the Skype calls, e-mail conversations and many trips to Boston and New York I made during the last four years. And I’m sure we made plenty mistakes in the process, but eventually they all contributed to making WHOOP a successful product.

Meeting with Aruliden in their New York City office.

From very early on, Will attracted and organized a number of talented other designers, employees, and advisors to collaborate on everything from my work to the industrial design of the hardware. This has been critical to the growth of the product and for me personally. It’s been energizing to connect with the growing WHOOP team of engineers, mathematicians, physiologists, and athletes: They’ve taught me a great deal about the technical sophistication that continuous, accurate monitoring requires. We were also blessed to be working with the awesome design team from Aruliden in NYC who guided the industrial design for the bracelet and helped create the WHOOP corporate design. Advisors like Nicholas Negroponte and Antonio Bertone pushed me to unify the graphic design across hardware and different screen designs. I’m grateful to have learned so much from all those collaborations and, as a result, I’m energized for the next Skype session, meeting, or flight for WHOOP! This project is really something special.

See the full case study here:
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Martin Oberhäuser
Founder & CEO of Bureau Oberhaeuser

Bureau Oberhaeuser is a design studio focused on Information- and Interface Design. The Bureau was founded in 2011 in Hamburg by designer Martin Oberhäuser

Bureau Oberhaeuser is a design studio focused on Information- and Interface Design. The Bureau was founded in 2011 in Hamburg by designer Martin Oberhäuser