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Getting back to the business of living: Amway's Sara Gonzalez shows us the humanity of technology

Sara Gonzalez, left, and Alicia Roth, right.

Even within one of the world's largest and most prolific corporations, the stars of innovation can still shine brightly. Here in West Michigan, Sara Gonzalez is illuminating new systems within the interconnected galaxies of design and technology at Amway.
Even within one of the world's largest and most prolific corporations, the stars of innovation can still shine brightly. Here in West Michigan, Sara Gonzalez is illuminating new systems within the interconnected galaxies of design and technology at Amway.
 
Gonzalez has designed her own career and the reach of user experience and interconnectivity within Amway's Global Digital Services department at its headquarters in Ada. While Amway has long been known as a leader in manufactured products for the nutrition, beauty and home care markets, Gonzalez’s­ work is bringing the needs of the individual to the forefront of product design. It signals more than just a different brand from the company. It's a move toward a more useful future, and a world in which that usefulness is defined by enriching the lives of others.
 
According to Amway's Business Innovation Specialist Alicia Roth, Gonzalez is not only noted for an unceasing desire to learn, grow and experiment with new directions, but an uncanny grasp of both human understanding and technology. Roth, who started with Amway in 2010, has worked with Gonzalez since meeting her on an introduction tour. She says Gonzalez has launched from human relations intern, through talent acquisition and digital marketing, to the vanguard of innovation and connected experiences at Amway, from a student of human centered design to an advocate, to a leader.
 
"She has such an appetite for learning how to understand the user and integrate that across her solutions," Roth says. "She is able to take her digital skills and blend them with her human understanding, and this makes her approach to solutions truly 'connected' to other digital solutions but also to the users life as well. It isn’t an easy space, many people want to stay within the boundaries of their digital solution and call it good, but I have seen Sara be unsatisfied with that and insist on going beyond and designing into the user’s life as well."

Exploration

Gonzalez's curiosity suits her well in a design career, but her age played a role in preparing her for the world of technology. Now 30, she remembers her excitement after graduating from Livonia Stevenson High School and receiving a Grand Valley State University email address in 2004, finally eligible for an account on The Facebook, as early adopters will remember.
 
"To a certain degree, I matured with Facebook," she says. "While I had early exposure to MySpace, Napster, and my true first love — my AOL screen name and email — Facebook really ushered in my love of technology and the true power of digital to connect."
 
Social media provided Gonzalez an avenue to expand her understanding of design, and the possibility of "obscure, yet extremely tangible digital products" that were now possible. The implications of tweeting from an iPhone were massive, and to Gonzalez, possessed an element of magic. But all the conjured excitement of a smart new digital world aside, technology wasn't exactly her first career choice.
Sara GonzalezBefore graduating from GVSU in 2008. Gonzalez intended to study employment law. The idea of building a career in the digital space without a deep background in programming or engineering seemed out of reach. But when Steve Schulz, then Amway’s manager of recruiting, spoke to Gonzalez and the rest of the GVSU Society for Human Resource Management, something resonated with her. She asked Schulz about internships at Amway, and although nothing was available at the time, her persistence eventually paid off. She was brought on as an intern in the human resources department in January 2008, and landed a full-time job as a social recruiter college interns by June. From there, the progression into the digital space was natural.
 
Social media is an indispensable tool in the search for talent at the college level, and with a team that fostered Gonzalez's forays into virtual career fairs and live streaming events, she was able to implement a new program for Social Recruiting at Amway. From there she transitioned to the Global Digital Services department and then into product development as the company's digital reach matured.
 
"Professionally, my career has really followed the user," Gonzalez says. "As our users became more digitally savvy and as the marketplace focused on delightful and simple experiences, my own areas of focus and expertise needed to mature to stay a step ahead."

Investigation

Amway is expansive in more than just size and product offerings. Forbes puts Amway as number 29 on its list of America's largest private companies, with $9.5 billion in annual revenue and more than 19,000 employees.
 
There's a lot in orbit around Amway’s global headquarters in Ada, involving millions of users, as varied in age, geography, digital maturity, and connectivity as they are in core needs and values. From industrial crews to middle class America, and hungry children in developing nations to entrepreneurs across the world, there are few segments of humanity untouched by Amway products and ideas. It's Gonzalez's mission, and one she shares with the culture of her team, to ask why and understand how those varied cultures, and indeed the individuals that make them up, can be satisfied through empathetic design. It’s work that involves a deep understanding of humanity, through interviews, field research, and countless other testing methods, to build lasting solutions.
 
An intersection of the digital world, strategy, and interconnectivity provide a rough outline of Gonzalez's current concentration as supervisor of Selling, Prospecting, & Brand Experiences. As vast as that field may seem, her main responsibility is essentially fostering a sense of wonder and curiosity.
"At the core, whether we are focused on [Internet of Things] products, web experiences, or native apps, the most important value we can deliver to the end user is to listen to what they need and design for simplicity to make their job as easy as possible," Gonzalez says. "Innovation must be driven through the eyes of the user."
 
Getting to the essence of that user's point of view can take on a number of different approaches. Gonzalez says she finds herself playing the role of an ethnographic researcher more often than not.
 
"If I see someone with [wearable technology] that I'm not familiar with, I will stop and ask them about why they chose that model or how they use it. It doesn't matter if it's the person who's standing next to me at the grocery store or if we're sitting in close proximity at a coffee shop," she says. "I'm always curious to see how people are integrating technology into their lives and how they're hacking things together to best suit their needs — and it's a constant mantra with those I interact with in digital product development."

In her personal life, technology connects Gonzalez to elements of her home, her communication devices, and even her dog. She admits, she couldn't do what she does without synced alerts pushing notifications to her Apple Watch and smart phone.
 
"For me though, the use of technology is partially because I'm curious about new things as they come out, especially if the utility isn't immediately clear to me," Gonzalez says. "And the minute I experience the value, it's amazing. That's the value of good design, when the thing integrates seamlessly into your life and solves a problem."
 
"I'm so invigorated when I see articles about how valuable design school grads are because of the discipline of curiosity," she says. "The first industrial revolution stamped out curiosity of the workers. Well, as we got better at making things more efficiently and scaling up, those that ask why become much more valued. Today, we're back in the business of challenging the status quo and enjoying the delights beautifully designed things can provide."
 
Of course, while the modern value of curiosity may differ from that of the 19th century, the ideals of hard work and dedication vary little. Gonzalez may have a hard time "clocking out," even when she's on vacation, but where some see work, Gonzalez is simply expanding her admiration of the world.
 
"The way I see it, if you're really passionate and doing what you love, you can't shut off curiosity," she says. "I gravitated to this industry because of the fast pace and evolution and frankly rapid maturity of how we leverage digital to stay connected and automate our lives. We're living in such an exciting time where technology can help us get back to the business of living — being human, and allowing us to focus on the amazing experiences life can provide."

Iteration

Moving design thinking from planning to prototype is more than just helped along by technology, it is technology. The ideas of design and technology intersect at every level, says Adam Weiler, Program Director for the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology.
 
"At its core, all material is technology," Weiler says. "Whether it's biological, organizational, digital, or beyond — and all intentional action is design. Their fusion is how we make our lives, our environments, our leisure, and livings. We shape our tools and our tools shape us. It happens everywhere, all the time."
 
The West Michigan community has especially rallied around the idea of design thinking, Weiler says, as it's helped many large local companies, including Amway, uncover latent needs and center their products around human needs and desires. But that discovery comes with some hard truths to face at the same time.
 
"Deeper understanding of behavioral economics and social sciences have helped companies make decisions, systems, and devices that stoke our appetites for dopamine, but at what cost? We celebrate commercial products and services that build dependence and addiction at the cost of connection, interdependence, and intimacy, but I don't know if that's true to the charge of being 'human centered,'" Weiler says. "We've inherited an operating system that pre-determines value, and if we want people to truly thrive, and not just cling to the empty promise of opportunity, we need to point design at the underlying system supporting it."
 
The key to this new mode of production is asking how to make tools, systems, and policies work for people, instead of the other way around, Weiler says.
 
"The role I hope human centered design can play is one that extends beyond a product's creation to the broader question of whether the category should exist at all," he says.
 
That paradox is not lost on Gonzalez, or Amway, either. As contrary as it seems, the physical process of creating a product can actually obscure its usefulness, Gonzalez says. When ideas become manifest in the physical realm, it gets easier to fixate on a single element of the design as its purpose. Form follows function, of course, but if that function isn’t useful to the user, neither is the product.
 
"The unfortunate truth is that assumptions are largely based on context and very rarely will the person who is creating the 'thing' share the exact same context as the true end user," Gonzalez says. "So you might come to find out when you release that product or feature that you misinterpreted what you thought the user wanted. This isn't intentional, but since the designer or developer's view or use case may be different from the true end user, the context and therefore the assumption is wrong."
 
Design thinking, when paired with agile development, Gonzalez says, helps avoid the pitfalls of such constraining points of view. An ever-improving circuit of formulation and hypothesis testing with the end user in mind, in this case, Amway distributors, leads to mutually beneficial product design.
 
With technical support from partners like the Grand Rapids-based Open Systems Technologies, Amway has been able to focus on delivering value and simplicity to its distributors as they grow their businesses. It's in this area that Gonzalez has become an evangelist of agile design thinking and methodologies.
 
"In my somewhat oversimplified opinion, most things have been invented," she says. "Very rarely do companies have the luxury of owning 'new technology,' and even if you do, that ownership will be short lived since your competitor will likely knock it off. So one of the best ways a company or product can differentiate itself is through experience that is thoughtfully designed and curated."
 
Roth, Amway's Business Innovation Specialist, maintains we live in a world driven by technology and digital platforms, but as humans our reality lies in the tactile. Effective solutions need to take both elements into consideration.
Alicia Roth"It is no longer tech for the sake of tech—to be better, faster or have more apps—it is about the user's needs and then how technology can deliver a solution," Roth says. "Technology is being integrated across the full user experience."
 
Often times, the most thoughtfully designed experiences can be those that blur the lines between nature and device. Ambient technologies that integrate seamlessly into our daily lives can create value out of literal thin air. Gonzalez says Dyson products have led the way in empathetic design for years, taking a utilitarian concept and modeling it around how the user wants to interact with a product.
 
“Things don’t need to be ugly to be efficient,” she says. “Human centered design is all around finding the little bits of delight that the user didn’t know they needed.”
 
The popular messaging app WeChat has a feature that lets users send voice messages to someone. Based on the orientation of the phone to the user’s ear, the messages can either be played over the device’s louder speakers or through the earpiece.
 
It’s so intuitive and you don’t have to do anything on your end to make the adjustment,” Gonzalez says. “That is the beauty of human centered design — understanding how humans want to interact with something and then designing to it. After all, I am only human and if I can avoid having to re-program my current work flow, I will almost always chose that option over a 'shinier' one. Utility can actually be one of the sexiest parts of good design."

Education

It's Roth's responsibility to scale design thinking to a robust systems approach, forming business models and teaching design within Amway. With a background in advertising within the nonprofit sector, she initially had no formal training in design before coming to Amway in 2010. At the same time, a sea change in the field of research and development was valuing new approaches to the way things were designed.
 
"It's not about making something and pushing it out into the world but talking to our customers and designing something around them instead," Roth says. "People were beginning to talk to users and understand more about what their fears and challenges and wants were, so they could affect behavior to sell something, whether it's a service or product, or experience. I did not like having to change someone's behavior to use a product or service. But I really wanted to stay on that front end, flip it around and find out what people need, and design something around that."
 
Sharing this mode of thinking with the rest of Amway, from Gonzalez's cohort, to marketing teams, customer service channels, and even the legal department, will help create "new value in new ways," Roth says. A looped system of empathetic investigation, discovery, prototyping and testing in place for products, services, technology and experiences can connect both the digital and physical worlds in a feature that puts essential needs first.
 
"This is what makes a company matter when they connect with the human side of their business," Roth says "People’s real needs and challenges are what drive company direction, instead [of] only financials and bottom lines. These are crucial, of course, but decisions based only on business needs fall short when disruption and competition come knocking. Our world is complex and cluttered; design thinking unearths the challenges and opportunities that are meaningful to people so instead of creating just the next cool thing, we can create something that matters."
 
There's value in pointing design at more than just product design, too. Weiler is optimistic that design thinking can be pointed at cultural operating systems to the same beneficial effect
 
"We're being backed into this corner as we bump into the limits of what our physical world can produce/ sustain and really start to feel the effects of automation on the rhythms and relationships," he says. "We're being forced to address new deeper systemic challenges, and that's a good thing. The design of policy, governance, geographies, and systems play a vital role in making the world a more equitable place — I'd love to see environments emerge where entire communities can imagine, prototype, and test cultures that help humans thrive. "
 
Foundational growth requires a balance between elements with a probability for success—people working toward planned goals—and those with their eyes on the future, looking at what could be and what should be, Roth says. Gonzalez lights up the second of those constellations at Amway, and her star continues to rise as she advocates for a more human emphasis to design.
 
"I gravitated to this industry because of the fast pace and evolution and frankly rapid maturity of how we leverage digital to stay connected and automate our lives," Gonzalez says. "We're living in such an exciting time where technology can help us get back to the business of living — being human, and allowing us to focus on the amazing experiences life can provide." 

This is the second article in a 12-part series highlighting the technological innovators and drivers in West Michigan. To see the first article, please go here. With this series, Rapid Growth will delve into the question: What are businesses and organizations doing to leverage technological advances to create an impact within our region, and what are the stories behind these agents of sweeping change in our society? This series is funded by Open Systems Technologies (OST), a Grand Rapids-based information technology leader that is delivering enterprise level solutions around the globe.
 
Matthew Russell, the editor of this series, is a writer, baker, inventor and mapmaker living in Grand Rapids. He enjoys bicycling and playing with his daughter as much as possible. You can email him at m.s.russell@gmail.com, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Photography by Autumn Johnson from Adam Bird Photographer.
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