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One Tech Company’s Revolutionary Idea: Design For Mothers First

To develop a high-tech breast pump for the startup Willow, Ideo interviewed dozens of mothers–and uncovered key insights into a problem that the design and technology communities have largely ignored.

When my son, Dashiell, was born a few years ago, I had every intention of breastfeeding him. And I’d say we both put in a solid effort: He latched straight out of the proverbial gate. But his first weigh-in at the pediatrician’s office revealed that we weren’t as successful at the whole breastfeeding thing as I’d thought or hoped: Rather than being on his way to growing endearing rolls of baby fat, Dashiell was getting thinner. Distraught and profoundly sleep-deprived, I cried as the doctor handed me some formula samples and a list of lactation consultants.

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Dashiell and I didn’t fare any better in breastfeeding class. The lactation expert placed him on a scale after each breastfeeding attempt and solemnly return him to me with the bad news that his weight was unchanged; he wasn’t extracting enough milk. She inspected his frenulum, the strip of skin connecting the underside of his tongue to the floor of his mouth, and recommended that I have it snipped. He didn’t look drastically “tongue-tied” to me, so I opted to leave his frenulum intact. Instead, I ordered my partner to run out and buy a pricey breast pump–the Medela Pump in Style that the lactation specialist suggested–and set about increasing my milk supply like it was my new job in life. For more months than I care to remember, I exclusively pumped, attaching myself to a machine whenever it was time for Dashiell to be fed, which for the first two months, was every couple of hours. While my partner gave our baby a bottle in the living room, I pumped in the bedroom with the door closed–cut off from the bonding rewards of physically nourishing my baby.

[Photo: courtesy Willow]
That’s the paradox women who pump share: Instead of spending time with their babies, families, friends, or coworkers, they have to stop whatever they’re doing to shut themselves in a room, tethered to a wall and with a set of bottles dangling from their chests. “Moms have to step out of life to pump,” says Naomi Kelman, CEO of Mountain View, Calif.-based Willow. Her startup’s solution is a pair of lightweight, battery-powered pumps, also called Willow, that promise to restore women’s mobility and bring them into the wireless 21st century.

Designed with the help of Ideo, each bra cup-shaped device discreetly slips into a nursing bra–no undressing required–and holds a 4-ounce, BPA-free storage bag. With one overnight charge, the pump can last up to five sessions. (A light on the device glows when power runs low.) Willow is now in beta and costs $479.99. For comparison, a typical plug-in-the-wall double-breast pump sells for under $300.

As part of the design process, Ideo interviewed dozens of mothers about pumping and observed their routines–where and how they pump, as well as how they store their milk and clean their equipment–to identify common pain points. “We really wanted to create an experience that is designed around mothers first, not around the pump as a functional object,” says Ideo’s executive program director Annetta Papadopoulos. An oft-repeated complaint among her subjects: An electric pump requires many small parts, such as valve membranes, that often get lost or forgotten at home. Tracking the pieces was also a problem for the supportive partners and other family members who help out by cleaning the pieces after a pumping session. “They often didn’t know which parts come apart, which were supposed to be cleaned, and certainly not how the pump was supposed to go back together,” Papadopoulos says. “It really drove home the importance of making the device as intuitive and simple as possible.” Willow has only two parts: the flange and the Flextube, which carries milk from the breast to the bag. Both are dishwashable.

[Photo: courtesy Willow]
Another one of Willow’s innovations is a leak-proof bag. Since there are no dangling bottles, the Ideo team and Willow engineers had to figure out how to capture the milk inside the diminutive pump. That required carefully arranging the parts inside the cup to make it easy to drop a bag in and take it out, along with an ingenious valve system that prevents the loss of any “liquid gold.” “This is a bag that you can take out, turn upside down, and shake without anything coming out,” says Kristy Burns, Willow’s head of marketing. “It’s almost like a magic act for moms.” The bag can be stored in the fridge or freezer, or cut at the top with scissors for transferring the milk into a bottle. (A pack of 24 disposable bags costs $11.99.)

Like a modern-day wearable, Willow is also “smart”: Through an iPhone app (an Android version is in the works), mothers can track milk expression, compare data across pumping sessions, order additional bags, and set timers and alerts. “We’re delivering a lot of information to mom in videos, in texts, in ways that will help her to be successful,” Kelman, a former Johnson & Johnson executive, says. “We recognize that mom is busy, and this is how she wants to learn.”

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[Photo: courtesy Willow]
Interestingly, although everyone I spoke with on the Willow team is a woman, the company’s two cofounders are male engineers who have decided to keep a low profile. “Our founders have a deep-rooted philosophy that it’s all about the team,” Burns says. “They’ve built a team of mission-driven young mothers and fathers and let that group be the voice of Willow.”

In addition to reengineering the pump, Ideo and Willow wanted to overhaul its aesthetics, creating something that looks more like a modern, feminine personal-care item than a purely functional milk-delivery system for babies. The exterior of each frost-white cup, for instance, features a control pad in a soft teal–a preferred color among the women interviewed–and a texture “like a fine corduroy or linen,” Kelman says, “because we wanted to make something incredibly beautiful for moms to look at.”

But ultimately, the team’s goal is to allow women to provide for their babies without pausing everything else–or choose between breastfeeding and work. Only 10% of breastfeeding mothers employed full-time continue breastfeeding for six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We really want to support moms in establishing whatever goals they set for themselves,” Kelman says, and “not miss out on life.”

About the author

A former editor at such publications as WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Fast Company, Belinda Lanks has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer, Interior Design, and ARTnews.

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