Employees at North, the company behind the augmented reality Focals glasses, warned their CEO that the glasses weren’t ready to ship two months before the January 2019 launch. In an eight-page letter obtained by The Logic, employees portrayed the company as focused on rushing the glasses out the door while sacrificing functionality and general appeal.
The letter says the glasses, which originally cost $999, would seem to most users to be worth only $50 or $100. The Logic says a “significant” number of employees across teams contributed to the letter, which Mélodie Vidal, North product research lead, presented to CEO Stephen Lake, who shared the outlook with fellow company executives.
The letter, which The Logic did not publish but did quote extensively, outlined issues the user development teams encountered when researching various user groups and their experiences with the product, specifically women and people with disabilities.
“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,” the letter states. “We have seen reports that our display does not work well for women wearing mascara, which is common for professional women to wear.” It then suggests that by not appealing to women, the product is skewed toward a “technical, male population.”
In addition to concerns over women using the glasses, the team worried about people with disabilities not being able to use Focals properly. “We are launching sizing without the ability to accommodate handicapped individuals,” the letter says. “This is a known problem that will have serious legal implications (as well as long term tarnishing of brand perception).”
More broadly, the letter suggests North didn’t spend time on user reports or care to take internal users’ concerns seriously. A test room with a one-way mirror to monitor people’s reactions was often used for storage, the letter says.
“User research is often an afterthought at Thalmic [the prior name of North],” the letter says. “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.”
In a statement to The Verge, North said it operates in a “flat leadership structure” to encourage feedback. It went on to say: “Product changes happen very fast in an innovative space like ours. During our process we rely on feedback and constant iteration before we ship a product into the marketplace. The internal Google feedback document referenced by The Logic was written six months before the company was shipping Focals and has no relevance to what customers received.”
The company says it’s improved the sizing process to account for people with longer eyelashes. Still, the glasses clearly weren’t the perfect iteration of the form, given that the company ceased selling its first-generation glasses after only a year to work on releasing a second-generation pair in 2020. The lackluster reception to the first-generation Focals also involved slashing the price from $999 to $600 and laying off 150 employees. The layoffs led North to lose $24 million in investment from the Canadian government.