Opportunities in the Vaporizer Market

tl;dr - I think there's an opportunity for an unconventional vaporizer product to fundamentally change the burgeoning market. The only possible snag is health effects and regulation. Also I'm not currently a nicotine user, but I am focusing on the market for new users as well as the personal electronic cigarette experience, rather than the experience of nicotine hitting your bloodstream.

UPDATE: I've also written more thoughts on vaporizer manufacturers marketing to teens in response to an article on Vox.com here.

Groundwork

Doing a cursory search for vaporizers (also known as electronic cigarettes) online, you can find a litany of sites, either selling them or with news about them. They've really grown as a market, and you can find inexpensive semi-disposable ones in most convenient stores.

However, most of the models that are available fall under two categories: cheap and fragile (which look like poor analogues for analog cigarette) or do-it-yourself (which provide a similar usage experience but are a bit bigger and more flexible in their specs).

There's an LED in the end which lights up when you take a drag, emulating a real cigarette. Skeuomorphism 101.

There's an LED in the end which lights up when you take a drag, emulating a real cigarette. Skeuomorphism 101.

This variety isn't necessarily bad, but I'm sure there are many disappointed customers (potential or otherwise) who couldn't figure out how to use or charge the product, or the product broke due to its cheap construction (and hence the cheap price). They also tend toward proprietary components (which isn't necessarily bad), which may be difficult to obtain if the companies that sell these things ever stop producing them. This becomes especially problematic with the consumable nicotine components.

This kind is refillable/rechargeable, and offers more flexibility than the skeuomorphic vaporizer.

This kind is refillable/rechargeable, and offers more flexibility than the skeuomorphic vaporizer.

This second kind is perhaps better, because it allows more flexibility in specifications and appearance, but I'd be willing to guess that most current users of nicotine don't care about that much, and most potential users don't either. Models of this style don't emulate the current experience of cigarette quite as closely, which in turn leaves an opening for other types of experiences with nicotine consumption.


The most significant part of the experience is also the most singular

As designers (I use that term loosely on myself), we focus on the relationships between users and their products. We look at not only the active experience of pressing buttons and navigating menus (or in this case, inhaling through an opening), but also how a device feels to a user in storage, how users relate to it when cleaning their product, and how they make it their own.

That's why we need to take care with addressing the continued action of refilling/replacing nicotine in vaporizers. The way I see it, there are two overall models with replacing nicotine: fluid and cartridges.

Nicotine fluid might be made available in nearly any quantity, which makes it good for taking an extra supply with you. Simply pour a bit into the reservoir, close the containers, and continue puffing away like the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.

Puff puff, metamorphosize.

Puff puff, metamorphosize.

Cartridges contain nicotine fluid, in a predesignated amount. Think ink cartridges, except hopefully cheaper and more universal. These are also nearly completely theoretical, at least according to my research. I call 12 minutes on Google and Duck Duck Go 'research' apparently.

The possible limitations that cartridges may have are the cost to manufacture them as well as using them with different models/manufacturers. I contest that if there's a manufacturer out there that can provide a high enough quality device and overall experience, it doesn't matter how proprietary the cartridges are. Another possible problem is disposal of the cartridges, but if most users are replacing cartridges less than once a day, there won't be too much build up.

The inherent problem with projecting a possible product like this is the overall cocktail napkin-y aspect. I can talk all I want about what would be the best experience for the user, what would be the most profitable, and how to work out the marketing, production lines, and technology issues that will occur; but until smarter people than I start talking about it and a blog I follow links to it, this is the best I can come up with.

That said, the most realistic and balanced method I can imagine is using some sort of cartridge system. There would have to be testing done to determine the average quantity that people are most likely to use, and possibly having a bit more nicotine per cartridge than that. The main challenge here would be to recycle the cartridges and not to simply throw them on the ground or in the garbage. I'm thinking that if they're about the size of 35mm film canisters, most customers may think twice about tossing them on the ground. Perhaps they can be made of biodegradable materials, depending on their complexity? Although that would potentially drive the price for the cartridges up. The onus will really be on the manufacturer and marketer of these devices, encouraging people to recycle them.

My analogy is already broken

The two main differences between this market/product type and most other small consumer hard goods (such as personal electronics) is their health effects (and related legislation) and the experience of refilling the nicotine supply.

In terms of health effects, the principal manufacturers of vaporizers remain either Chinese wholesalers or unestablished companies with a fly-by-night appearance. It could be my design-centric pretensions, but seeing the top search results for "vaporizers" on both Google and Duck Duck Go aren't very reassuring as to the quality of the products or their manufacturers' reputations.

Even less trustworthy, in my mind, than the quality of the hardware, is the quality of the nicotine consumable. That is, either the cartridges or the fluid sold for refilling these vaporizers may be made of unknown substances, which themselves come from unknown sources and are of unknown purity. This isn't the early days of tonics and elixirs sold by traveling snake oil salesmen, but their quality and safety is still up for debate. Any cursory search for articles on the health effects of these substances as well as their constituent chemicals illustrates this. That said, they're surely safer than smoking real cigarettes. While there's no denying that, my interest is primarily with new customers and the new experiences related to this market.

This leads to the question that's sort of hanging over the whole industry: what laws and ordinances are going to be made in the future regarding this new product? Surely there will be municipal and property rulings that limit them in certain public places in the near future as vaporizers become more widespread.

Those laws and ordinances will do much to potentially break the industry as a whole. It will mean the difference between many people either quitting/changing nicotine sources, or investing experience and money in this new device market. Further, new users who don't currently use nicotine may not want to even bother, if regulations severely limit the experience of using these devices.

The other part of this separation between vaporizers and other devices is that the principal component of them, nicotine, actually gets used up. You can 'recharge' this resource by either dripping liquid into the chamber or replacing cartridges containing the substance, depending on the model you own. This interaction doesn't directly map to any current reaction we have with most devices we own today, except perhaps recharging batteries. But if you had to recharge or replace the batteries on your smart phone two or more times every day, would you use it? What if it gave you a good little buzz that helped you focus and relax? How is that equation going to pan out in the mind of a potential user? How difficult is it to share that experience with people who have never tried it? Sure, you can let someone else hold your iPhone or smart-watch and mess with the interface or listen to your high fidelity headphones or try a few of the commands on your Google Glass, but are people going to want to share a mouthpiece with you? What if there's a flavor in there that most people don't like? Is that going to ruin their experience with these devices in general? How could the design of an vaporizer mitigate this possibility?

Vaporizer zen

In Zen Buddhism, as is my understanding, there's a sort of trope where things that are not zen get pointed out as such. Meditation is not zen, enlightenment is not zen, Buddhism is not zen, and on and on. It becomes an interesting exercise in reducing attachment to all these things (also, reducing attachment is not zen). You then begin to feel cynical at that simple word game, because giving a list of things that another thing is not, doesn't seem really that clever or insightful. But being clever and insightful isn't zen. Repeat.

The point is, it's easier to know what detracts from the possible vaporizer experience (or nearly any product experience), than to know what adds to it. Further, the things that may not appear to work on paper might actually work when they become realized in the right organization's hands. Once again I defer to people more intelligent and experienced than myself.

An vaporizer with these qualities, I imagine, would separate itself from its contemporaries and predecessors. What if you interacted with an vaporizer like you interact with a harmonica, or a hamburger? It might be light enough to use with one hand in this way. It's battery might be centered, with two cartridges on either side for prolonged use.

The mouthpiece could be depressed somewhat within the body, so if you drop it, you don't get dirt all over the mouthpiece. I'd imagine that might help to change the image of (this model of) vaporizers. Instead of a rough cylinder that has a drool-covered end; it's a sleek, vaguely kidney-shaped piece that appears slightly medicinal in a simple and clean sort of way. I would have to consult an electronic engineer to get some better details as to the exact size it would have to be. I'm imagining a smooth piece of plastic with a panel at the bottom in which to pour the atomization components and battery, as well as any sensors or chips that may help notify the user the battery and/or nicotine cartridge is low. The cartridge itself may attach to the end, or slide up and lock in like a revolver cylinder. I'm sure the similarity wouldn't be lost on most critics. Perhaps it could have a cubic shape, with the bottom shaped to sit flush with the rest of the vaporizer body.

Conclusion

These specifics will need to be hammered out in sketch form, and that will be another update on my site. But so far, I've got some good things to work with, as well as some interesting things to keep tabs on, in terms of vaporizer technology. As a final note, the only nicotine consumption device that I've seen that fits remotely to the experience I laid out above is the modelTwo by Ploom. The reason I didn't mention it before is that it still takes tobacco pods (not unlike how a Keurig machine takes coffee pods) and the reviews I saw of it actually in use didn't imply that the build quality was all that good. Also, it still emulates the analog cigarette experience in use with a kazoo-style body.

Feel free to contact me with any feedback or corrections. Thanks.

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