On paper, BALA is just a small team of footwear industry veterans– the kind of folks who know how to keep a runner running better, faster, longer. But in practice, we're thousands strong: to bring the perfect nursing shoe to life, BALA has been quietly collaborating with over 2,000 nurses throughout the United States for over two years. By merging footwear expertise with the expertise of nurses' lived experiences, we're able not only to understand what frustrations nurses have with their shoes, but also to design superior solutions for those frustrations. What's more: we can iterate on those solutions, by bringing nurses' feedback to the heart of every design choice, every upgrade and innovation. We call this process "co-creation."
Here on the BALA blog, we're excited to share more about what co-creation looks like. To kick things off, we're bringing you an interview with three BALA employees: Stephanie Taylor, Ella McMullin, and Chris Sataua. Read on to learn more about their work!
What is your role at BALA? What work does that role entail?
Stephanie Taylor: I'm the manager of Product Testing Operations. Part of that role is going out in the field to really understand the day-to-day life of a nurse and to listen to feedback from nurses on how to improve our products or fill gaps with new products. The other part is testing improvements on prototypes, and actually developing new products.
Ella McMullin: Community Outreach Coordinator. My priority is to establish and develop authentic, genuine relationships with nurses and invite them into a collaboration and a feedback process with BALA. [...] I get to know nurses, we don't even talk about shoes. I start by asking “how are you doing, on shift and off shift?” and that always translates into what they're passionate about, whether that's labor and delivery for the homeless population, or being an advocate-leader to their nurse unit, or work-life balance and being a mother while being a nurse.
Chris Sataua: My title is Vice President of Product and Merchandising, and I think what that title means is an evolving thing. [...] Similar to Ella's job of community outreach, I reach out to the community, but to find ways to create footwear solutions for their needs. So the Twelves are a great solution for nurses who work in a hospital, and it's our job to find new solutions, to ask nurses how shoes can help them during their shift, or pre-shift, or post-shift.
How do you collaborate with nurses in your role?
Stephanie: We have a product testing database, which hosts over 2,000 nurses across the United States. When we're looking at improving our product or developing a new product, we reach out to the nurses in our database to ask for insights, what their current frustrations are, and what they're looking for. We use that information to either create a new product or improve our product. And once we have a prototype of that product created, we send that out to nurses to test and share feedback with us.
Ella: Collaborating with nurses is my role! I'm responsible for bringing their feedback and voices to the team. And every single time I talk to a nurse one-on-one, they inspire me and give me a new idea. Some ideas that have come out of my one-on-ones are, like, doing a happy hour with nurses, or having nurses come by our headquarters in Portland. Well, now we're doing a pop-up event at our headquarters and inviting nurses.
Chris: I initially took the prototypes out and did the fit testing. And that was a close connection. And that's really the work we're building on with Ella's work.
There is an approach that farms out "consumer insights" to a team of folks who distill all of this information and this empathy into digestible bullet points for an organization. I think it's better for everyone on the team to do that work on their own and to have a real connection to the people that they serve. And at BALA that means talking to nurses. It's a vital part of the work we do.
I think the difference between a good shoe and a great shoe, and this applies to any product really, is your commitment to seeing the person you serve and having them be as close to the work as possible. So I'm continuously going back to the well, as it were, to make sure that we really are following all of the possible opportunities that there are to solve problems, and making sure that we are solving the problems. It adds a lot of time and adds a lot of cost to do that so it's an easy thing to cut out of the process when you just want to do an okay job.
How do you apply feedback from nurses to your work? Do you have any examples?
Stephanie: So during our most recent product testing session, for the new product we're launching in November, we had 150 nurses across the United States participating. We sent out surveys asking for candid feedback on the product– what features nurses liked and what features could be improved. We took all of this feedback– on the design, and on the fit and functionality– to make our product the best it could be for nurses. I'm so stoked for the launch.
Ella: Every day is an improvement. I'm so, so incredibly grateful for any ounce of time a nurse takes to talk to me. I know how precious the recharge of off-time is, and when a nurse gives me the opportunity to talk, I take every bit of their feedback so seriously. I have this whole list of nurses' ideas that I'm excited to bring to life.
Chris: Early in the pandemic I remember one nurse who I visited– she opened the garage door about two feet for me to slide the shoes under, then I went back to my car to video chat with her. And she had gloves on, and special socks, and had clearly prepared very well for the interview. She was clearly very meticulous, so I asked her what she did with her shoes after her shift. And she said, I just keep them in a bucket, just a Tupperware with a lid. So I asked her to show me the whole process of transferring her shoes into that Tupperware, and that was the inspiration for the ISO Bag. It's about giving nurses a solution so they don't have to come up with life hacks on their own.
*Interviews edited for clarity and concision.