Foreword

As a UX professional, it’s my job to become intimately familiar with the user of the products that our company creates. I seek to understand, on a deep level, how a user approaches a product, what mindset they might be in, and what their interaction goals may be in the hopes of creating a great digital experience that is friendly and pleasing for everyone to use.   

When we began to work with cannabis-industry clients, I started to unpack some of the history of the marijuana plant. I have my own history with cannabis, but I wanted to understand more, and from a broader perspective. I had heard quite a bit about the good and bad of the cannabis plant and industry, from a few different (and often very passionate) sources.  

Some light research quickly turned up a mountain of information on government-sponsored mixed messages that have had a profound effect on the mindset of the American people, both for the cannabis users and the non-users. I believe this information would be helpful for anyone else that supports that cannabis industry and seeks a better understanding of how this mixed messaging can shape a user’s perspective.  

What is User Experience?

UX, or User Experience, is an up-and-coming discipline that has gained steady traction in the past few years. UX focuses on the overall experience of a person using a product (such as a website, a mobile app, or in this case, a cannabis product), aiming for an easy and pleasing interaction.  

UX affects every industry. It has always been important, but even more so now because of the highly connected, digitally-focused world that we live in. In 2017, the user speaks and the world responds. Competition is fierce. If a user doesn’t like something, they will just go somewhere else to find the experience they were looking for. Focusing on the UX of your product is one way to help prevent customer attrition and encourage brand loyalty.

How does UX apply to the cannabis industry?

In the quickly growing and constantly changing cannabis industry, where products are aplenty and dispensaries are popping up next door to one another, the importance of UX cannot be understated. Here is the WeedMaps view of dispensaries in Denver, Co - competition, much?  

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In addition to the company v. company competition, there is a high need - and a high visibility - on how well the cannabis user experience in pioneer states like CA and CO is developing. The rest of the country, and the government, are watching carefully. Great UX can help to create normalcy in an industry that has been persecuted and blacklisted time and again. To really understand today’s marijuana customer, we first have to understand the mindset that are in. To do that, let’s start by unpacking some of the baggage that many people feel around this plant, and why they might feel that way.

Tumultuous History of Cannabis and the Effect of Governmental Messaging

Over the course of human history, cannabis has had the most tumultuous past of any plant, and perhaps of any product.  As such, the UX has dramatically shifted for marijuana users over time. Though cannabis used to be widely legal, and widely known, enjoyed, celebrated for its medical and narcotic benefits, the story of cannabis in the United States is particularly torrid.

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In 1911, Massachusetts became the first state to criminalize cannabis, and by 1933, 29 states had followed suit. In 1936, the propaganda film Reefer Madness came out, which illustrated, with melodramatic sensationalism, the quick descent into madness and criminalism after trying marijuana for the first time.

In 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act was introduced, which prohibited the use of all cannabis at a federal level, and effectively criminalized the plant for the entire United States of America.

The message this sent to the American people was: Marijuana is bad, and you are a sex-crazed, insane, immoral, satanist criminal if you use it.

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When the USA was pulled into WW2, help suddenly became necessary to make straps, packs, rope, parachutes, and a laundry list of other war-related necessities. To counteract the recent marijuana is bad! messaging, the government-sponsored film “Hemp For Victory” was released to encourage the war effort. When peacetime came and the war ended, cannabis was promptly banned again.

In 1944, the LaGuardia Report was released that stated cannabis did not incite violence, insanity, or sex crimes, nor did it lead to addiction or other drug use. Despite this revolutionary information, marijuana maintained its illegal status. 

The message to the people gets even more muddied, saying something along the lines of: Even though there likely IS medical benefit, marijuana is still bad. And though we might NEED it (which would temporarily overrule the illegality of it) you still can’t do it, and you’ll still be prosecuted for it. Hmmmm.   

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Then the 60s happened. Cannabis became super cool with hippies and counter culturalists that were interested in mirroring exotic Indian culture, as well as the English and American rock stars that publicly promoted its use. If you were a part of the Swinging Sixties then you were probably hip to the cause of free love and peace, man.

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To counteract all that free love and peace, in 1971 President Nixon unleashed the War on Drugs - which blacklisted cannabis, and enforced the criminalization with dramatically bigger and better funded federal drug control agencies. Mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants were also introduced, and prison rates for marijuana drug arrests went through the roof.

The message to the people here was clear: Marijuana is a terrible, TERRIBLE thing, you are wrong if you don’t agree, and we are coming after you if you even think you can get away with it.

Legalization and the Business of Cannabis

The first steps of legalization were taken in 1996 when California legalized medical marijuana. Other states slowly began to follow suit, and with the recent results of the 2016 election, there are 26 states (plus Washington DC) with legalized medical marijuana.

In 2012 Colorado became the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana use, drastically changing the game - and opening up the market - for a much larger business model. Huge, in fact. It’s an industry that some analysts estimate could swell to $24 billion by 2025, with an addition of 30,000 domestic jobs by 2020.  There are currently 8 states in the USA that legally allow for recreational marijuana, and assuming the Trump administration leaves it alone, it is predicted to spread like wildfire. 

This means that many people who had been illegally using cannabis over the years have had a major change in their User Experience.  No longer do they go to their neighborhood drug dealer to purchase their marijuana. Now they enter a store that is full of products of every shape and variety. They used to purchase whatever was available, without any knowledge of what the product actually was or what it contained. Now it can almost be information overload. Indica, sativa, hybrid, THC, CBD, dab, shatter. Another game-changer is that for the first time, people now have the option to purchase low-dose strains and products, which change the feeling of the effects from “This shit will mess you up!” to “This will just even you out.” And there is way more going on than just the way the customer interacts with the dispensary.  

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In the digital realm, robust software systems have popped up (like MJFreeway) and creative/helpful apps are available (like Weedmaps and MassRoots). Manufacturing businesses have sprung up, that provide hardware like lighting, ventilation, trimmers, etc. Cultivation-focused companies now provide soil, nutrients and consulting on the best and most effective ways to run a grow operation. Real estate business is booming to help place dispensaries and cultivation operations in the right areas. Marketing/branding/creative services are available to help grow the businesses, and development services (like what Skylarq Digital offers) are available to make all of it run.

Another important piece of the marijuana mindset is that relatively recently - as of August 2016 - cannabis was re-classified as a Schedule 1 Drug. This means that, along with the likes of heroin and meth, cannabis has a high potential for abuse and no medical value. This is a very stark contrast to the laundry list of conditions that cannabis has been proven to help with. Groups like the The Impact Network have been founded to prove, with scientific medical research, that cannabis does, indeed, naturally help with a whole host of issues. The confusion caused by the improper drug schedule classification is self-evident.  It’s the worst, most addictive kind of drug with no medical value, yet research shows that it is proven to medically help so many conditions. Huh?  

Why is Marijuana Illegal?

Harry Anslinger

The simple (and very sad) truth is that the plant was blacklisted for two main reasons.

1. Harry Anslinger was wholly dedicated to keeping his job as the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the wake of the failed alcohol prohibition and he needed a new drug to target.

2. Basic economics. Cannabis offers a natural way to treat a whole host of medical conditions that pharmaceutical companies have been making billions from with manufactured drugs. Alcohol companies also had quite a bit to lose in the legalization of cannabis, so they helped to fund the anti-marijuana efforts.      

So with all of this history behind us, what can canna-businesses or cannabis industry supporters do to help enhance the UX of their products?

A focus on UX can help your canna-business:

  1. Become UX Conscious - Being aware of the UX of your product is the first step towards nailing it. Especially when it comes to the online experience, people are used to a certain caliber of quality and usability. You have to provide that level of experience for today’s consumers.  It’s table stakes.
  2. Be Aware of the Mindset  - As we have seen, there are many negative messages that have been thrown at the American people. Don’t underestimate the legacy head trash that they carry because of the history of cannabis. This affects different people in different ways.  A habitual user vs. a new user, vs. a curious/cautious first-timer. And if you don’t know who they are, ask them. We’ll be releasing a blog on Cannabis User Personas in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for more info.
  3. Evolve the Legacy Branding - The typical marijuana signs, symbols, and colors that have been used for decades are drastically due for an update.  Think of the Rastafarian/Jamaican colors, or vivid tie-dye.  Think of the literal symbol of the marijuana leaf, and more recently, the green cross.  It’s time that this legacy branding got an update.  We don’t see Nike using sneakers in its logo. Starbucks doesn’t feature the coffee bean over and over again. True, long-lasting loyalty has been shown to follow the brand, so making sure your brand is distinctive, and can stick out in a vast sea of green leaves. And if this means that you’ll need to redesign your brand or your website, so be it. 2017 is the best time to redesign your cannabis website anyway.
  4. Maintain a Digital Focus - In 2017, every cannabis company should see themselves as a digital company, at least in part. In order to nail the online user experience for your brand, you’ll need to keep in mind that people don’t just arrive at your website without some preconceived notion or in this case, some legacy head trash that might need to be addressed. Using proven User Experience methodologies will help you figure out who your user is and what they need to get from your website or digital product. Competition is everywhere and people know they have other choices. They will bounce out if they don’t easily find what they need. 

Focusing on UX will help elevate the entire cannabis industry

As the competition continues to grow, cannabis consumers are provided with choices galore. As brand owners, you need to provide the solid UX, both online and offline, that will keep your customers happy and loyal. On a macro scale, the rest of the country is also watching how well this new industry can innovate and assimilate. The legalization of cannabis in other states will depend on this, so there is little room for error. Great UX can help lead to better customer satisfaction, more profitable businesses, and wider-spread normalcy. If we all collectively focus on this, we will stand a much better chance of helping improve the reputation and acceptance of cannabis, once and for all, into mainstream American culture.