<title-serif>Product leader Zoë Björnson on treating users as individuals<title-serif><title-sans> to achieve growth<title-sans>
The Head of Product at micro-coaching app Liminal invited us into her zen home office to talk about why her app doesn't have “users,” the effect of experimenting on a product, and how being in a state of transition can still mean making progress.
Picture by Jarrod Tredway
“I'm so in love with learning about people,” Zoë says as we talk about the parallels between research loops and life at large. “Whether it's someone’s astrological sign or their Myers-Briggs Type, I love the science and artistry that comes with understanding people and helping them be a better version of themselves.”
A self-described stereotypical Pisces who’s often stuck in her feelings (“I sometimes have more empathy than I know what to do with!”), it’s little wonder that Zoë found her place at Liminal, an app that helps people get unstuck by connecting them with micro-coaching. Liminality, by definition, refers to both beginnings and in-betweens, which is fitting because just as the journey of personal growth is an ongoing one, so it is with the company’s growth. Amidst a series of pivots, Liminal hasn’t always been the app it is now, but Zoë has shepherded each iteration with the same product philosophy — one that puts people at the center and treats them as individuals.
“A small way that product leaders can humanize the people that we’re building for is to remind ourselves that they are people,” Zoë says simply. “They're not robots — they have a part to play in what we're creating.” In that spirit, Zoë chooses her words carefully: “Liminalists,” she says, are people who use the app, and she’s careful to sidestep the more commonplace “users,” explaining, “Calling someone a ‘user’ can cause you to think about them like they’re just a thing or a number.” She pauses. “It might seem like a semantics game, but sometimes it’s those small changes that get someone to think, ‘Oh yeah, I’m building this for an actual person.’”
Embracing the liminal
The beginnings of Zoë’s product philosophy trace back to her time at Beyond, where she served as a technical project manager. She credits the time with preparing her for life at a startup — managing stakeholders, multiple initiatives, and teams of people on any given day — but over time, she found herself wanting something different. “I would be in the room for every brainstorm and meeting at Beyond,” she recalls, “but what I ultimately wanted was to really be in those conversations instead of just managing them.”
Ready for a change, but not quite sure how to make it, Zoë set about on a whirlwind of a journey that became more of a soul search than a career search. She left two jobs in 2019, and left her home in New York City, too. She traveled for a little bit, but, “That didn't make me feel better,” she laughs now. “I just felt like I was searching for a part of myself, and I didn't really know where to look for it or what to do next.” Unemployed in the midst of a global pandemic, Zoë found herself, unironically, in one of the most liminal moments of her life.
It was in therapy that she came to embrace the transitional time. “There was a single moment when I just committed to myself to try to figure things out — to use the time I had to experiment and figure out what would make me happy.” Using habit tracking, Zoë started to try things she had long been curious about: She meditated. She took a UX design course. She started breathwork, a practice she does to this day to keep herself centered.
“I’ve learned that inaction is also action. If you want to get unstuck, you have to move and shift and try new things,” Zoë says. “I think the same philosophy can be applied to products, especially in the startup space. If you have a curiosity about where the product could go, that’s a hypothesis that can power potential experiments." Zoë smiles. “My life is basically an experiment these days, my work involves experimenting — I’m just always trying things!”
Closing the loop of action
For as many things as Zoë has tried, she’s become increasingly intentional about “closing the loop of action” — a phrase from a life coach that gave her a new perspective on what completing something means. “If you're curious about something, commit to it until you're ‘done.’ That doesn't always have to mean success or failure, but it always means progress,” Zoë says. Just as Agile product teams set a definition of ‘done’ before they start a Sprint, “‘Done’ doesn't have to mean something finite,” Zoë offers. A product that people actively use is always a work in progress.
“For where we are in our growth, the next step at Liminal is rarely clear. But we do have to make the choice to close the loop and either stop investing in a feature or follow a thread and continue with an idea,” Zoë explains. “The art of confidently closing the loop is an important skill to consistently come back to and evolve.”
One way Zoë builds confidence in her product decisions is with data, but not solely the quantitative kind. Again, she reminds herself of the people on the other end of the screen. “Through the years, I’ve become more cozy with analytics platforms that allow me to get into the data and try to understand what's happening — what are our community members doing and what's resonating for them,” Zoë says, “But I try to balance that with customer research — with talking to people and simply asking them what they're liking.”
As an introvert who needs her alone time, days of interviews can be tiring, but for Zoë, it’s a part of what it takes to strike a balance between reading reports and getting a read on people. “I believe that building a great product is a combination of knowing the data inside and out, and also having a strong intuition about what you should do next.” That comes from getting to know the people who use your app, Zoë says. “You really can’t be successful in the product space without holding those two things as equal.”
“I believe that building a great product is a combination of knowing the data inside and out, and also having a strong intuition about what you should do next.”
<quote-author>Zoë Björnson<quote-author><quote-author-title>Head of Product at Liminal<quote-author-title>
Making space for creativity
For all her talk about confidence and intuition, Zoë is equally confident saying that she doesn’t have all the answers. She’ll tell you when she doesn’t know something, ask for time to go away to research, or else just free associate and think. But sometimes her work isn’t about solving problems as much as it is creating new opportunities.
“I had an amazing coach, Levina Li, tell me that leadership is ‘creating opportunities for others,’ but that creativity is ‘making opportunities for yourself.’ That has really stuck with me over the years as I continue to try to find the space for professional creative endeavors,” Zoë reflects. Looking around her home office, there is evidence of a kind of creativity that you might not expect from someone in her role — piles of figure drawings, journal entries, and photos live amongst habit trackers and notes to self — and that manifests in her product work.
“What we’re trying to build at Liminal is an app where dreaminess meets tangible goals — the push and pull between the two, I think, is how we all find progress,” Zoë tells me. “Certainly, the interplay of those two sides of myself has made this phase of my product journey and my career feel that much more natural.”
Tapping into her creative side also reminds Zoë that people are nuanced, individual, and idiosyncratic — that the products we use don’t need to be perfect as much as they need to be personal. Her own growth is reflected in the company’s, and vice versa. Because “when it comes to personal development, there's not a finish line. There's not really even a start. You’re kind of just thrown into it whenever you get into the world,” Zoë says. “We're creating a home with Liminal where you can embrace that and be less alone in it.”
As our conversation ends, I’m struck by how much of Zoë’s outlook is built on balance — between the quantitative and the qualitative, between alone time and time spent with people, between data and intuition. I leave her home feeling like it’s proof that people can grow to embrace all the facets of themselves. And that even a period of growth is still a period of transition.