The prevalence of vaping continues to increase among young people. What factors shape the behaviors students develop around vaping?

The rising popularity of vaping among young people has caused widespread concern, with the FDA going so far as to call it an “epidemic.” We set out to investigate this habit among our peers in a quarter-long course about the role of research in the design process. We synthesized data from interviews with users and experts, collected secondary sources, and developed key insights. The course concluded with a critical design project informed by our findings.

Katie Hawkins
Netty Lim

Primary Research
Secondary Research
Fall 2018
8 Weeks

1 The Vaping Epidemic

E-cigarettes are devices that aerosolize a liquid containing nicotine and flavorants for users to inhale (vape). They come in all shapes and sizes. The use of e-cigs among those aged 14-24 has skyrocketed in recent years, raising alarms among parents, teachers, and public health officials.

By far the most popular brand of e-cigarettes in the US is JUUL, which controls nearly three quarters of the market. A cursory examination of our target group of participants — college students — convinced us that we should focus on this device exclusively.

JUUL is incredibly popular among young people, a fact that has garnered the company intense scrutiny. Critics say that aggressive youth-centric marketing and appealing flavors were used to entice youth. JUUL has since toned down its ads and stopped selling most flavors, but this does not seem to have stemmed its growing popularity—“juuling” has entered the lexicon of every person under the age of 30.

Another reason JUUL makes a compelling case study is the fact that it was founded by two Stanford design graduates. As their device gets a new generation hooked on nicotine, it presents a valuable case study on the power of design—and its ethical dimensions.

An additional aspect of the JUUL phenomenon that caught our attention was the proliferation of JUUL memes on young people’s social media. The rise of JUUL coincides with the coming of age of a generation that was exposed to social media from the start; this has led to the development of a fascinating online culture. Is this a symptom or a cause of the device’s popularity?

2 Research Methods
   and Outcomes

What factors influence a college student’s disposition towards JUUL use? How does juuling impact a typical student? What behavioral patterns develop around vaping?

Student Interviews
Our study included 5 college students who vape regularly and one non-vaper. We asked the students to participate in:
︎30 minute interview
︎Personal inventory
︎Behavioral mapping
︎Love/breakup letter to their JUUL

Expert Interview
We interviewed the Director of the UW Tobacco Studies Program about the issue of youth vaping

Secondary Research
We conducted a review of vaping trends and health effects in scholarly literature and the popular press.

View our study guide
View our annotated bibliography

Social circles determine patterns of JUUL use
Through both friend groups and social media, a student’s network of friends and acquaintances defines whether they vape and how often then do so

The juuling experience establishes a positive feedback loop
The device’s design, high dosage of nicotine, use as a “social crutch,” and positive comparison to cigarettes all contribute to greater attachment

Stigma prevents conversations about increased use
There is a marked dissonance between many users’ refusal to call themselves ‘addicted’ and their behaviors around vaping

Users see no reason to stop vaping
Health effects might induce users to stop vaping, but the lack of long-term studies on the effects of vaping allows for an attitude of nonchalance towards possible health risks

Trends point to increasing usage
The prevalence of vaping among our study’s cohort and the easy accessibility of vaping products makes a decline in use unlikely to happen on its own

View our research presentation

The final step in our research process was to synthesize our findings into a set of actionable design principles:

Consider the social
Account for the network effects that drive adoption of vaping

Avoid stigma
Shame and judgment are ineffective when it comes to changing behaviors

Be encouraging
Authoritative measures can backfire; leave those to the FDA

Tell all sides
Acknowledge that there are both pros and cons to vaping


Designing a Response

The culmination of this project was a two-week design sprint that allowed us to formulate a response to our problem space. We were encouraged to approach this process through a critical lens, using design to raise questions rather than provide solutions.

Cloak is a JUUL sleeve that senses its environment and reacts as it is used. It develops an attachment to the user and gradually begins to advocate for itself, asking that it be used. By introducing friction into the user experience, we aim to prompt reflection on juuling habits and the presence addiction.

We presented our participants with the Cloak prototype and our video and received the following feedback:

︎The new shape detracts from the user experience
︎Unclear connection between attachment and response
︎There is no clear reason for someone to use Cloak

Final Concept

JUUL X is a next-generation e-cig that promotes social connection among users. Giving the JUUL X access to location services and social media accounts via smartphone allows it to create a real-time map of the friend networks or users, notifying them when friends are juuling. Using a directional indicator, JUUL X leads users to their friends and provides a stronger hit when juuling in the proximity of others.

Our concept interrogates the idea of agency in the digital era by drawing a connection between the compulsions of chemical dependence and the behaviors brought about by the constant surveillance of social media.

View our final poster


The rigorous research undertaken as part of this project gave me an increased appreciation for the value of research in framing any design response. All too often, designer search for solutions without an adequate grasp of the complexities within their problem space.