Lessons learned from Yoky Matsuoka’s HowTo Keynote: How To Design Scalable Products People Love.

By Betsy Mikel (Editor, Women 2.0)

From tennis player to neuroscientist to VP at one of the world’s most innovative Internet of Things brands, Yoky Matsuoka’s path has never been dull.

In her opening keynote at our HowTo Conference, “How Design Scalable Products People Love,” Yoky started by sharing with the audience the path that led her to her current role as the VP of Technology at Nest, which was acquired by Google earlier this year.

How To: Find What You Love to Do

Even though she started in an unlikely place for a technologist — Yoky was a collegiate tennis player planning to go pro — she has always stuck to one mantra: Every day, work on something you’re passionate about that can help people.

Struggling with injury after injury, she realized her dream of becoming a professional athlete was no longer a reality. So Yoky began to think about how she could combine her love of math and science with the sport she loved. Her first goal was to create a robot that could help her practice tennis. As she began to explore neuroscience, she realized the huge potential for her work to make a difference.

“I learned a lot of people in the world have neurological disorders,” she said during her keynote presentation. “I knew I could do something for so many people, but the field wasn’t quite ready.”

As she began to explore the field of neuroscience, Yoky began to think about how robots could help improve the recovery of people who had suffered a stroke. She developed a robot that could decode brain information through touch, helping tailor the rehabilitation of each patient according to how their bodies responded to particular treatments. In her work with stroke rehabilitation, she noticed something interesting: “We learned if they do too much on the robot, they don’t learn enough. But also if they do too little, they don’t learn enough.” In other words, for rehab to truly work, both the humans and robots had to work together.

How To: Build a Tech Product People Will Love

Yoky arrived at Nest via one one of the founders, Matt Rogers, who was also one of her former students. “I like to start with a really big problem,” said Yoky. “And so does Nest.”

These were the big problems Nest was trying to solve with their products:

Problem: About 50 percent of the energy in homes is spent on heating and cooling.

Solution: Create a better thermostat that could reduce energy consumption.

Problem: In 3 out of 5 of deaths that occurred in homes, there was not a working smoke alarm.

Solution: Create a better, more effective smoke alarm that people will actually use.

But solving those problems wasn’t all that Nest needed to do. Yoky highlighted three key points that Nest — or any other company bringing problem-solving solutions to market — needed to remember in developing their products:

  • People have to want products: You have to build a product that is beautiful and solves people’s pain points.
  • People have to be comfortable using those products.
  • People have to understand how those products are making their lives better.

Yoky’s team at Nest has tasked themselves with buidling life-changing technology, and she claims the reason they are so successful is because their products have a build-in human element.

“We build technology for everyday life. People can’t help but buy our products because they’re beautiful and enrich your life,” she said. She describes Nest products as “beautiful on the outside, all the geeky stuff, stuffed inside.”

For example, early on the Nest team learned that people didn’t want a thermostat that controlled itself. They wanted to have control over the temperature so they could adjust it to their own preferences. So Nest doesn’t control the temperature of your home. Instead, it learns and adjusts depending on how you control it. “Machines and humans can work together to achieve your goals,” Yoky said.

“Achieving a relationship between machine and human learning is really understanding what it means to reach that balance,” she reminded us.

How To: Be a Mom of Four AND a Tech VP at Google

Yoky kicked off her keynote by sharing an important detail about her personal life: She has four children under the age of nine.

“Because I have all these kids I would rather spend time with, when I go to work I make sure I am solving a big problem that will actually make people’s live better,” Yoky said. “When I’m at work, I make sure that I am making every minute count.”

Every day she asks herself: Am I solving the right problem today? Is what I’m working on matters?

Sometimes you chose a job because it pays good money, because it’s comfortable or because the schedule fits well with yours. Yoky challenged the audience to think beyond those excuses. “I have to feel like what I am working on will still be something that I am passionate about in two years,” she said.

“We all have one life to live. I really ask myself: I am the only person I feel can make this contribution? If I feel like my effect is not what I really want to do, I don’t have a good enough reason to leave my kids every day.”

Remember you can drop by Innovation Hall free on Day 2!

*photo by Elvina Beck.