WW, formerly Weight Watchers, launches new voice app

On the heels of its rebranding and digital transformation, the 55-year-old company is launching a new voice app called Wellow to forge deeper customer relationships.

WW, formerly Weight Watchers, transforms into a "technology experience company" Nic Chikhani, VP of Product Management at WW, shares how the 55-year-old company is using insights from customer data and new tools like a voice app to deepen its relationship with customers.

While you may not yet heard of WW, you definitely know the company -- it's the newly-rebranded Weight Watchers. The 55-year-old company rebranded last year with a new focus not just on weight loss but overall health and wellness. To complement its new, more comprehensive mission promoting wellness, WW has been updating its digital experience. Last week, it officially launched a new voice app called Wellow.

Nic Chikhani, VP of Product Management at WW, spoke to ZDNet about what it hopes to accomplish with Wellow and its larger digital transformation.

Here are some highlights of the conversation:

Creating deeper customer connections

Wellow, which was built with voice search capabilities from Algolia, is now available on Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa-enabled devices.

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"On this new voice app called Wellow, what we tried to do here is leverage some of the insights that we have that were backed by science -- in this case, we know that tracking is a great healthy habit, but it's difficult to maintain over time," Chikhani said. "So with this particular innovation, we're making it easier for members to stick with this healthy habit." 

"We're definitely trying to deepen our relationships with all of our members," he continued. "Right now we're starting with tracking and searching for food, and even getting some program information like how many points I have left and things like that. But we want to get more and more personalized and get those relationships to a deeper level of meaning so that we can get our members to be even more successful over time."

Lessons from the beta release

"We wouldn't be launching at this scale this week if we didn't have strong, positive feedback from our beta release," Chikhani said. "we did a soft launch with the Google Assistant for a few months and definitely learned a lot from it. For example, we've learned different ways of saying the same thing. You have different ways of saying skim milk, or fat free milk, or 1 percent milk -- all these things mean the same thing at the end of the day for our members. And now that we have launched at scale, with more data we're going to learn more about how our members want to talk to these voice interfaces and the platform will get better over time."

The next challenge: Expanding internationally

"We know that smart speakers are not all available everywhere, and we know there are limitations to speech-to-text recognition on certain platforms," Chikhani said. While virtual assistants are still learning different languages and dialects, "over time is going to become a commodity," he said.

"But then we have to marry that with the complexity of our own global food database because we're very proud of having probably the best food database in the world. But now the best food database in the world doesn't just mean you have nutrition about everything. It also means, I know all the ways that people are going to refer to things in your database. So that's what we want to keep learning and be the best at as well."

Using data analytics to inform new initiatives

"Data analytics and data science play a crucial role into our transformation and our future," Chikhani said. "So for example... last year we unveiled a Freestyle [wellness and weight loss] program which was our most successful one to date. We wouldn't be releasing a new program to our members if it hadn't been validated."

Applying data-driven lessons to all parts of the business

"What we've been doing recently is transforming how our customer service and coaching tools operate because at the end of the day we are also member facing directly," Chikhani said. In addition to updating its digital tools, WW is revamping its physical studio spaces. "We also announced that our B2B business health solutions is going through a similar level of transformation," Chikhani said.  "So what I would say is, yes we're going to try to expand our digital presence but not only that, we really believe in this omni-channel strategy for our future and we want to make sure that the lessons we've learned along the way now can apply to every vertical in the business."

Protecting personal data

"With an immense amount of data that's also very sensitive -- because it's about your health information -- comes an equal amount of responsibility. So yes, we have heavily invested in this as part of our tech transformation. I give a lot of credit to the tech teams there in making sure that all our data analytics efforts are structured in the right, safe and secure way because we're very protective of who gets to see that information, that it's anonymized the right way... I'm proud to also say that we don't share or sell that data to third parties."

Explaining changes to customers

"Back in 2015 we had less than six months to replace and redesign an entire website that used to be flash-based, a mobile app on iOS and Android that dated to the beginning of iOS in 2008, entire backing infrastructure and platform and introducing a new program," Chikhani said. "What's interesting as you go through a transformation like that, though, is we're not a new a company, we're an old company. So you have to do this in a thoughtful enough way so that you can transition and change managing millions of members as you're doing this transformation. So I think what we've learned is that, yes we can be agile, and yes we can be fast when executing a lot of great things, but the way we do it matters. The way we message it to our members matters."