Digital Service Innovation | Spring 2021
We are to develop a start-up company under the requirement that it be a digital service. Students will pitch their ideas at the end of the semester in an Innovation Showcase to potential investors. Teams are to conduct primary and secondary user research, as well as development to reach a final MVP.
Team: Jeremia Lo, Saloni Gandhi, Abhinav Sonker, Nutan Jaiswal
Role: User research, Product Opportunity/Contextual Research, Prototyping, Visual Design Branding, Animation, leading discussions and ensuring team is on track for deliverables and final showcase
Programs: Figma, After Effects
Timeline: 2 months
This startup project was one of the most enriching and rewarding (and challenging!) experiences I’ve had so far as a sophomore student, and I’m extremely proud of the team and our final service, Playground.
Because this was one of my first projects working with students outside of my School of Design class, I was quite nervous and wary at first — I had no experience working within interdisciplinary teams outside of design. However, it was really valuable and fun working with students of various disciplines, backgrounds, and ages, each contributing unique perspectives and skill sets — just like team dynamics in real-life client projects. In addition, I thought that this could be a great opportunity to take on the design lead position to leverage my design education while developing leadership, teamwork, communication, and organizational skills.
In the start of the project, I was so surprised when my startup idea got the most votes, and this definitely made me feel a lot more responsible to take on a leadership role to ensure that our idea would live up to its potential in the end. However, in the first few meetings, it felt like my teammates were working on “my” project when I had hoped that my initial idea would just be a jumping point. I expressed this concern to the team and that I really wanted to hear additional ideas throughout the semester so that maybe the final service wouldn’t even be remotely similar to my initial pitch. Reflecting back, our team’s communication definitely suffered a lot for the first few deliverables — I encountered a lot of breakdowns in communication with a few team members because of a disconnect in views, project goals, and workflow. Many of our initial meetings were unproductive and frustrating as we couldn’t pull together final deliverables on time because we would disagree on workflow and process (“let’s do things this way” “No, we should do it this way”). To resolve these issues I reached out to other team members individually to better understand how they were feeling, as well as reached out to the professor for additional guidance. I wanted to ensure that we resolved these issues early on in the project process so that it wouldn’t affect our productivity and the final quality of our service.
I also played a role in leading the design of our service, which included creating a playful and approachable brand image, developing a design system of illustrations, colors, and fonts, creating wireframes and mockups of the main screens, animating the concept video, and ensuring that the visuals of every deliverable slide deck was consistent with our branding. This was the most fun part for me as I could exercise my communications design skill set. However, I think I was spreading myself too thin with these responsibilities. As my teammates didn’t have as much experience working with animation or prototyping tools such as Figma, naturally I took on screen design and the concept video. However, because we pivoted the weekend before the final showcase, there were so many other elements to pull together as well — eg. Revising the Appendix, conducting additional third party research and interviews, etc. In one day, I conducted 9 interviews with children and parents who would be potential users of our service. I then had around two days to create the mockups and animation. During this last crunch, I was so grateful to my team members for taking over and working on the Appendix and slide deck and writing the concept video script and storyboard, especially Jeremia who helped me to complete my part of the slide deck as I scrambled to finish our animation.
It was so surreal when we got first place at the Innovation Showcase — we had pivoted just three days ago and slept two hours the night before preparing all the materials for our presentation. In retrospect, I feel that I could’ve been a better team leader in delegating and enforcing responsibilities, and establishing higher expectations for my teammates. I found myself hesitant to ask too much from teammates which would result in an imbalance of workload. I also should’ve been a better communicator in the initial stages of our startup. I found it a bit difficult at times to lead discussions over Zoom, as well as to confront my teammates of any issues.
I usually never take on the more leadership roles within group projects, so this was quite a new experience for me! Not only was I able to enhance my design and research skills, I learned so much about the processes and terminology behind creating a startup — how to identify a problem that is painful enough, and design a solution rooted in empathy, extensive first and secondary research, and customer feedback. In addition, one of my biggest takeaways was developing my presentation skills — I feel so much more confident crafting a concise yet intriguing and informative presentation, as well as convincingly responding to follow-up questions. Overall, this was such a fulfilling experience for me and I can definitely see myself taking these new skill sets to future projects.
Initial Startup Pitch
The initial startup pitch for Playground was that it would be a digital interface similar to a collaborative browser: participant videos aren’t confined to boxes, and instead move about with their cursor and can be resized and positioned anywhere about the workspace. Users have the ability to customize and create their workspace “playground,” and websites can be shared and browsed collaboratively with the insert of a link in your workspace (to avoid the restrictions of one large screen share). Instead of awkward team transitions between software (such as moving from Figma to Google Docs), users could consolidate all their assets (including images and other shared documents) in one collaborative space.
As a design student, I found it really difficult to stay engaged in class when so much of my work is tactile, interactive, and collaborative, and the limitations of Zoom’s features, including its rigid interface and only allowing one screen share, diminishes my motivation to participate and engage with class activities. In addition, many of our modern video calling systems (Zoom, Google Hangout, Microsoft Teams) are known for the infamous gallery grid — static, isolating, and an inhibitor to true collaboration and co-creation.
Here are some of my initial screen mockups to better communicate my idea during pitch:
Skills I Learned:
- Identifying a Problem: I conducted secondary research as well as two interviews to get an initial understanding of the problem space
- Understanding Needs: Through the interviews, I was able to understand user needs, pain points, motivations, goals, and desires to create a believable persona.
- SET/POG: Researching the social, economic, and technological factors that affect the product opportunity gap.
- Ideation: Exploring various possibilities of solutions while considering user needs
Pre-Mortem & Team Contract
To ensure clear communication and collaboration for the next months, we conducted a pre-mortem and team contract. We identified possible areas of conflict and unexpected circumstances that could disrupt our working process (ex. getting Covid-19, injury, imbalance of workload and responsibilities, animosity between team members, time management issues, etc.), as well as the solutions to resolve these issues.
Skills I Learned:
- Conflict Resolution: how to effectively resolve interpersonal conflict to minimize damage to team dynamics
- Teamwork: learning how to communicate and work alongside a team of strangers across various levels of experience, disciplines, and age groups
For opportunity framing we used SET/POG, PESTLE, and Value Flow models to contextualize the problem area and better understand product opportunity gap in which Playground can provide a unique service to our users. I looked into many literature reviews, online articles, and other secondary sources to further analyze the current state. We also revised our two personas: a design professor and architecture student.
- Cultural shift towards hybrid and remote learning.
- Modern video calling systems are static, isolating, and inhibiting to true collaboration and co-creation.
- There is a need for virtual experiences to be as close to an in-person one as possible.
- Collaborative software (Figma, Miro) are free, popular, and accessible.
- Ineffective meetings cost the US economy between $70 to $283 billion.
- Electronic devices, collaborative software, and video-conferencing platforms widely integrated into educational and professional settings.
- Physical paperwork has been dematerialized to online submissions.
- Development of 5G network
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) is driving better user experiences.
Skills I Learned:
- SET/POG: It was crucial to understand a very specific problem area as well as focus in on our target user. I conducted various secondary research to ensure that our presentation had credible and believable statistics that our audience could relate to.
- PESTLE: Understanding the political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental factors that define and impact our service. I took over the Technological factor on our team.
- Value Flow: Identifying the variety of stakeholders within Playground’s business model as well as how value is co-created and exchanged.
- Personas: We used personas to humanize the design process and develop empathy and be considerate to our users’ pain points, motivations, goals, desires, and needs. In addition, we used personas to highlight the key beneficiaries of our service.
- Competitor Analysis: Researching into the current competitors to identify our unique value proposition, as well as learn from our competitors: what can we do differently? What is working and what is not? Which companies failed, and why? How can we do it better?
Feedback and Notes for Next Steps
After focusing in on our target customers and users (creative students and professors)=, and identifying the various stakeholders, we could conduct more personal research in the form of interviews and surveys.
We used a mix of directed storytelling and direct questions for our interviews.
- Find out about current customer interaction with video conferencing and virtual collaboration platforms
- Understand customer needs and pain points in regard to virtual collaboration
- Derive insights from these interviews that can help us develop Playground’s future direction
We had the opportunity to interview 9 participants including students from disciplines of Design/Architecture/Art, and professors of disciplines Design/HCI.
To synthesize our interview data, we created an Affinity Diagram with the main points of our user interviews.
The affinity diagram can be viewed here.
Identifying Key Customer Insights
Video conferencing software is sometimes used as a secondary communication method and often adds more clutter to a user’s screen.
- Zoom is sometimes used as a verbal chat application while teams work on other software simultaneously
- Wish that software could all be in one place so you wouldn’t have to keep switching through tabs
- There is a lack of cohesion and centralization
Users seek high compatibility with collaboration tools they are already familiar with.
- It is difficult to share and import assets from other tools with current video and design platforms.
- Users want real-time editing features for multiple people at the same time.
- Everyone has their own personal preferences for design tools, so combining them all into one platform results in a lot of functionality that is lacking. Some tools have a higher barrier to entry than others.
The lack of visual and sound-based indicators, such as body language and spatial audio, limits natural interaction.
- Users are unable to read people’s body language and identify physical proximity with face-focused video boxes.
- Professors have no way to recognize if the class is bored or get natural audio feedback.
- The integration of technology such as VR/AI could simulate the physical aspect that is lacking in current video conferencing tools.
- It’s better to track student engagement through polls and class activities, rather than requiring cameras to be turned on.
- People are disconnected from Zoom because it only addresses the visual and audio aspects, disrupting natural conversation
- Students and professors can’t easily see who’s speaking in the Zoom Gallery Grid.
- If you participate in class, it feels so much more formal to participate and it is so intimidating to participate over Zoom because everyone’s attention is on you.
- Professors are sometimes oblivious to discussions happening in chat.
- Announcements are text-only and are limited in length.
- You can’t look over at what the person next to you is doing, or what other groups are doing. You lose the experiential learning factor.
- It’s easier to look at what other people are working on and asking for help in person, but in Zoom the only thing you see is faces or profile pictures.
Video conferencing software takes out the ease of real-life interactions.
- Scheduling meetings virtually is difficult. It is more likely for people to not show up.
- Most tools only show a small number of people on the screen.
- It’s hard to find a moment to chime in during class and hard to negotiate who talks first due to lag.
Users seek more flexibility when resizing and sharing video screens.
- Students find it frustrating that Zoom defaults to take up full laptop screen immediately when the professor is screen sharing
- The interface for screen sharing is also restricting — interview participants pointed out they have difficulty seeing other’s video windows while screen sharing
- When professors share screens for lectures, it is difficult to monitor the class because the professor can only see about 5 student’s videos at a time in a little column located at the side of the screen (there is no update for student video windows unless the student unmutes).
Our additional secondary research sought to delve deeper into the following questions:
- Why is video conferencing so exhausting for both students and professors? How can we alleviate that?
- Why and how did Zoom become the video conferencing standard?
- How can we effectively facilitate creative environments in a virtual setting?
Areas of Concern
- While providing cross platforms compatibility across collaboration tools is a concern as many of existing tools might not be open to allow for integration and let us use their format files on our platform.
- Giving too many options to users might confuse them initially until they are used to our solution.
- Some of the concerns that are related to the physical location of the users might still be present such as unstable internet connection which can impact satisfaction with our solution.
- Feasibility of integrating VR technology for our MVP
- Latency issues — incorporating too many features can increase lag and loading issues that many interview participants already experience through Zoom and Figma.
Skills I Learned:
- User Interviews: I was able to practice professional interview procedure such as good interview etiquette and how to write effective interview questions.
- Research Synthesis: I learned how to compile our interview data into insightful customer insights by analyzing the key pain points experienced across most of our potential users (creative students and professors).
- Risk Analysis: Identifying potential risks and how Playground can mitigate those risks.
MVP Pitch 1
Before diving into MVP Pitch 1, we had a lot of discussion amongst the logistical and technological issues with our service—should we make it its’ own platform? Should it be a plugin to Figma? A plugin to Zoom? Are live embeds and synchronous website browsing possible in Figma?
Would the service only be used during class? Can it be accessed after class during studio work times?
We also struggled defining our service—it seemed that we were simply adding on features to Figma or Zoom, and we weren’t sure if these were valuable enough for university administration to invest in for their design students and professors.
- what existing platforms can we leverage
- be very clear about your design niche
- big state schools have larger classes (be expandable) — is it just a tool for elite design schools?
Needs identified in user research:
- visual and audio cues (body language, local and global audio)
- decluttering (flexibility with zoom windows and resizing, less emphasis on video aspect)
We wanted to make sure that our pitch presentation was extremely relatable. We especially emphasized the storytelling aspect by incorporating a storyboard of a design student using Playground for class.
Feedback and Notes for Next Steps
UH OH 💥💥💥
One of our biggest issues was that our service was too feature-heavy and that we didn’t have a clear idea of how to test our MVP. Our MVP was too abstract, and we couldn’t figure out how to test our service and navigate the technology without building the platform. I think that our confusion was also due to us not having a clear idea of our features—or…we had too many features—so we didn’t know what we were aiming to test with our MVP.
To make matters even worse…
Suddenly, Figma released a new feature called Figjam at their Config Conference, which is basically Miro but integrated into Figma instead (online whiteboard kind of feature). We had said in our last MVP Pitch that Playground would be a video-conferencing plugin to Figma with more versatility and movement of tools, as well as fun status symbols and reactions. We were really discouraged because there were overlaps of features between Playground and Figjam, and we couldn’t possibly compete with Figjam. We had no way of knowing or researching that they would drop this feature as well. I felt discouraged and lost because we had been working on Playground for more than a month now, and with class wrapping up, I was scared we wouldn’t be able to create a convincing and unique service for investment.
Meeting w/ Raelin & Doug
After freaking out and discussing various other ideas, we had a meeting with Raelin and Doug about our next steps, and came down to three potential areas to pivot:
(1) Redesigning the Breakout Room Experience
- Audience: General?
- Possible Directions:
- Each person has their own individual breakout room and they can choose to join others easily (similar to sitting next to someone at a table), while still being able to see whoever’s the host
- Making it easier to create / join breakout rooms
- Introducing visual cues for breakout rooms
- Maybe some integration of tables idea here; instead of manually having to switch rooms, you just move closer to that person and automatically join their room
- Approach with the idea that professors don’t have a choice not to use Zoom
- Zoom Plug-ins — what is feasible to change/add?
- Connecting Interviews/Feedback from previous iterations
- Talk to classmates/friends/professors about their frustrations with breakout rooms
(2) Zoom for Kids
- Audience: Elementary school students & teachers
- Possible Directions:
- Kid-friendly UI
- Increasing attention span
- Promoting breaks
- Any 3rd party research about how Zoom affects kids and how we can make that experience better
- Talk to any elementary school teachers you know/look for blogs
- Talk to any kids you know attending school over Zoom rn
(3) Large-scale Conferences
- Audience: Event-planners and attendees (possible narrow to certain field, like design lol)
- Issues with current state (see: https://www.accelevents.com/)
- Look for anecdotes on attending virtual conferences
- Note: I am assuming there is some statistic/research on how these will probably be more common after COVID; since there is now infrastructure to handle large-scale virtual conferences, companies are likely to keep to virtual in order to save costs
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -
(Original Idea) Tables/Map
- Is there any way we can narrow the features of this down to a MVP?
- How can we create a pretotype?
With only a week or two left of class, we decided that the closest pivot that would require the least additional research was focusing in on one of our original Playground features: redesigning the breakout room experience as a plug-in for Zoom.
We decided to focus on two key elements:
- A zoom plug-in that allows for (1) higher visibility of the classroom and (2) centralized communication by introducing a map and a pinboard in the zoom interface
Our target user was still design professors and students within a studio environment, and our goal was still to recreate the spontaneity and intimacy of a studio environment.
The problem space that we wanted to tackle was the lack of guidance within breakout rooms which causes awkward conversation and unproductive conversations (for example, I sat in silence for 45 minutes in a breakout room in an HCI class once because no one knew what to do and there was no incentive to complete the work). This would provide value to the teacher in being able to better enforce assigned work and improve student participation.
- Allow for large scale visibility through the implementation of maps that shows a layout of the virtual workspace
- Since Zoom is more widely used, we changed our model so that it would be a plug-in for Zoom aka an extra feature that could be used in collaboration with a video conferencing software already used
- Made our software more studio focused. Rooms allow for better collaboration through through shared features and compiled resources.
- Add more capabilities for the host so that they have more control over the tasks and discussions going on
That presentation went …really…really…rough…
Because we pivoted so suddenly, our team was definitely not as prepared as other groups, and we also had a teammate on leave and a teammate sick. I felt a little discouraged as the final showcase was coming nearer and nearer BUT IT’S OK. We were all ready to invest a lot of time during the weekend to improve Playground to the best it can be.
UH OH Pt 2 💥💥💥
Our biggest issue was figuring out our MVP, how could we test our service without building anything? In addition, the more we discussed our breakout room idea, the less interested I became. I felt that the pain point wasn’t painful enough—yes it was an issue, but was it severe enough for administration to invest in our service? We weren’t passionate about our new pivot, and we weren’t even sure if our solution was solving anything.
As we continued working with the Breakout Room idea through the weekend, we continuously ran into dead-ends and the same few problems we faced since the beginning of the project:
- How can we make our service not just a package of new features—how can we make it a service and not a product?
- WHAT DO WE DO FOR MVPPPP?!?!?!?! How do we test our idea?
- Who is buying Playground? Is it university administration or Zoom? Is there enough value added that university administration will invest?
We also encountered multiple issues trying to navigate and work around the technological limitations of Zoom. Because we were creating a plug-in to Zoom, we had to figure out how plug-ins work in Zoom, as well as how our features would display within the Zoom interface.
4 days before Showcase…
It felt like we were beating a dead horse as we were continuously stuck around the same problem areas. As Jeremia and I discussed our next steps and talked about other possible opportunities and ideas, we considered making a more drastic pivot—changing our target audience to younger elementary children.
When I first thought of the idea of a video-conferencing tool for elementary school children back in Deliverable 8, I was super excited and thought that it could have a lot of potential. However, some of my team members pointed out that we would have to re-do a lot of customer research which we may not have time for, and so we continued with the original idea.
Maybe it’s because Jeremia and I were growing in despair and desperation, and so we spontaneously decided to revisit that idea, and concluded that we could re-conduct user interviews and research for another final pivot before showcase. We also thought that we could re-use some of our previous research and insights for this pivot.
The general problem space we identified is that many modern-day video conferencing tools are designed for professional use — high schoolers, college students, professional meetings and conferences—and there exists none specifically for younger children in an educational setting. The formality and rigidity of structure in Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc., is unfamiliar and ineffective for younger children, who have shorter attention spans and thrive on social interaction and collaboration, and tactile learning.
We scrambled and collected articles online containing statistics about online school’s impact to children, attention spans while online learning, the future of remote learning beyond Covid, and the projected growth of the EdTech sector.
In our previous pivot ideas, we always had trouble incorporating concrete statistics in our pitches because our service was so abstract and niche (what statistics could we find about breakout rooms?). But we were so happy to find so many good stats in our new pivot idea that truly demonstrate the severity and scale of this problem space.
3 days before Showcase…
With only a few days left, I began creating our screen mockups and also scheduled 9 interviews with elementary school children and their parents (thanks to my mother for her connections). Although we had to redo a lot of our research and interviews, the process actually went by very quickly and smoothly. We didn’t experience any major dead ends or road blocks, and we were all a lot more passionate about this idea which encouraged us in this last sprint to the final presentation. We definitely had a lot clearer idea of what we were doing, and Playground was actually a SERVICE rather than a package of add-on features to existing platforms.
Schools need a primary education-specific virtual conferencing tool
- It is hard for teachers to monitor children’s engagement and switch between different activities while also trying to keep track of things on Zoom.
- Students miss the physical activities and games present in the in-person classroom.
- “Good enough” may suffice while education remains in its pandemic-induced punt mode and tries to figure out how best to do virtual learning. But there are real opportunities for video conferencing to improve and better support effective classroom instruction.” (GovTech)
- “Millions of students are learning through Zoom this fall, but it still feels like a corporate meeting app that has been MacGyvered into an education platform.” (FastCompany)
- “Zoom wasn’t created for classroom management and I don’t think that was ever the goal of the product. There needs to be something specifically designed for grade school classrooms.” (Reddit)
- The pandemic has accelerated global adoption of EdTech in schools and colleges by about five years. (Seattle Times)
Children’s’ attention spans are short.
- Childhood development experts say a reasonable attention span to expect of a child is two to three minutes per year of age.
- Songs, engaging stories, music, movement, and games help regain children’s focus (LearnTechLib)
- Teachers commonly use EdTech apps like Nearpod, Flipgrid, Kahoot, Gimkit, Blooket to keep students’ attention in class and review content.
Existing video-conferencing tools are hard to use for kids, teachers, and their parents.
- Kids, parents, and teachers have a hard time figuring out Zoom, which can cause class time to be spent in a inefficient and non-engaging manner.
- Higher level vocabulary and unintuitive structure of Zoom makes it difficult for children to understand how to use it
Using gamification with elementary school kids increases engagement.
- Gamification can boost students’ grades by 70%
- Students who experience the gamified classes show significant growth and change in academic achievement, learning motivation, learning interest, and learning efficacy compared to control groups. (Korea Science)
- Students often respond well to earning virtual rewards and scoring high on a ‘leaderboard’.
- “Over a period, we have observed that clever integration of games has demonstrated higher engagement and increased motivation towards learning especially among younger students, making them truly fall in love with learning”
Lean Business Canvas
2 days before Showcase…
I started to design the main Playground screens to better communicate our vision for the service. Because we pivoted to a much younger audience, I wanted to ensure that our visuals were playful, whimsical, and fun. I chose vibrant colors, and also found some really cute and cool free source 3D illustrations that brought our whole service to life.
Features & Connection to Stakeholders
- Gamification of online learning to boost student engagement and focus.
- Leaderboards to encourage participation through friendly competition.
- Fun, kid-friendly, and interactive interface with customizable avatars, doodle spaces, etc.
- Teachers can track and analyze classroom performance and participation based on student game responses, and students can stay engaged, motivated, and excited.
- Teacher dashboard with automatic tracking and post-class analytics of student attendance, participation, performance based on class session
- More personalized learning experience
- Get aggregate performance at class and school level
- Work with classes lagging behind to improve further
- Reduces the chances of parents changing the school for their children
- Helps increase revenue for the school
- Get real-time updates on your child’s engagement and participation
- Quick and lightweight communication with teachers
FINALLY, WE HAD A SOLUTION FOR OUR BIGGEST STRUGGLE!!! Figuring out the MVP!!! Because our Playground service for K-5 students is a lot more defined, it was sooo much easier to think of how we could manually create the Playground experience using existing technology such as Zoom.
- We would advertise Playground online through word-of-mouth and our connections with current 1st — 3rd grade teachers, who have expressed interest in our service
- Teachers and students can then sign up through a Google Form with their basic information which Playground would then use to create user profiles from
- Whenever the teacher engages students in games or activities in class The Playground team will record student participation and engagement
- To provide a personalized profile of each student in the classroom that can be accessed by students, teachers, and parents, we’ll track how many points students earn based on answering questions correctly, and show the class a leaderboard at the end of activities.
- The kids can earn badges and use their points to earn rewards
- To help quantify the MVP results, we would compare quiz scores over a learning unit before and after using Playground
1 day before Showcase…
The last thing we needed to grind out was our concept video!