Lean Startup / Responsive web SaaS product
Product Design / UX / Front-end dev
Ramli (CEO, Back-end dev), Beatrice (Visual Designer)
We followed Ash Maurya's "Running Lean" frameworks quite closely, using a lot of resources provided by the Lean Machine like the Validation Board, to keep track of hypotheses and next steps
Nov 2012 - Jan 2014
After we dove into the workings of the multi-billion dollar death-care industry as part of a case-study for a Strategy class at Ivey, my co-founder and I were fascinated by how little change the industry had gone through in the last few decades.
After examining a number of channels and pain-points in the value chain of a typical death-care service provider (think funeral homes), we eventually honed in on online memorial sites. They felt like they were still stuck in the 90's era of guestbooks, misaligned design sensibilities, and outdated skeuomorphic interfaces. And worst of all, they all gave off somber--almost depressing--vibes, instead of what we felt should be an occasion to celebrate the lives of lost loves. We also felt our skills and background in tech suited us better to this challenge.
With the advancement of affordable cloud-based storage and computing services, and consumers' increased desire for better design, we felt there was an opportunity to shake up a largely traditional industry and provide people a friendlier, sleeker, and more celebratory alternative to remembering and cherishing the memories of their families.
We spent some time examining what the current offering of online memorials were like. A number of these belonged to funeral homes and were provided as part of a suite of services. Considering that funeral home customers typically spent a few thousand dollars and upwards on coffin and funeral proceedings, the extra $150, on average, they were being charged to set up memorial sites were just a (relative) drop in their bucket.
Many of these sites, we felt, were severly lacking on the design and UX side. We saw an opportunity to provide a better overall experience at a reduced price.
In order to understand customer pain points in their experiences dealing with death-care services, I designed exploratory interviews and surveys to be done both in person at funeral homes and long-term care facilities and over Google Hangouts and phone. We even used Amazon mTurk to source interviewees and have them call a "fake" 1-800 number that we had routed back to our personal phone. This way, we were able to interview close to 100 people in two days.
One of the toughest things about customer interviews in this space is how heavy some of the stories can be. A number of the people we interviewed still had raw emotions for the loved ones they had lost - some of them even cried! It was important to remain professional, to console them when we could, but also to push further into understanding where we could help to improve the overall memorial experience.
Before long, we realized who would need help the most: middle-aged to elder people with little to moderate levels of tech-savviness and who had recently lost a loved one or were unfortunately anticipating the impending loss of a terminally ill loved one. If this would constitute the user, then the customer (i.e., the person who would pay for the service) would have to be a funeral home director.
After gathering, analyzing, and synthesizing the data we collected from our market, competitor, and customer research, we settled on the following goals for our vision:
1) Provide customers the ability to quickly and easily record stories of their loved ones
2) Allow stories to be recorded in rich format - either through long-form writing, short text, images, video, or audio
3) Make the viewing and sharing of stories visually appealing such that it would encourage thoughtful curation and preservation of family stories that are worthy of being passed on to future generations
With these overall goals as our guidelines, we brainstormed brand identities and emotional value propositions that we wanted to leave with our customers. If our product were a friend at a dinner table, we asked, how did we want others to feel about him/her?
We eventually settled on the brand name "HaloLane"; it was a crossover of terms and feelings associated with a better afterlife and the idea of having people go down the proverbial memory lane. We quickly put together a Keynote prototype, inspired by the design and feel of Flipboard, loaded it up on an iPad, and started gathering feedback from users and potential customers.
The initial reactions from users on the Keynote prototype were positive; they enjoyed the aesthetically pleasing collection of rich family stories and generally found the interface intuitive. As the front-end designer/developer on the project, I wanted to quickly turn the Keynote prototype into an interactive, web-based, responsive site in order to prove that we could technically pull it off and to start getting user feedback from a richer interactive experience (here's a very early prototype).
In the meanwhile, the team continued to do research into the validity of our earlier user/problem/solution assumptions. The following pieces of data proved the most salient:
1) an increasing number of people gave us feedback that the branding behind 'HaloLane' gave them too strong a religious undertone. From the beginning we had never intended to evoke any religious affiliations or feelings as we wanted it to be catered to anyone who wanted to preserve and celebrate the memories of their loved ones - a desire which we felt anybody would share whether they belonged to any religious group or not.
2) we started uncovering that most of the local funeral homes were tied into long-term contracts with their larger conglomerate parent companies' choice of software and services, which included memorial site content managers. This would prove it much more difficult to convince them to use our service without us having to build out a more extensive and robust set of tools and features.
3) we also learned that since none of us on the team could relate at a deep level to people who were losing their loved ones and getting involved in creating memorials, it was hard for us to empathize with our users and do contextual inquiries with them without spending a lot of time with them. This was proving to be a big challenge.
Without getting much traction with our initial assumptions, we hit the drawing boards again to try to re-focus our energies on a brand that better resonated with a group of customers who we would more easily connect with.
With some more brainstorming, and brand-entity exercises, we finally settled on a new brand that we collectively felt stayed true to our original vision and brought together a warm, timeless element of familiarity: FamilyTales.
The biggest question we asked was: who is already collecting and sharing stories about their loved ones? We figured this person would be more readily eager to seek out better solutions to help them accomplish their tasks, which is where FamilyTales would hopefully step in.
The answer was right under our noses and in our Facebook feeds; they were getting more and more populated by our friends' and families' pictures of newborn babies. Our target customer then became quite obvious - recent parents. And likely, specifically, new mothers, as they were the ones who seemed to be most frequently posting pictures and stories of their babies.
So, in effect, we went from targeting middle-aged people who had lost their loved ones to young mothers who had gained a newborn child, without losing sight of our overall original vision.
Upon further exploration into this observation and by interviewing some recent mothers from our immediate social circles we uncovered the following insights:
1) while a number of the recent mothers had already posted a few stories and pictures about their babies, they were hesitant to post more frequently because they didn't want to inundate their contacts and risk annoying them, and
2) there were a number of mothers who desired to share their families' stories and photos, but were too uncomfortable posting them on public feeds because of privacy and security concerns
These learnings were enough to give us renewed energy to position FamilyTales as a platform for parents to safely and securely store and share their cherished stories with only those who matter.
Even though we had pivoted in our business model (and updated it on our Business Model Canvas and Validation Board), we didn't want to throw the baby (excuse the pub) out with the bathwater. The basic grid-based, swipe-oriented, rich-story-focused premise of HaloLane would still figure as a strong design principle in FamilyTales. But we had to update the look and feel of the design to properly resonate with the more tech-savvy, content-sensitive mother.
Speaking with more mothers and reading through online mommy blogs led us to hypothesize that the mothers we were targeting would appreciate and enjoy more of scrapbooking feel.
FamilyTales' redesign should allow busy moms to quickly and enjoyably put together rich stories of their babies and to feel like they are involved in a secure and intimate content curation process. What made this opportunity even more exciting for us was that there was no reason why someone who stop using our platform at only baby stories; the entire family could use it to save and share their stories, away from the prying eyes of the public.
More aspirationally, we now saw FamilyTales as a multi-generational story platform for families. This truly resonated with us too, as our three-person team all represented immigrant families who were geographically dispersed.
We started rapidly going from customer interviews to high-fidelity prototyping, to usability testing, and back again, updating our Validation Board with our (in)validated assumptions as we went along.
Eventually the look and feel started coming together. A grid-based layout where each of the individual blocks acted as placeholders for content made the platform feel like it was a scrapbooking activity. This is something that resonated with the mothers, especially.
One of the reactions we saw from early usability tests was that when presented with a completely blank page, many of the participants experienced "writer's block" and didn't quite know what stories to add. To aid them, we added coach marks and writing prompts into the blocks. These prompts were as simple as asking "What did you do with Chloe over the weekend?" In order to personalize the experience, we made sure to use the baby's name when addressing him/her.
Knowing that our biggest lessons will be learned only after launching, we decided to draw a line in the sand on our feature sets. I whipped up a landing page, paying special attention the copy we were using to use words that our earlier customer interviews had revealed.
One of the biggest challenges we anticipated was on pricing. Here, we mostly used other similar products as comparables for pricing, even though we knew this was far from perfect. But with the spirit of learning from launching, we decided this was good enough for now.
And with that, we launched.
In preparation for the launch, I had setup hooks into Google Analytics and Mixpanel to help us collect usage metrics and inform us of how to respond to people's visit to our landing page and their usage of our platform.
With the data we collected, we conducted A/B tests on various pages of the web app and analyzed heat-maps of user interactions using tools like Visual Website Optimizer and ClickTale. Results recorded were then used to inform us of design changes and user behaviours.
MixPanel helped us create conversion funnels and Google Analytics helped with event metrics.
We set ourselves benchmarks and tried to hit them on a weekly basis. The funnel analysis helped us understand which pages needed more attention over others, and prompted us to follow up with visitors about why they behaved in certain ways.
The data proved useful; and we honed in on top-of-the-funnel conversions and in-app engagement. Even though we weren't getting a significant amount of traffic, we chose to focus on trying to convert more website visitors into registered users and then to have those registered users coming back for more.
We asked ourselves how we could reduce the friction of people starting to use FamilyTales and then how could we engage them in continuing to use it? What would be a lightweight and familiar engagement mechanism that would be easy to setup on a scheduled basis, test, and could handle content in multiple formats?
The 'doh-worthy' answer hit us: email. We had already seen other examples that showed the power of email marketing and product development and so we were stoked to try it out with FamilyTales.
The idea was to make it as easy as possible for people to sign up and start getting a few emails from us with pointed, relevant questions about their babies/families. We would then save their responses, add them to the user's storybooks--or what we internally referred to as 'storystreams'--collect them as weekly digests that we would email back to our users, and eventually have enough of a collection of stories that the users would be enticed to purchase in a hardcover print out.
A high-level process flow diagram can help to depict how we were thinking it would work:
We got to work and released a working version of this solution in less than two weeks. In order to demonstrate the value proposition (and overall vision) of FamilyTales, we created a product video that we put on our landing page.
The video showcased a user signing up, starting a storybook for their newborn son, contributing to regular emails, viewing the stories, and then finally ordering a book for the family. It was received well and led to an uptick in conversions.
13 months had passed since Ramli and I first had a germ of an idea that grew into HaloLane and blossomed into FamilyTales. And while we had completely bootstrapped our way to around 150 users at the height of our run, it was too little too late for us debt-ridden graduates. Our runway had run out before we found that elusive viable business model. It was time to close the doors on FamilyTales.
I can say that I would never have taken the plunge and been in it for so long if it hadn't been for Ramli and, later, Beatrice joining the team. They really did bring out the best in me.
Ramli has gone on to work with a number of startups in the Toronto area, acting as a Growth Leader. Currently, he's heading up growth at Maropost. Beatrice completed the reknowned Tradecraft bootcamp and is now, at the time of writing this, a Product Designer at Udemy.
We had participated in a handful of business plan competitions and were privileged to have been a part of the amazing Velocity Garage program in Kitchener-Waterloo's Communitech Hub.
We met a number of wonderfully supportive people--fellow entrepreneurs and advisors included--along our journey. I still keep in touch with a number of them today.
All things considered, the crazy trip was worth it. Not only had I learned about the whole Lean Startup methodology, but I had a chance to apply it in practise in an attempt to discover real needs and solve them.
The stage had been set for the rest of my career as a human-centered product designer.
Apart from the numerous lessons in design and product development I learned, there were a number of takeaways in trying to get a startup off the ground as well. I took some time to reflect on these and write the most important ones down, in case they might help others in the same shoes, or in case I was interested in checking back on them again.
Here are two of the major lessons I learned:
1) Boostrapping is hard! Be urgent in revenue generation
If you’re going to be quitting your day job, make sure that you will be generating revenue out the door. This could either be in the form of actual cash from customers, credit card numbers from subscribers, crowdfunded campaigns from the likes of Kickstarter, or at the very least letters of intent. If I were to go back, I think I would have taken on a day job. This usually makes startup founders cringe. It almost sounds like selling out. But the sense of peace you can get from having a regular stream of income can be liberating for your creativity and efforts to get your startup off the ground in the evenings.
2) Be a painkiller, not a vitamin
Everyone loves painkillers because they take away pain. But while vitamins, like gym memberships, are great things to have in theory, they are difficult to get people to repeatedly use.
If you’re looking for a relatively safer way to get business success, then make sure you are taking someone’s pain away. Chances are that if you find someone with a bleeding neck wound and you offered them a tourniquet for it, they will grab it from you, no questions asked.
Huge bonus points if that person whose pain you're taking away is someone you can relate to and actually enjoy serving.