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Creating a digital activity organizer: Practice Living case study

How we took a product from scratch to 4K downloads in 6 weeks responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Practice Living initiative is a self-knowledge product development collaboration between Demola Budapest innovation platform, Pine Design digital studio, and Jakobovits Kitti psychologist and literary therapist. The initiative aims to help those struggling with life management challenges. In this challenge, we wanted to craft tools for coping by developing a product that relies on the power of narrative creation. This case study presents the milestones and learning points of the 2 weeks of the fully remote product design sessions and its aftermath.

Inception

All started with sheer curiosity: as researchers, we are eager to find unique opportunities to immerse ourselves in exploring quite out of the ordinary phenomena. Covid19 has generated an unprecedented and ubiquitous clutter all of a sudden in everyone’s life, but also the imposed restrictions made it possible to reach out to affected people and interview them about their pandemic-related personal experiences. We’ve decided to respond promptly to the given situation by starting exploratory research. By the 11th of March five interviews were scheduled with people in confinement living in the Lombardy region – a severe focal point of the coronavirus cases. Besides gaining deeper understanding we aspired to find our way in helping people accommodate the new status of “ordinary”.

Exploration

We carried out five semi-structured interviews concerning the changes in the pandemic-affected areas of life. In this case, we deliberately avoided rummaging into topics that can penetrate deeper psychological layers (grief, severe loss, layoff, etc.), as at this juncture we were not able to provide appropriate emotional support and can’t monitor the person’s mental state after the interview session. 

Methodologically, while exploring a vastly unknown situation such as this, it is advisable not to be led by formerly prepared hypotheses, but to start with a clean slate: herein we only formed hypotheses about topics we want to avoid (based on a literature review of psychological impacts of quarantine), not about the subjects we want to deal with in detail and depth.

The following question therefore arose: would it be a valid approach to start a process in which we have determined that we don’t aim to find solutions for the most pressing and acute pain points? The resolution for this dissension was to target the most excessive problem that is not beyond our competence limit.

After the interviews, we observed some recurring patterns and themes that we distilled into core needs and pain points with the help of the “jobs-to-be-done” framework, that we carried forward to the next phase of the process.

Joint Forces

The core team

We reached out for people with whom we’ve fruitfully collaborated in the past, and who we assumed will resonate with the project. It went something like this:  two psychologists, two undergraduates in psychology, a bibliotherapist, and a UX designer teamed up overnight. We can say, the team is largely weighted towards the same discipline, but each team member has a unique focus. The competence matrix of the team explicitly shaped the way we came along during the product development and determined the guiding principles and high-level goals.

The acquaintances within the team can be illustrated with a star-shaped graph: not every member knew each other, but everyone had at least one familiar person. It is not entirely true, as one member has only spoken a few minutes once with one of us, but somehow the anticipated personal liking and fellowship worked very well. In terms of commitment and ownership, there was a very peculiar nature of the team: we shared a mixed identity that combined being designers of the product, affected end-users and semi-experts at adjacent fields at the same time. I think this manifold involvement contributed to the likeability and relatability of the final product.

The network of experts

Around the core team, a wholehearted network of experts formed from diverse fields: writing, copywriting, innovation management, marketing strategy, graphic design, UI design, web design, etc. As we perceived, their efforts and involvement were framed as a matter of public service or simply fun, not as favor. Regular operative and strategic meetings with them shaped our product development process.

The Design Sprint

Why did the design sprint serve as a character development booster for us? First, it was high time to let perfectionism and overthinking prevail, secondly, it compelled us to accelerate our decision making pace. There was a surprising experience about the remote sessions: if someone couldn’t manage to participate in every workshop, it was less salient and bothering than in a usual face-to-face setting.

We didn’t proceed as scripted: we began with semi-prepared research materials that consisted of the (anonymized) key insights of the preceding interviews, and on the last two days, we carried out testing and prototyping in a parallel, a bit chaotic and ad hoc fashion. In order words, we tailored the Design Sprint process to our needs. Furthermore, using Excel and Paint was an excellent substitution for fierce post-it sessions.

Understanding the problem

However, the power of a multidisciplinary team is indisputable, in this case, sharing a common background within the team helped us to quickly get on the same page on day one when we started to unfold the complex issues that emerged during the interviews. The common language and references compensated for the drawbacks of the remote collaboration. Narrowing down the problem scope by prefiltration of research materials, allowed us to make a better use of the design sprint method, allowing us to maintain our focus.

Ideation and decision-making

Alternation of individual and common tasks during the ideation phase multiplied our creativity. This work mode provided many additional opportunities to unfold individual potentials, as we were able to create diverse and customized conditions for “solitary brainstorming”. For instance, some of us completed the individual tasks while running, some processed it while playing the piano, some just sat out in the garden for 10 minutes. 

The main decision point was to decide which pain point node we want to target, and which directions we want to leave behind. In this decision, the policy and leading idea were to filter out the riskier one, and simply vote for the one we’re more attached to.

Regarding the decisions of the format of the product, these were not made during the design sprint, but rather, when we invited a bibliotherapist into the team.

Testing and prototyping

Developing the dramaturgical arc of the user journey and elaborating on the instructions and tasks were the most rewarding and immersive phases of the whole process, as here first we started seeing a more tangible picture of the solution we were crafting.

Frankly, by the end of the week, we became a bit overwhelmed by the intensity of the process, so in the last two days, we tangled up the agenda a bit and started prototyping and testing parallelly. We’ve learned the hard way how bothersome it can be if we’re not making decisions on how we are going to implement the posteriorly incoming feedback, as we should have been aware of the fact that users will reach out for us after trying out the product. Particularly, it can be disappointing for those who invest time and effort in forming and returning actionable feedback for us. In the next sprint we must schedule sessions for this purpose beforehand, as it gets impossible to follow.

From MVP to MLP

By the end of the design sprint, we created a version of the product that was halfway between the state of MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and MLP (Minimum Lovable Product). The MVP took shape in the form of a booklet that serves as a facilitator in the self-reflective journey of reviewing etched past routines, carrying over the user into a restructured plan of life practices through writing.

The missing element was the visual appearance, that in this case was more than just a garnish for the product but a quintessential part of the user experience. As the language we used allows great freedom for interpretations, we needed a visual code system that provides proper guidance for the user throughout the self-reflection journey. We’ve run many iterations to test whether the final look and feel and text convey the messages we wanted to impart. On the tricky ground of emotional design you can’t cut corners on testing, otherwise, you can easily get stuck in your mind.

Usability Trouble Spots

Phrasing – Projection vs. Direction

When it comes to phrasing, owing to our background in psychology, we’ve been vigorously trained to recognize our responsibility in choosing the right words, thus during the process, sometimes we were juggling between being ultra-enthusiastic on a professional basis versus crossing the borderline of overthinking the importance of words we use.

As a guiding principle, we sought to use neutral or slightly positively framed terms that allow broad and free interpretation and associations, leaving room for the user to freely choose the topics they want to deal with. In some cases, we carved out some new (and as a trade-off maybe less colloquial) expressions to get rid of hindering layers of meaning that could be too directive for the users. 

Confined Context of Use

The ideal setting for the experience of crafting new life practices would be sitting in a comfy couch with a printed version while sipping on a pleasantly hot tea far away from all the gadgets and technical devices interfering our lives, but it’s undeniably more important to make an effort to make the online use of booklet as seamless as possible.

Although the final version of the product aims to provide a tool that is applicable for a broad variety of situations, we acknowledge that in the current state of the pandemic we must take into consideration the limited access to printing facilities and do so cost-effectively. So thus besides the printable version, we wired an online fillable version using Adobe Reader.

Growth Hacking

Setting the stage for growth hacking started with a chiseled emotional design. Particular attention was paid for the adjustments of the empathic emotional tone of the booklet tailored to the characteristics of the recipient milieu to make it relatable and easy to adopt. A marketing strategist and a creative copywriter helped us in laying out our trial-and-error growth plan. 

The marketing plan covered experiments with organic outreach within our network, incitement of our network to reach out for their network, sharing personal introductions of the team members, sharing some thought-provoking ideas on re-organizing our daily routine from a rather psychological aspect, and sharing content within targeted groups and forums. The two most effective directions have been found were the personal introductions and reaching out for the network of our network, as many people were willing to help in the dissemination who resonated well with the message and personality of the product.

The brief introductions of the team members addressed a broad audience. These introductions were of all types of people, from a senior business development expert showcasing his caring family-man side by upgrading his solfege skills for the sake of home education, to the Berlin-based art director expressing her honest thoughts about the joy of being legally homebound during these days.

In summary, the crucial part of the job was made during the emotional design, so as soon as we arrived at the phase where growth goals became a priority, we were already over the hardest part of the work.

Recap

In this project, our first client was our hell-bend curiosity, but promptly Pine Design and Demola Budapest took over this role and started fostering our ambition providing a playground for experimenting. If you let your kiddos play, very good things can come out of it, if nothing else: trust-wise. Additionally, it provided a fine opportunity for us to become intrapreneurs within the company during the project.

Sometimes we look for excuses to try out something new, that can be a new methodology or approach, or just to reach out for talented people we wish to collaborate with. This project offered us a great excuse for working with more than 15 excellent professionals and volunteers, and in parallel to test our agile smart-working ability by playing.

Future Directions

Regarding the future directions, we try to keep the development as lean as it has been from the beginning: if there is a demand for it, we’ll consider to upgrade the product into a tangible printed format, or to an interactive application. 

Currently, the booklet is available in English and in Hungarian, and we received a request for a French version we plan to comply with. Research insights have pointed out that this change in the “ordinary” is a life situation very similar to retirement. We started conversations with the National Association of Retirement Clubs and Seniors “Life for Years” (Életet az Éveknek Egyesület) about a possible direction of development of transferring and adapting this product format into helping the elderly to find new routines, balance and good practices in such a life transformation.

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