This is a case study on my experience working in Paris, France at a French startup, RandomCoffee, as their first Product Designer and employee #9 for three months this last spring. RandomCoffee breaks down silos in companies by matching employees together to chat over informal meetings.
☕ Background and context:
When I joined in April, 2019, RandomCoffee (RC) had just come out Facebooks’s Paris Startup Garage program, grown to nine employees (including me!), and had bootstrapped by signing 25+ big French clients in their year of existence — including energy behemoth Total, infrastructure leader RATP, and food conglomerate Danone. The team had done this by focusing heavily on sales. However, they believed that shifting focus from sales to product would enable the company to improve its user retention & expand the value it offers to users. This is why I joined — to help grow a product-driven culture, and to launch our user research in order to deliver a product with significantly higher value for our users.
- Launch and take charge of user research at RandomCoffee
- Prototype outside of the scope of RC to expand the value of our product
- Support and build a user-first and product-driven culture at RC
❓ Understanding the problem:
I took a stab at defining the problem we believed we were solving.
Coworkers in large companies have difficulty communicating with each other, as teams become siloed and employees stick to small, local networks they build over time.
I then broke this problem down into a few major assumptions we were making with the current product, that had to be true in order for it to match real needs.
- Employees want to consistently meet co-workers from across different teams.
- Administrators want to create ways for their employees to consistently engage with each other to the extent that they will consistently pay.
- There is a pain point in large companies that employees cannot effectively communicate with each other.
- An effective way to break down silos in communication is to consistently match employees
- Administrators want to create targeted matches to fulfill their goals.
🤗 Talking to users
To understand whether these assumptions would be valid, I segmented our user base by extremes between 1) top-users and 2) inactive users, sampled across large enterprise clients. Using the Gmail CRM Streak, and the auto-scheduling tool Calendly, I automated much of the invite-request-booking flow so the process could continue after I left.
Across two weeks, I completed ten design interviews with our users and potential clients. Here’s what we learned — and that I’m able to share.
Note: I believe that bringing non-designers into user interviews are a powerful tool to build empathy and make better products. Every interview, I would invite other members of RC to listen in or participate in the process.
A“I don’t know who to ask for the skills I need, and I don’t know if they’re available when I need them.”
What I learned was that yes, chatting with the employee across the hall with you is hard in large companies. But a bigger problem was understanding what the employee across the hall worked on, and understanding the skills he or she possessed.
We learned that we were partially solving a much greater need. Employees said they were using RandomCoffee to break silos, because people did not know what the other people around them did in large companies.
🛎️ ! Problem reframe!
Employees in large companies often do not know what skills their coworkers possess, or what their colleagues work on. This lack of transparency costs teams in lost communication and collaboration.
I saw that a larger opportunity space was enabling employees to easily know how all their colleagues could help them in their day-to-day, and break out of the sort of informal networks they built over time.
🔨 Prototyping solutions:
An address book, for skills: This prototype enables employees to search across the company by skills, people, or positions. This solves the problem our users told us, of “spending two-hours searching for an employee” on a company intranet, or “constantly only working with the same people.”
With this prototype, employees search for skills, such as Salesforce as seen below, and can then contact employees who match these search queries.
Likely ambitious for a real MVP, but a real user concern, I prototyped icebreakers and schedule-helping for users when contacting their colleagues. Many users expressed anxiety around how to contact coworkers they had not previously spoken with, so we looked to make it easy and intuitive to reach out to start a conversation.
I hopped on a handful of user interviews to get fast feedback on a prototype made on Sketch, and connected through Invision.
The users I spoke to, primarily HR professionals in longstanding enterprise companies, got excited.
“I like it a lot. This is incredibly helpful.” — HR coordinator at Pearson.
Users’ top concern? Inputting these skills. It had the potential to take too long, and updating these skills could become a pain. Plus, no company has these skills on file, so the success of the prototype depends on the ease of obtaining information on skills from colleagues. So, we needed to show our value first, and then gradually nudge users to complete this information.
Below, after meeting a colleague, users are prompted to share the top skills and competencies they believe their co-worker possesses. By tapping into the value of the internal network in the workplace, we reduce strain on individuals to complete these profiles, especially as we learned, people are not always aware of how to articulate the skills they possess.
I prototyped ways for an employee to quickly share what he or she is interested in learning, and what he or she already knows.
⌛ Testing our concept ASAP:
We wanted to test this concept with real users fast — and we were looking at much less engineering time by integrating these concepts in the current product vs building the standalone app I prototyped.
I was looking to explore the following two hypotheses.
Hypothesis: Employees in large companies want to directly contact colleagues they may not know, but who share skills they wish to learn about.
Hypothesis: Employees acting as administrators for their colleagues aren’t necessary. Instead, enable people to direct contact others they’re interested in connecting with.
From their RandomCoffee dashboard, users can directly request an introduction. Before, they had to wait for the next wave of introductions, as specified by an administrator. Colleagues were put in contact with each other every few weeks, as specified by an administrator. However, we received feedback suggesting that enabling a direct introduction as well might positively impact the user experience, so co-workers had the option to instantly get an introduction as soon as they entered the platform.
At this point, users filter by parameters provided by the enterprise to decide who they’re interested in connecting with.
Instantly, users are introduced to a fellow colleague who matches the categories he or she is interested in. At this point, they can chat on the platform to figure out a time to chat.
We’re still in the middle of shipping the above functionality, so we’ll soon learn whether the above two hypotheses are validated.
Across the full experience of working abroad in a completely new design space, here’s some top highlights I picked up.
- Invest in making your team a social home
Wow — the French know how to bring social to the office. Prior to RC, I launched a startup of my own, and worked our team into the ground — literally. We lived together as a team of five and worked from 10AM to 4AM six days a week. Lunches were usually a fast twenty-minute necessity, not a social affair. RC flipped this narrative with a few informal rules.
Everyone eats together, every day. Everyone takes at least an hour to eat and recharge at lunch. And everyone is invited to grab drinks every week, not as colleagues, but as friends. This sort of informal, friendly culture builds authentic connection between employees every day, every meal. Us American workaholics could really take a page from our friends across the Atlantic here.
2. Don’t get ready, get started. Build a prototype-interview-iterate workflow.
I’m guilty of doing too many user interviews to understand the problem before building. I’ve probably done 100+ interviews by now, and I’ve noticed a trend of these conversations leading to more actionable insights after presenting a prototype or rough idea. If I could restart at RC, I would create prototypes from the initial set of hypotheses we had on week one, instead of waiting until week two or so to mock up our first interfaces.
3. Data is a designer’s best friend
Yeah, qualitative is cool, but design doesn’t have to be a dark art. With services like Amplitude and Segment, I was able to quickly create charts around user churn, growth and understand where users got blocked. I introduced Fullstory to the team, which lets you see exactly how your users interact with your product in real-time. We integrated Fullstory into our product cycle to evaluate the UX and value of each feature we shipped.
3. Working in a foreign language forces deliberation of thought, and builds communication skills.
I did 80% of my work in French — a language I’ve been teaching myself since high school. Design and product is dependent on crystal-clear communication, and when you suddenly don’t know the word for graph or end-user, your life gets a lot harder. Writing, interviewing and communicating in French forced me to plan ahead, and be crystal clear on the message I wanted to deliver. I’m much more freewheeling and spontaneous in English, and taking this step back enabled me to add more of a methodology and structure to my work.
🚀 Recap + the future:
Over eight weeks, I launched and led our user research. Twenty+ user interviews led us to identify a potentially larger opportunity space — and make the transition from helping colleagues meet each other, to helping colleagues understand the hidden talent in their own company. This led to creating a prototype for what RandomCoffee can become in the near future, and new product features that let us test these hypotheses now.
Working in French, in the middle of Paris, made my experience a real challenge, but a heck of a ride. I’m beyond grateful that they took a chance on this American who wanted to be more than a tourist for a few months, and I’m excited to see what my friends at RandomCoffee brew up next.
With ❤️ and ☕,
I’m an entrepreneur, designer, and junior at Stanford excited by making useful things and booking last-minute flights. Let’s talk ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect on LinkedIn here. À bientôt !