A matchmaking application that connects vendors to event-planners, reducing the stress vendors undergo to find event opportunities.
By Lindsay Kovnat & Brian Davis
Having personally experienced the obstacles and challenges of organizing vendors at a variety of events large and small, nearby and out of state, Ify Ifebi postulated a hypothesis that has become her passion: there must be a means to ease the some of the stressful, frenetic facets of planning, organizing and orchestrating events, for planners and vendors alike. While fully cognizant of the stressful nature of events from her perspective as a coordinator, in talks with vendors, some common themes emerged between planners and vendors—and hence, vendorspace was born: a platform as simple and fun to use as Tinder, where harmonious, likeminded event-planners and vendors find one another quickly and easily. As user experience (UX) researchers and designers, my partner Brian Davis and I have been validating and testing Ify’s hypothesis through interviews and market research, to first discover potential opportunities in the crowded events marketplace, then carefully reify the vision from idea to testable prototype.
We joined vendorspace in March 2017, beginning our quest to discover the pain points of vendors and event-planners, then screening the respondents for more in depth interviews, through surveys composed with the assistance of Google Docs. Together with Ify, we brainstormed a focused field of questions …
Fortunately, participants were willing to get granular, revealing specific pain-points they’d endured planning events and/or vending at events in the survey. However, while results from the surveys suggested some commonalities and themes, as UX guru Laura Klein warns, the best intentioned online surveys can only go so far in challenging or testing hypotheses. They can answer the what. What we needed is the why. Thus, we turned to qualitative research: in depth interviews.
We conducted a series of extensive phone interviews across the country with vendors and event-planners — experienced and new, from a wide variety of industries and a broad range of events. Ify, the founder, actively and attentively engaged interviewees during each remote call.
Qualitative Research: Discovering the Needs of Potential Users
Connecting with Vendors
The vendors we interviewed were from a broad spectrum of industries: a gourmet ice cream maker in Baton Rouge, LA using homegrown ingredients and local dairies; a New Jersey-based soap maker who went from farmers markets to Asbury Park storefront in four years and dabbled in event planning himself; a face-painter and wedding photographer from Philadelphia; and from Ify’s city of Atlanta, a stage production and lighting vendor with experience organizing events and two food vendors.
Affinity Mapping Vendor Interview Responses
Having obtained hours of recorded interviews with vendors about their processes, consistent annoyances, and other variables, we wrote any and all notable quotes on Post-It notes, which we affixed to a white board, mixing and matching into thematic order, in our quest to discover consistent themes and perhaps new insights we may have otherwise glossed over.
Vendor Interview Takeaways
Consistent themes are displayed here in an almost chronological trajectory (from left-to-right). Vendors — especially those new to commodifying their passion or craft for breaking into the event-marketplace — are driven by their passion and aspire toward impressive future goals, but need help budgeting and marketing their business or services. Most use traditional social media channels (Facebook, Instagram) to advertise, with varying results.
Perhaps obviously, most vendors seek events appropriate to their niche. Most cater to a specific demographic and are excited and inspired by more challenging opportunities. For instance, while Chrissy of Highline Creamery in Shreveport gladly makes traditional ice cream for the “whole family” (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry), she prefers showcasing new, avant-garde recipes (squid-ink & sage; black-garlic & chocolate-cauliflower) to more refined, adult crowds appreciative of suigeneris cuisine.
Vendors want to feel a part of, or stay connected to, a greater community — of fellow vendors, of reputable events. Networking with a connected community is how most vendors with whom we spoke found most of their events. While treasuring the local community, many expressed a desire to discover event opportunities beyond it, but within their range to travel and found doing so difficult.
The most universal complaint among vendors, however, is the time and energy needed to discover and land opportunities at nearby events. Rather than spending hours searching online (from FB to Eventbrite to local community boards) or relying on unpredictable word-of-mouth parties and events from friends or acquaintances, vendors need to be spending their time on the passion that made them vendors in the first place: focusing on their product or service to make it the best it can be.
We created two vendor-personas reflective of these common pain-points, Valerie the Food Vendor and DJ Fat Stax …
Connecting with Event Planners
The event organizers were just as eclectic as the vendors (if not more so). They included one of the primary organizers of Atlanta’s Music Festival & Conference, A3C — “Hip-hop’s Family Reunion”; an arts and crafts fair expanding from Philadelphia to Asbury Park; a San Fransisco food truck festival organizer; a small party/wedding planner from San Antonio; the young visionary founder of Miami’s first Psychedelic Music festival; a tech-conference/accelerator workshop organizer in Atlanta; and a newlywed bride who planned her Tulum, Mexico wedding from thousands of miles away, at her San Fransisco home.
Affinity Mapping Event-Planner Interviews
Once again, with notable quotes gleaned from hours of interviews with event organizers, we returned to the white board with Post-It Notes to discover more themes and commonalities …
Event Planner Interview Takeaways
Our affinity map for event-planners revealed some striking similarities with vendors. Perhaps obviously, most event-planners have a great passion for organizing events and express intentions to improve and expand their brand. Just as new vendors need help budgeting and marketing, so too do event-planners (especially those new to the event marketplace), with many specifically naming the need for contracts with vendors and venues, to articulate and concretize expectations.
Like vendors, most planners use traditional social media to advertise or market their events, again, with variable results — notably including Eventbrite, given its ease of use and excellent SEO outcomes. Some expressed frustration with the advertising constraint defaults of Facebook and Twitter. Most utilize Instagram to discover and connect with nearby vendors.
Sometimes, planners need to organize events remotely, reflecting the vendors’ quest to discover opportunities beyond their immediate vicinity. Planning events is stressful enough when the planner is within walking distance of the location; that stress increases precipitously with distance. Thus, the need to find vendors and venues with excellent credentials and reputations, who cater to the specific demographics of the attendants is paramount. Reviews, ratings, recommendation, or verification beyond word of mouth is quintessential to a successful event.
The most glaring difference between the needs of vendors and planners is the event-planner’s need to source venues to host. There is no corollary to that pain-point with vendors, for obvious reasons. This will likely be an issue we’ll have to address in future design decisions. In vehicle-dependent markets like Atlanta, where the event marketplace is extremely crowded, finding the perfect venue — with convenient parking and nearby food — is the most challenging aspect of organizing events. Oftentimes, in order to host an event at an ideal, ‘cool’ location (such as industrial microbreweries), venues require attendants to take a time-consuming tour prior to the event.
Event Planner Personas
Main User: Pernell is a festival planner for Afro Punk after dark. Recently promoted from planning AfroPunk After Dark in Atlanta, his home-base, to also planning AfroPunk’s official afterparty ceremonies in Brooklyn, NY, Pernell is excited about the promotion, yet anxious about his quest to source the best entertainment, food, and venues in Brooklyn. While he has friends and family in NYC who have given a few recommendations and industry colleagues familiar with some neighborhoods, he needs more details about vendors and venues to compare prices and go beyond word of mouth, in order to satisfy the needs of attendees during the three consecutive nights.
Penny is a casual one-time user planning her wedding, wanting to do so mostly herself. The wedding takes place in Mexico, far from her California home. She must rely on word-of-mouth suggestions finding venues some of which require tours; venue personnel don’t respond through email as quickly as they do in the states.
The Problem Statements:
With data from our interview takeaways, assessing and defining the most pressing problem for vendors and planners emerged:
- Planners want to find new talent but don’t have time to go looking for it and usually find people through word of mouth or posting to Facebook.
- Vendors want to focus on their services and are frustrated by the marketing aspect of their business.
Market Research: Competitive & Comparative Analysis
Never having extensively studied the online events marketplace in detail prior to working with vendorspace and only having discussed challenges with individual planners and vendors, from our perspective, Ify’s vision appeared wholly unique, a prospect with almost revolutionary implications. Midway through our interview process, we began conducting extensive market research to discover what other companies in the event marketplace were up to.
At first, we researched the most obvious sites — Facebook Events pages, Eventbrite, Wedding Wire — mentioned by interviewees. As our research expanded, we discovered other event/vendor websites, some aligning closer to Ify’s vision than others. Each new (to us) website, with its own unique way of connecting vendors to events, was both inspiring and stressful, if not terrifying. Best practices became more evident with each new analysis; however, by the end of a thorough, hours-long excavation of a comparable website, there is a panic of dread that the researcher has found the very platform s/he plans to design.
So what to do with all the data we accumulated? How would we apply our market research takeaways to our vendor and planner personas? We decided to take an extensive analysis of the features within and marketing positioning of the most relevant websites we found. Our finalists were (1) the reigning king of event-marketing Eventbrite; (2) the party-planning database of themes, ideas, and vendors, PartyPop; (3) Wedding Wire, committed exclusively to wedding planning; and (4) GigMaster, “Your Every Event Marketplace”, our closest competitor.
Market Positioning Research
Market Research Takeaways
Through the ups and downs of discovering strengths and challenges of companies comparable to vendorspace, the overarching takeaway is clear: a stark, preferential emphasis on the needs of the event-planner over and above that of the vendor. In every instance, vendors’ needs are almost secondary or accidental to those of the event-planner. After uploading descriptions, menus, audio or video clips, and/or photos, vendors mostly wait to be found and contacted by the planner. Every site has a vendor-membership fee, but beyond companies with the most prohibitive member fees (wedding-planners Wedding Wire ($200+/mo) and The Knot ($600+/mo)), the vendor is offered scant support or advice marketing, advertising, and standing out amidst the competition. The vendor is alone, at the whim of the chance that an event-planner might reach out.
Designing the MVP for Our Primary Persona: Vendor DJ Fat Stax
Since none of the comparable event websites we researched address the unique needs of the vendor, designing our first primary user-flow became obvious: making contact with an event-planner (our planner persona, Pernelle the Party Planner) for DJ Fat Stax — a DJ who recently moved to the impossible-to-break-in cultural capitol of NYC — to book a show at an afterparty for the AfroPunk Music Festival.
At this point, before we proceeded to designing the MVP, we had a very constructive dialogue with our stakeholders on a conference call (which beyond Ify, include the Beijing-based veteran web developer/engineer Theodore Caravellas and Chris, a marketing strategist) about our research prompting our decision to focus on vendors first, since vendor needs were the most obvious opportunity in the marketplace.
From Research to Prototype: The Five Day Sprint Design Process
Armed with a target —empowering the vendor to locate an event of interest and pitching to or communicating with the planner of that event — we proceeded toward sketching our designs. Ify applied a necessary pressure to our completing a user-flow, having meetings and presentations with investors scheduled in under two weeks. So how would we get from where we were — swimming in research data — to our destination: a clickable prototype?
We took inspiration from Jake Knapp of Google Ventures’ Five Day Sprint, slightly modifying the technique as our blueprint to quickly design a prototype. Whereas the book recommends a team of no more than seven, with input from experts when necessary in a typical sprint, our team was essentially comprised of three (and a half?): two UX designers, with input from an “expert” web developer, and Ify, the CEO as the “decider.”
Day One (Monday): The Map
In a traditional Sprint, the team starts at the end — defining the goal, the target, composing a simple map of how to get from problem to solution. Thankfully, our work up until this point had made our Day One redundant. We had our our target, our rough map, and our goal. Our “experts” — Ify, Theodore, and research data from interviews and market analysis — would inform our proceeding decisions with vision, constraints, and best practice.
- Ify’s vision oscillated between vendorspace becoming either a Tinder-esque matchmaking platform or something more akin to Eventbrite. Fast and mobile like Tinder? Or thorough and desktop-based like Eventbrite?
- Theodore advised rolling vendorspace out as a desktop-platform, opposed to mobile, suggesting modeling a mobile application once the desktop version is tested and iterated to satisfaction.
- Our user interviews supported Theodore’s contention: while vendors use mobile to post and promote quickly, for overall business organization, to discover and develop strategy, they overwhelmingly utilize desktop sites and applications.
After Ify agreed and obliged, that we’d design the first iterations of vendorspace for desktop, we moved on to…
Day Two (Tuesday): Remixing and Improving
Taking variable data, existing ideas, and expert advice to inform our solution, then “converting [these] into something original and new”, we hand-sketched to discover best practice and make it right for vendorspace!
The above sketches are, in Sprint parlance, “Notes” — ideas which, together with an array of relevant screenshots of comparable sites, we used to inform design decisions for an ideal vendorspace user-flow. These sketches, coupled with many screenshots, ruminating on how or why to incorporate any of them, brought us to the conclusion of our Day Two (Tuesday). How would we Decide what to include, what to jettison, what to reimagine? That’s what tomorrow is for …
Day Three (Wednesday): Decision Day; Solution Sketches.
Our MVP empowers the vendor to find nearby events of interest; thus, the most crucial element of our user-flow is enabling the vendor to set filters at the outset, in order to see all the available event opportunities of interest. Returning to Tuesday’s sketches and screenshots, we started sketching some possible solutions …
We were slightly snagged by the conundrum of the landing page, as we sketched possible filtering solutions for the landing page before we could proceed to further designs of the overall site. Ify brilliantly suggested Kayak’s filtering/landing page as a possible solution:
This is a perfect example of Sprint’s advice to find “inspiration outside your domain.” A successful sprint requires the sprinters to “remix and improve — but never blindly copy” existing ideas from a broad array of industries. The UX team (Brian & I) had been so focused on comparable event-focused websites that we suffered tunnel vision; we needed the decider’s (Ify’s) high-level thinking to move us out of our tunnel so we could proceed to building out the rest of the vendor’s user-flow. Thus the decision was made: the vendor would set filters to find events of interest as easily as a traveller sets filters to find the best deals using Kayak.
Once this crucial first decision was made, we returned to more traditional UX practice: sketching an overall site-map as well as a vendor user-flow, from setting the filters to discovering and reaching out to an event (organizer) s/he is interested in vending:
Plotting out vendorspace’s information architecture and sketching a user-flow was important to us as UX designers; a clear way to incorporate these dimensions of our UX process into Knapp’s methodology wasn’t obvious. So while returning to this more traditional UX practice deviated us from a by-the-book Sprint timeline — compelling us to improvise and expand that traditional five-day timeline — we strictly observed the intention and spirit of the Five-Day Sprint.
Moreover, most examples who employed the methodologies featured in the book — Savioke Robotics, Blue Bottle Coffee, Flatiron Health ,— are well-established, fully-funded, profitable companies who already existed in the world, attempting to build an online brand, create or improve a feature. We used the methodology of the Five Day Sprint to design a user-flow from scratch. Thus, spending slightly more than five days on designing a vendorspace prototype was an obvious decision validated and agreed to by the decider.
With a landing page of filters, a sitemap, and a user-flow, we returned to the white board to resolve more granular details through the use of a storyboard. The utilization of a storyboard is mandatory in a sprint, allowing designers to “spot problems and points of confusion before the prototype is built”: how would our persona discover vendorspace in the first place?; what would our Kayak-inspired filter-boxes filter, exactly?; how would the events of interest appear?; what would making contact with a planner look like?;. The first iteration of our storyboard was a messy brainstorming session that sought to answer some of these basic questions.
The most important decision we made during this rough sketch storyboard was filter options, the subject of each filter-box, their values and constraints, in order of significance to the vendors we interviewed:
- Where are they interested in vending/how far were they interested in traveling from their location?
- What dates are they available? This is an especially important stipulation for vendors new to commodifying their hobby or passion with day-jobs or family schedules who are as yet restricted to specific dates or times of availability.
- What types of events are they interested in working? This filter is as crucial to vendors as event planners — allowing both parties to more easily find one another based on mutual interests.
- How many people are expected? This was an important deciding factor for vendors, given the ability to estimate profit based on scale as well as their ability meet the demand, depending on the size of their operation.
- How would they be compensated? Would there be a set-up cost or an hourly fee? Either way, we considered a scale to address both concerns.
Of equal prominence was ease of making contact — how alerts would be sent between vendors and planners. As is obvious, this was mostly comprised of rectangles, arrows, and words. We were on the verge of collapse by the time we finished, having broken one of the most important rules of the Five Day Sprint: sticking to a work schedule of no more than six hours per day. So we agreed to redraw it as wireframes the next day, as our Wednesday bled into our Thursday …
Day 3.5 (Still “Wednesday”, but technically Thursday): Refining the Storyboard
Following Sprint guidelines, we drew out twenty separate rectangular frames on an empty white board — each representing a chronological scene in DJ Fat Stax’s flow. The first upper-left frame represents the first scene — in our case, how the DJ discovers vendorspace. Fat Stax types “Nearby events needing house DJ” into Google in hopes of finding parties to play.
Once at vendorspace, the filters either auto-populate or drop-down with suggestions as the vendor adds text to each subject box. It occurred to us that different subjects might require entirely different values. For example, when filtering for location-radius, would a drop down menu appear with arbitrary distances in miles or would a map with pins displaying local events be more appropriate? When filtering for date/time availability, would another drop-down menu appear with arbitrary dates and times of availability (“Now”, “This weekend”, “Next week”, “next weekend”, etc) or would a calendar appear to make selections from? Selecting dates from a calendar could appear in a variety of ways as well, adding further complication to just the second of our four or five filters.
Preferring the inclusion of icons to represent types of events and crowd-sizes, Ify the decider weighed in, for the following two filters. So, many of these possible variations altered the horizontal, comic strip layout of our board, which read like a comic in some instances, but like vertically-stacked alternative ideas in the first few rows.
By the end of this exercise, we were contemplating contacting an appraiser from the MoMA to come by and make an offer. …
Day 4 (“Thursday” but actually Friday): The Prototype “Façade”
Stepping away from hand-sketches and whiteboards, we returned to the digital environs to create the wireframes and a clickable prototype. In most previous projects, we’ve used the Sketch app to design wireframes and InVision to create prototypes, and thus, were admittedly distressed about completing such a daunting task in one day.
Prior to applying the Five-Day Sprint, in our experience, designing quality wireframes for a functional prototype has taken at least a few days. But as Jake Knapp reminds us: “you’ve already done the difficult part on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. The storyboard removes all guesswork about what to include. The solution sketches are packed with specific text and details …” .
There are four exercises Sprint advises teams to follow in order to most rapidly build a prototype. First is “picking the right tools”: we made great use of the delightfully user-friendly wireframing platform, Balsamiq. Second is divvying up the jobs necessary to ensure a mellifluent, believable product — the objective being to “Divide and Conquor”: two or more Makers, a Stitcher, a Writer, an Asset Collector, and an Interviewer. Again, given that our team consisted of only two designers, betwixt the two of us, Brian and I followed the protocols of all five jobs. Third is to “Stitch it Together”; lastly is conducting a “Trial Run” of the prototype.
Admittedly, given the size of our team (of two), effectively following all four exercises required more than just one day, expanding our Five-Day Sprint for vendorspace through the weekend. Added to the expansion of our “Wednesday”, our Sprint turned into an Eight-Day plan — which, even given these modifications, was still exceptionally fast-paced.
Using Kayak’s filtration model for our landing page was almost intuitively easy, having decided the subjects and values for each filter. There are two entry-points for the website: as a vendor or an event-planner. Our primary flow is for a vendor (DJ FatStax) living in New York, willing to travel fifty miles on select dates, with preferred event-types and crowd sizes. (We haven’t yet built out a flow for the event planner, but the filter subjects will change according to their needs, as they search appropriate vendors) …
Once the vendor sets the filters and enters vendorspace, our new challenge was the layout of the site itself. Like Kayak, the team agreed vendorspace needs to maintain the ability to reset filters while searching for events (or vendors).
- Based on Ify’s initial vision, this layout allows vendors to search for events of interest similarly to how singles find potential dates on Tinder, with options moving horizontally
- A floating “pop-out” hamburger filter-bar disappears, allowing results to be displayed prominently across the full screen, scrollable horizontally.
- Like Kayak’s filter-bar, filters are omnipresent at the top of the page and results are clearly presented across the screen, 6 at once, vertically scrollable.
- Another verticle approach whereby filters require almost half the screen leaving room for 3 events to be seen at a time.
The Kayak-solutions wins again! Thanks, Kayak!
Having designed and delivered a low-fidelity clickable prototype for the user-flow of a vendor seeking to contact an event(/planner), Ify requested a few hi-fidelity screen shots as well, to include in presentations as she seeks investors.
We selected the filters/landing page, the results page, and the floating pop-out event-detail overlay that appears when clicking on/selecting one of the event results. (The developer, Theodore, provided crucial insight for this latter design decision during our sprint, when we were unsure about the best interaction result from clicking on an event — would it open a new page with more detail, from which the user would have to navigate back to the event-results page? Or would an overlay be a better solution? From a developer’s perspective, the overlay option is far easier for navigating than the user being led to a new page. Which was great to learn, as it’s also more elegant from a design perspective!)
Having learned so much, it was now time for more interviews and learning— also known as “Friday” in the parlance of the Five Day Sprint (though we were well past Friday by this time in our modified sprint.)
Day 5 (“Friday”): Test and Learn
According to the godfather of user research, Jakob Nielson, we need a mere five testers, each willing to spend an hour for interviews and testing of the prototype. As we entered the final day (or two) of our Five (-to-Eight) Day Sprint, Ify turned her attention to focus sharply on presenting vendorspace before some start-up pitch competitions in Atlanta, using the prototype we created. Since she intends to be as participatory in the testing of the prototype as she has been in every other step of the process, technically our “Day Five” has been put on hold.
However, we did find a willing trial-run tester at Madison Square Park! While her initial reactions were very positive, her feedback illuminated some obvious navigational hiccups we neglected or forgot to fix in the rush to finish the prototype. Although she provided valuable reactions and feedback and made us more comfortable with the prospect of future interviews, we clearly need more testers in order to draw insights about the effectiveness of the vendorspace prototype overall.
- Continue testing and iterating
- strengthen filters to refine specific genres/niches
- Build out a flow for every persona, vendor and planner alike …