Meet Aqua™, Your Social Card
The story of it’s design, technology and psychology
About 4 years ago, I stumbled into a co-working space called AlleyNYC. Back then, the idea of co-working spaces was still groundbreaking. I loved the place, and it quickly became my second home.
The early community was amazing, you’d always meet someone awesome just by being there. But there was one odd thing: after getting acquainted, there wasn’t a clear path for keeping in touch.
We weren’t ready for the glorious Facebook friendship, and are obviously too cool for business cards. We’d joke, “how is this even a problem?”, and usually one person would send a blank email to the other.
It was a clever move, but a weak link. The blank emails didn’t hold context, and they weren’t conducive to further interaction. I thought, there’s got to be a way to develop this into something useful, and started what ended up as Aqua.
So what does Aqua do exactly? Aqua lets you hand your phone to the person you met to type in their name and email. When they finish, it saves their info for you and emails them your profile. But there’s more…
In this post, we’ll go into how Aqua works, and the design, technology and psychology that went into it’s production. As you’ll see, the ideas are in the execution.
Wait, what’s wrong with business cards?
After all, everyone uses them…
Well, first, you have to actually make them! Choosing and tailoring the design is a process. If you go custom, it can be a nightmare to print right. In contrast, Aqua offers a superior solution, in minutes, for free.
Second, they’re a total waste. Studies show our species prints over 27 million per day, only to lose 88% of them in the first week. Aqua aims to bring this waste down to 0, and lasts in ways a paper card can’t. (Of the remaining 12% — I doubt the response rate is great..)
Third, they’re static. You can’t change them, and they don’t magically update in your acquaintances messy pile of business cards. What is this, 2006?
Fourth, for all the hype of folding the wallet into the smartphone, we forgot a pretty big chunk of it. Thanks to Aqua, you’ll never have to carry cards, or remember to carry them.
Finally, business cards sound so lame. Their name represent the transactional style of relationships we all disdain. Moving forward, we’ll go back to their original name: social cards.
Embracing Email as a Social Card Format
It’s not fancy, but it’s fancy
Most contact sharing apps choose the high-tech approach, which creates at least two problems. First, sensors like GPS and Bluetooth are not reliable in real-life situations. Second, they require both people to have the app installed to work. That’s like having iPhone require a stylus.
Aqua leaps over these problems by sending cards over email, resulting in an experience that always delivers. Unlike a phone number, you own your address, it never changes, and the data associated to it is stored on the cloud. That means your virtually everyone can receive a card from you and look it up at any time in the future.
The Build Up
TL;DR: the app flopped at two hackathons, I got out of New York, jumped off a cliff, survived, then rebuilt the app
The first attempt at this email-social-card app came at an ERA Hackathon. At the time, I was obsessed with blue-green gradients, so that became the base color of the app. I put the word Aqua in as a logo placeholder because the colors made me think of that word. I also decided to refer to the in-app contacts as “acquaintances,” and that was where the dots connected.
I presented the first prototype to learn that the judges were not as enthusiastic about it as myself. I told them of Aqua’s viral nature and how it solves the chicken-and-egg problem of social products, and they kept hitting back with something like “when we had Palm Pilot’s, we had a similar ‘beam’ feature, so what’s new about this?” 😅
The second crack came at the Launch Hackathon, which, well, seemed like a great place to launch. I tracked down nearly every judge ahead of time to get feedback on my pitch and make sure the concept is clear. Once again, the idea was shot down. 😿
That was followed ultimate catalyst, my startup being acquired. It’s been a stressful year, and once it was over, I was burned out, lost and in need of the next thing. Things were pretty bad.. at one point I even interviewed at Microsoft. 😧
I decided it was best to take a two week holiday (which has spanned about 8 months so far). It’s amazing how far you can go with a laptop.
At some point of the journey, I was at a 50 foot cliff in Chiang Mai where people would jump off into the water. I’m not really an expert at jumping into water, but surely, I wasn’t going to let some air and water intimidate me. I am Aquaman, after all.
Unfortunately, I mistook the real enemy, gravity, and it taught me a painful lesson on the safety of cannonballing and more.🤕
The jump landed me in the hospital with the assurance I may have cracked my spine. Luckily, it was just a bad sprain. Still, I was to be horizontal for a few months, and that meant lots of time for Netflix and code. 🤓
Building for the Real World
More Highs and Lows…
My time abroad showed me good use cases for the app, and now the time to execute had been carved. I figured Aqua needed a screen for adding people, seeing who you added, and managing the profile you share. With that in place, it was obvious it should show you who added you, let you change your password, etc. 😴
This tallied up to five screens, which was perfect because earlier I designed a header menu that that looked best with 5 buttons. The design is more common now, but original when I crafted it. With that in place, the rest came together quickly, and the first build was born. However, the euphoria of creation was short lived, as new problems sprang up. 😇😡
It Needs to Embrace Laziness
Typing on Mobile is Terrible UX
The biggest problem was the app’s enormous dependency on typing, which came at odds with the goal of requiring zero action. While only the email is required, it’s preferable to have the name and to attach a personal message. So how do we get there? The solution to this problem came in two parts.
First is Handoff Mode, which cuts through the “what’s your name again … can you spell out your email?” game with an interface designed to let the other person type their information in for you. Once they finish typing, they are instructed to pass back the phone. Where’s the easy button? 😏
Second is Message Templates, which let you create re-usable messages that you can paste into the message box. Though it may seem a bit impersonal, most of the messages we write would be similar, and our goal here is to send a signal for future interaction.
Let’s dive into why these are big…
The Display of Trust
Friendship Takes Risk
When you hand over your phone for the other person to enter their information, you are making one of the first displays of trust. The whole experience creates a new kind of ritual, and I believe this taps into a big part of what makes business cards so powerful.
In Asian cultures, I’ve noticed the way the cards are passed carries a lot of importance. They cards are often passed with a certain grace, which I interpret it as a sign of respect, humility and trust, and perhaps an indication the person’s preferred relationship style. The way you pass your phone can send a similar signal.
One thing I’ve noticed in my travels across Asia is, whenever I’d hand my phone to someone, they would usually return it in a very respectful way, holding it in two hands with the device pointing to me. I’ve also noticed that when getting help with Maps from strangers, they’d often ask to hold my phone for a moment. It’s very interesting.
(While on subject, in Western culture, business cards may be viewed as advertisements, and Aqua also plays well to that. There is a field to enter and describe your occupation, which is a good way to tell people “I’m a lawyer” without scaring them away. 😜)
With Aqua’s social cards, not only is the utility of the business card increased, but they also create a new ritual to challenge the dominance of business cards. Hopefully, this will help establish a new norm.
The Care Test
. . . Time to Get Mental
When you send a social card, you can attach a personal message to it. This type of personalization helps you achieve two things.
First, you send a signal: “I’ll be in touch,” “let’s keep in touch,” and “let’s grab coffee next week, I imagine you’d look really good after you get some rest” can all take you to different places.
Second, you leave the ball in their court, giving them the cue to follow up if they are interested. 😎
(In addition to helping you gauge interest, can Aqua increase your response rate over the business card? I’m betting yes.)
As mentioned earlier, 88% of business cards get lost in the first week, whereas Aqua’s social cards will permanent sit in the recipients inbox, also doubling as a reminder of the meeting. This also makes it easier to keep the conversation going; just hit the reply button.
You Can Have it Any Color You’d Like,
as Long As It’s Not Aqua
In the original prototypes, I went with an iOS style look for the email. I figured its simple, familiar, and generic enough for everyone to get along with. Still, I figured, it must have a weakness, and it did: not everyone wants to be the same. 🤖🤖🤖🤖
I went on to create a dozen themes, each in some way inspired by the different things and characters in my life, and each to allow you to make a unique statement. 🙃 If you don’t find one that suits you, email me and maybe we can make something that does.
Now It’s Perfect, Right?
The Answer is Always No
For majority of the app’s creation, I was convinced no one else had thought of this. It was not pleasant to look at the Google search results, but hey, they say competition can be a good thing… and ABBA did say the winner takes it all.
One of the upsides of competition is being able to read their reviews and see what the market is thinking. The app reviews showed a similar pattern: the idea is great, I want to use it, but the app barely works. 😼
I found Aqua to be better than the alternatives, but like others, I overlooked a huge need: offline support. I thought of all the pick up artists on the underground NYC subway trains, and what kind of person would I be if I let them down? 😅
Boo, now most of the app had to be rebuilt. Being a web guy gone mobile, I overlooked some major platform differences. Shouldn’t I just get a job and actually make money? Where’s the fun in that?
I saw a reasonable opportunity to learn and optimize ahead of time. I’m now convinced that if somebody were stuck on an island without cellular, and added all their imaginary friends to Aqua, they would be able to keep in touch once they get back to civilization. 🏐
It’s free like the other best things in life 😘
and available for iPhone, the best paid thing in life
In short, Aqua provides a framework for connecting with people, lets you share an experience, and helps you make a good impression, all in under a minute. This is a strong alternative to “how do we keep in touch?”
Aqua also comes with notes, reminders, etc, to help you manage your relationships. You can expect the feature set to grow, and as it does, the focus will always remain on your privacy and interests.
You can get the app today at http://Aqua.me.
If you find the concept useful, download it and let me know how it’s working, or not working, for you. I’d love to hear your perspective.
This is the first play of a bigger concept 🤐, so stay tuned and…
LET’S MAKE NETWORKING GREAT AGAIN. 🙏