Bridging Local Communities and Local Businesses at ISWAG.
…on creating a digital platform to connect local communities in Nigeria, Western Africa.
Note: This case study is a work in progress. This part majorly represents the early stage of the product design process and as such is focused on research. I’ll be sure to update this piece with experiences from post-launch activities soon.
Connecting local communities.
Founded in the spring of 2017, ISWAG Innovations' mission was to connect local communities and businesses in Nigeria, Western Africa. This was to be achieved by creating a central online digital platform that bridges the gap between the locals and small businesses in Nigerian communities. The company was a grantee of the Aso Villa Demo Day(AVDD)scheme, a startup support initiative under the Office of the Vice President of Nigeria.
The main goals of the online platform(ISWAG) were to ;
- Keep people up to date on what happens in their communities.
- Create awareness for local businesses to sell goods and services in their communities and outside their communities.
- Create an avenue for people to have their voices heard in and outside of their communities.
A key part of the company’s vision in the event that ISWAG became successful, was to implicitly facilitate the achievement of 3 out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) — Quality education(goal 4), decent work and economic growth(goal 8), and peace and justice strong institutions(goal 16).
Prior to designing the core experience of the ISWAG platform, I was a complete newbie to the field of User Experience Design. I was originally employed as a Software Engineer to build the mobile app.
At the time, I was exploring my interests in design and when we set out to work, there wasn’t any plan or mention of anything regarding design. I volunteered to educate the team including key stakeholders on the little I knew about design and its importance to the project.
Afterwards, I got the buy-in to implement UX/Design practices in the project. A fellow Engineer offered to assist and we two formed the core design team on the project. Most of our work involved learning on the job and everything below in this case study are things we had never previously gotten a hang of.
Design, Research and Validating assumptions.
With a team of 8, including 3 developers and 2 designers we set out to work. The first few weeks were about us getting to know each other and our roles in building the platform. As, the major designer on the team, I was assigned the task of getting the various design ‘deliverables’ out and implemented as intended. The platform was to include a mobile app for Android and iOS, also a Web app for Desktop and Mobile.
I led and conducted user research with my team over two phases and over the course of three months. The main objectives were to;
- Validate our assumptions and uncover unmet needs.
Going into the design of the project, a lot of our decisions were heavily hypothesis driven. We had strong individual and collective opinions about the major pain-point a platform like ours should address and how we were to address them. Still, we still needed to backup these hypothesis with solid real world input from our ideal users and also uncover unmet needs the platform could cater for too.
2. Improve the usability of the app and uncover red flags in on-boarding users to the platform.
We knew getting users on the platform would be a huge task and we understood early that removing frictions in the onboarding experience would help reduce chances of new users dropping off (bounce rates).
Phase 1 — User Interviews.
We conducted 10 user interviews, each was about 20-30 minutes long, and all of them were done physically in person. Since our ideal users would be local businesses/SME owners and local citizens, we selected people from both groups.
For the local citizens, we split them into two groups — from residential communities(regular locals) and from campus communities(locals who are students in college). We assumed this would help us get more contextual and nuanced findings.
From furniture making businesses, to medium sized unisex salons, gym owners, phone repairers, local pharmacies, small stores, college students, and college students who own businesses, we had a lot of interesting findings. We also recorded the entire process after issuing our participants a permission to record form and getting their complete consent.
The first step was carefully composing the interview scripts, some key learnings we took in connection with constructing questions are:
- never use leading questions (E.g. “Do you think an app that helps you stay in the know with what’s happening around you is something you would use?”),
- if it is possible, don’t ask about the future (and especially exclude for instance these questions: “Would you pay to get more awareness about your business on our platform?”, “How much would you pay”?),
- use open-ended questions, and ask about past experiences (e.g. “Please tell me about the last time you created awareness for your business!”),
- follow a logical structure (introduction, warming-up questions, etc.)
We didn’t strictly follow the interview script during the interview. The real world is very different from a pen and paper and there were a lot of interesting responses and observations that required us to explore outside of the interview script. Being open-minded helped tremendously, plus unexpected insights are great!
A short note about why we left out creating an online survey
While it seems to be an easy-to-conduct method, the results of it can be somewhat misleading. Without prior knowledge of the user, it is easy to construct the questions in a way that ensures validating our assumptions (e.g. provide response options that we think to be appropriate). So it is a better practice to conduct several user interviews (and other observations, like contextual inquiry) first, then based on the patterns that emerged during the “Define” phase of the design process, much more effective survey questions can be designed.
More importantly, we were situated at the heart of the city where our ideal users abounded plenty, so we safely assumed conducting user interviews out there in the wild would allow for more solid findings.
UX Research and Design Methods: Stakeholder Interview, Feedback Review, Competitive Analysis, Best Practice Research, User Interview.
Tools: Google Drive, Google Docs, Pen & Paper, Audio Recorder, MS Excel.
Synthesizing the research findings and moving forward.
After the research, we put together key findings and this influenced our user personas. Although there wasn’t a sharp contrast between our prior assumptions and findings after the research, having undergone the research, we were able to validate our assumptions and uncover a lot of unmet needs.
From driving meaningful discussions, to crafting our design principles, to re-examining our feature backlog and even aiding our Legal Adviser to put together a terms of service document, these findings guided us going forward. Our direction became much clearer and we got a bit more intentional in our duties.
Findings from research.
Upon reviewing the audio recordings and analysing the feedback we got from the research here are some key learnings we got.
From the locals — college students and regular residents:
There’s a very strong interest and excitement to use a product like ISWAG but not without having full control of the people and what they are connected to.
They dislike responsibilities and while they are okay with contributing to happenings in their communities they don’t want to be hassled into doing so.
Most of them find it difficult to stay in the know about what happens around them without constant interactions with friends and associations like support groups, volunteer groups, and church fellowships.
There is a lack of a central place to collate information and happenings about their interests. Most make up for this by joining several local Whatsapp groups. While they actively checkup on the several groups they are in, some of them rarely contribute to discussions about their interests because of ignorance and the fear of appearing irrelevant.
Students with tight schedules don’t have the tolerance to comb through the noise in various online media to find out about relevant information happening around them.
From the local businesses and SME’s owners:
Locals who do not technically own a business but have skills and handworks that they employ to support their livelihood feel strongly disadvantaged in getting awareness for their handworks outside of their network.
Majority of the awareness for their handworks happens through word-of-mouth within their support groups and associations and networks within these associations and support groups possess a weak purchasing power.
Most local business/SME owners resolve to the traditional radio jingles to create awareness for their businesses in their local communities but don’t get the result for the money’s worth as radio jingles are hit-or-miss, lacks personalisation and tools to measure the results.
90% of participants deemed radio jingles ineffective but keep doing it as there isn’t any better alternative.
Most local businesses/SME’s have their works speak for themselves and believe that adequate awareness for their quality work outside of their communities will greatly increase their customers thus impacting their scale and revenue.
They want a way to constantly keep in touch with locals who have previously patronized their services as a means of creating a strong customer relationship.
From both groups — locals and business owners:
There’s the increasing need to keep in touch with security alerts and related information in their communities. Having a reliable and actionable source to report suspected findings and strange activities is non-negotiable.
While the Android app and web platforms were our priorities from the get-go, I was tasked with making the user interface and experience cohesive across all platforms.
Android smartphones and feature phones make up about 90% of devices in Nigeria, Western Africa, in the instance where a user might not have access to an Android phone, the web platforms on Desktop and Mobile would suffice.
Overview of our solutions.
Dynamic feed and Buzzes.
The concepts of using feeds to organise real-time contents aren’t new. The top social apps and online news platforms across the world use the feed in various innovative ways to display and curate contents. This is a widespread mental model and one that doesn’t require steep learning curves.
Respecting people’s mental model is really the foundation of designing usable, user-centered systems and we simply weren't going to reinvent the wheel.
We chose to be unique in our approach to designing the feed and its content and this afforded us the space to experiment with Buzzes.
Buzzes are the regular postings to a feed except that they could be anything from plain text, to links, images, videos, and emojis. They could also be security alerts, posts from local businesses and trends. They varied in importance and functionality.
To create awareness for security alerts and related information, we introduced the concept of buzzes as security alerts, with a unique appearance and functionality. They carried special importance, could be acted upon by the relevant security agencies in such communities(based on a partnership with the company and local law enforcement/security agencies), they could be flagged as inappropriate, and pushed to every user on the platform.
Local businesses could create awareness for their products and services by making buzzes from branded pages which holds a higher priority based on the business model of the company. Lastly, buzzes could also be trending real-time fueled by spontaneity.
Hives and colonies.
The hive is simply a space for the people in a user’s network. A user has total control over his/her hives and could use it as a regular touchpoint to interact with people within and outside of their communities.
Colonies act as a cluster for people with the same interests and activities. Anyone can create a colony and regulate interactions within that colony.
Relocate and Visit.
Interoperability between feeds on the platform allowed for instant switching of communities by users whenever intended. This made it possible for users on the platform to keep in touch with happenings outside of their communities by using the visit feature. In the case of a change of physical community, a user could switch(relocate) to a new digital community on the platform and not worry over the fear of missing out on previous interactions.
Local businesses/SME’s owners could own and manage spaces — branded pages within communities on the platform. Creating awareness and managing interactions within and outside of their communities occur in such spaces. Any user who identifies as a business owner could create a branded page and has total control over that page while getting access to tools that allow for effective management of interactions and communications.
We strongly believed that with these features, we not only created a user-centered system that addresses the needs of our users but also one that supports the company’s goals, objectives and business model.
Phase 2 — Usability Studies.
For a good understanding of the shortcomings of ISWAG’s on-boarding on a micro and macro user experience levels, I needed to conduct usability studies. This was done with 4 participants. These usability studies led to a few key learnings.
Early Testing and First-use Onboarding Experience
During the early stages of testing the app, we observed some frustrations with the first-use onboarding experience, that is signing up and creating a profile.
Most participants, who used Whatsapp and Facebook regularly found it painful to go through our sign-up process. The information we required for a start were much and somewhat unnecessary. This made creating an account a boring and discouraging process.
This experience was frustrating for each participant and as I spent more time assisting them in getting registered on the platform, I understood how discouraging the process was.
Within the space of 15 minutes, 2 of the participants had given up as the poor network reception hindered them from receiving the verification code to complete signing up. One of the participants who used the desktop website had to create a new account twice because nothing happened, even after entering the code that was messaged to him. Eventually, only one participant could successfully signup using the mobile web platform.
A Google slides document showing results from early testing of the desktop web platform can be found here.
Where’s the user journey map?
One key learning from the usability test was that the entire first-use onboarding experience needed to be mapped out. One way we achieved this was to map each step of this experience on a note card, then lay it all out as a user journey map from signup to interacting with others. Once a user’s journey has been mapped and visually laid out, it makes it easier to understand what steps can be combined or eliminated altogether, which experiences can be modified or changed to be better, and where friction from signing up to using the platform can be eliminated.
Not all was bad with the first-use onboarding experience, but it was an eye-opener that we weren’t quite ready yet and a step in the right direction.
…Huge redesign and reflections.
Going into this project, one mistake we made was that we wanted to try and solve every potential problem/pain point on the platform. Because there were so many nuances and functions that could be addressed, the app became overwhelming very quickly, eventually leading to a huge redesign.
One way we could have avoided this was to continuously return to the essence of the project — the simple goal of streamlining connecting local communities and then produce a solid baseline product that can serve as a platform for further functional implementations and iterations.
Additionally, since I was a newbie to the field of User Experience Design going into this project, and the company was on a relatively tight budget, I didn’t have the immediate resources available to actively seek out potential users from farther communities both for user research and user testing.
It would be greatly beneficial to have been able to personally access and interview locals in farther communities and other states in Nigeria besides Port Harcourt, Rivers State. This data could definitely catalyze improvements and iterations in the product.
6 months into building ISWAG, while in the middle of a huge redesign, the company ISWAG Innovations ran out of funds.
ISWAG Innovations eventually went under, and the ISWAG app is set to launch independently on the Google Play Store as Colonny(name change after the redesign) in Q1 2019. Following business decisions before undergoing the redesign, the web and iOS platforms were scrapped in favour of an Android-only app.
I understood the importance of intentionality and a user-centred approach to problem-solving and this project further bolstered my passion and belief in the purpose of designing experiences — To create a product/service or improve an already existing one to make people’s lives better.
Overall, I’m grateful that I had the privilege to work on a project like this!
Support from teams across ISWAG:
Faith Umah, Legal Adviser.
Victor Ofoegbu, User Experience Designer.
John Okoroafor, Software Developer.
Warrake Idris Hussein, Software Developer.
Aniebet David, Software Developer.
Guidance at every step:
Ibianiye Wale Kayode, Chief Technology Officer.
Endie Umunna, Chief Executive Officer.