Performing your first gig as a designer

Aspiring to be a great designer isn’t the same as trying to become the Rumi of poetry or the Kendrick Lamar of rapping, but every first job has some similarities and the field of design is no different. Before any concert, a band must try out different notes, write various melodies, find an audience, and test their songs with their fans. My first design job came from a student at Babson College, an entrepreneurial-focused school, who asked me to experiment with an alternative user interface design for his startup’s app. I approached the process with planning, review, improvement, and implementation. So what exactly was my client doing asking a teenager to work on a real business product?

Although I was a teenager, my client trusted me to get the job well done and based his choice of contractor on portfolio. I showed interest, perseverance, and an openness to listen to the client’s needs and vision for the product: a product meant to improve a method of communication and make moments enjoyable for the masses.

The issue my client wanted to address was that, despite a growing market of social media, an aggregate for funny stories and personal messages didn’t exist. Convo is an app that turns texting into entertainment. From the wondrous, heart-pouring stories that friends tell each other in confidence to the fierce GIF battles arguing over the best character from The Office, Convos make the most interesting text messages public for the world to see and enjoy.

*hint* it’s definitely Michael

To get started on the app, I had several phone calls with my client to fully understand the product he wanted and how to improve the product’s visual appeal as well as usability. It was a big step up from the casual logo-designing and graphics I did for friends in my free time.

Making the Main Melody

Being my first freelance job, I didn’t know where to start. I took down various notes from our phone calls and figured out some branding work. I came up with a new color scheme for the application and addressed the colors as the “popping colors” for the application or the neutral colors. The main reddish-orange gradient became the main branding tool I used around the app, while the gray and off-white were the neutral colors I could use as interface tools. After I had determined the colors, I got started was a main feed. I believed the main screen would be the section of the app that would be most utilized by users, so I thought, “Why not start with the essentials?” The user interface had to be not just intuitive, but also engage a user to explore new areas of the app.

I decided that a screen that resembled a typical social media view would be a nice way to help users figure out where to tap and look for information initially. Most social media applications used rectangular shapes and cell-like structures to individualize posts and interactive elements. As such, shaping each cell like a text bubble helped to give the app its own identity and make it a unique product while still keeping the familiar feeling of interactivity for the user.

I came to a halt at trying to figure out a unique approach to navigation. After one of my friends showed me this really cool news app, I was astonished by the innovative navigation system of the application and how personal the interface felt to me. Although the app was not a social media app, the interface used text message bubbles as a method for the user to communicate with the program. The navigation system transformed the application from a news app to an assistant dedicated to delivering news in a unique and personal way. I decided to use the app as inspiration and try out a similar navigation. I believe Convo’s purpose of connecting people to each other in an intimate communication method would go hand-in-hand with the navigation.

Using message bubble replies gives the user a feel of familiarity with a conversation and encourages exploration around the app as a first time user. As the app becomes more frequently used by the user, he or she will begin to use the more efficient aspects of the navigation that are shown during the app’s initial on-boarding.

Replies also help users learn more about how to access certain aspects of the app. The bubble reading “Can I start a Convo?” would lead directly into an interactive tutorial that emphasizes the button in the top right as a quick way to create new Convos.

Main functions are shown in their entirety for ease of use, but more complex functions are up to the user to figure out. The tutorials for certain functions are not thorough, but rather guides for user exploration across the app. Animations will show users where to access functions, but not how to complete those functions. This gives users the opportunity to satiate their own curiosity without having to go through a length process outlining every small detail of functionality. Not to be mistaken, the user will know how the app functions, but more specialized options are not explained in the on-boarding.

Grabbing an Audience’s Attention

Now, you might be wondering what the basketball, pizza, and movie emojis are doing in one of the bubble replies, and that’s exactly what I wanted users to think. After tapping on the bubble, they’re swept off to another way to explore Convos: Topics.

Topics is a way for users to sort through the global database of Convos by creating their own parameters. The most popular topics of the day show up as the biggest bubbles, but there are still tons of options to look through. Moving your finger across the bubbles, you can see exactly what each icon means.

Tapping and holding the bubble shows that the icon is for Convos about basketballs.

Seeing Convos by topic was an idea I adopted from Twitter’s exploration mechanisms. However, with the Topics page, you can choose exactly what type of story you want to read rather than random stories showing up on the main feed. My client wasn’t super psyched about the topics tab of the app, but I think it was vital to adding a unique aspect to the app and differentiating it from the messaging base that the app had around all the other pages. His main concern was that the topics tab took away too much from the more personal aspect of reading texts from your friends or people you know. We agreed that the topics tab was a solid addition to the app, but should not necessarily be its focus. At this point, I realized that I wasn’t only designing for a client, I was designing it for myself. I was thinking more about what I would like to see in an app like this and how my friends and family as users would experience the app. This became a huge issue for me and my thought process. I began to approach this application as a personal project rather than a job and sometimes almost blocked out my client’s concerns completely. At this point, I was excelling as a visual designer, but failing as a consultant. I wasn’t even able to recognize my mistakes until a few weeks after the job was done. During this time, I learned that freelance design is very different from illustrating or making app concepts for one’s own portfolio. Freelance work is more about meeting a client’s needs and thinking about others.

Teaching Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

After creating more detailed screens for all the processes of the Topics and Main Feed, I moved on to focus on the on-boarding process. I wanted the user interface learning process to be seamless from tutorial to product while also helping the user learn the unique navigation of the app. Personally, I have skipped over app tutorials countless times just to end up searching for help on the internet five minutes later because the initial on-boarding seemed unnecessary. My client didn’t want the user to be able to skip the onboarding in order to correctly receive permissions from him or her, so I tried to make the onboarding process as humorous and entertaining as possible.

Making on-boarding entertaining for the user!

The above screens gave the on-boarding process and system its own personality. Each “text” the user sent feels like an original thought and not a choice from set of options. The onboarding doesn’t necessarily end at all, but instead becomes the natural interface of the application. The user will be brought to the trending screen when opening the app, but options to visit different sections of the application through text bubbles seen in the onboarding process will always be available. The screens above would only occur once of course, but options like “Can I start a Convo?” only graduate from their spot in the interface as the user taps on them less frequently and begins to use the button in the top-right more often. Those options would then be replaced by options more tailored to the user based on their behaviors within the app such as certain topic selection or favorited Convos. As my first on-boarding, I wanted to make the experience unique and creative. Most machines don’t talk back, but when one does, interaction becomes the best way to pique a user’s interest.

Meeting a Client’s Needs

I learned many lessons about working as a contractor through this job, but the most important of which was how to converse with someone and recognizing their needs. One of my favorite sayings is a famous quote from Henry Ford:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Listening to my client to determine exactly what he envisioned for the product helped me to visualize my own version of the product and try to create what he saw as closely as possible.

I thought about the people that would use the app and made my friends try it out in its current build, noting exactly what issues they had with usability and experience throughout the app. I did my best to meet my client’s needs, but of course, not every design is perfect. Matching every color to every pixel still wouldn’t make the interface perfect because every user is different and the same goes for clients. The client might be the singer, but the guitarist is just as important in the process of creating the music before the concert, and the audience is the most important of all.

I had an amazing experience designing Convo and it was a great experience for me to start freelance designing. If you thought the project was cool and want to see all the screens and full app design, checkout the project on Bēhance and leave a ❤ on this post! Feel free to also check out my website and contact me if you’re interested in hiring me for freelance work. Thanks for reading!