Designing a Mobile Platform

Jon Rundle
Jul 8, 2020 · 9 min read

A couple of months ago, we shipped a brand new mobile platform at Envoy. This was timed with a rollout of our new brand and a comprehensive workplace platform. This release was the culmination of a process that was a couple years in the making. There were highs and lows and a lot of learning. Here’s what it looked like from a product design perspective.

The beginning of our mobile journey

In 2016, we launched our first-ever mobile app, Envoy Passport.

This app was designed specifically with a focus on visitors who were interacting with our Envoy Visitors kiosks regularly. It utilized Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to communicate directly with the iPad and auto-fill the visitor’s information — speeding up the sign-in experience. Visitors were also awarded stamps from the different companies they had visited. While not total gamification, it added some fun and gave the app its name.

In 2018, fast-forwarding a couple years, we launched our second mobile app, Envoy Deliveries. Timed with our second product, it allowed office managers to intake packages faster and easier than ever before. Now we had two mobile apps with different audiences. While a lot of companies have different apps for different users, there was a case to be made that our users were the same.

We had a vision of a future where everything could exist under one roof, inside of a unified mobile app.

Blue sky design concepts

Going into the Deliveries launch, we had already begun to talk about what our long term mobile platform could potentially look like. In 2017, we produced some early concepts of a unified mobile app that would bring all the current and future functionality of Envoy to the palm of your hand, which we lovingly termed “Envoy Mobile”. Even back then, we knew our company vision was to build many products for the workplace. Although we only had Visitors at the time, we knew Deliveries was around the corner, and we had a vision of even more.

Understanding this larger vision, we felt it was necessary to chase down this concept and reframe our understanding of what a unified mobile app could be. This is where blue sky concepts and design played an instrumental role in understanding how to could truly realize this vision. It was an opportunity to explore with as little restrictions as possible, looking at the big picture with no limitations to get in the way.

By shedding the constraints of what currently existed, product scope, and engineering schedules, we put form to an abstract vision — something that wouldn't have been possible if we limited ourselves to working inside predetermined guardrails.

psst, you can read more about this ideaology in one of my past posts: “Designing your digital product like a concept car”.

Early concept of Envoy Mobile

As a design team, we took it upon ourselves to help show to the company what this vision would look like. We carved out some time and spent a week iterating through many concepts. We leveraged a lot of our own understanding of the problems we wanted to solve and sprinkled in some firsthand knowledge from customers to help guide our gut-based approach until we landed on what we felt was a strong example of a unified workplace mobile platform. We shared this vision with the company and started to garner a lot of general excitement.

Mistake #1: Designing for tomorrow instead of today

With a newfound excitement about a bigger vision centered around creating a mobile-focused unified workplace platform, we started to play out how to make it happen. This is where we made our first mistake in the process. At the time, we had an immediate need to build a more polished app for our new Deliveries product. Figuring we could save resources by combining these projects, we decided to shoe-horn the deliveries functionality into the new mobile concepts we had produced.

This sounded great in theory, but hindsight is 20/20. What ended up happening, which happens a lot in startups, is that we didn’t have time to follow up with phase two right away. Other priorities crept up, and we had to shift our resources away from building out Envoy Mobile. One quarter turns into two, and before we knew it, a year went by and we still had this Deliveries app out in the world that was a Frankenstein version of a broader vision lacking the clarity to provide the right value just for package management. The app ended up being overly complex for the functionality that existed, and suffered from confusing navigation that was intended to support more products. By designing for a future that didn’t exist yet, the user’s immediate app experience was negatively impacted.

This profile screen didn’t need to exist for a Deliveries only product

Ultimately we had forced a multi-product focused design into a single product mobile app.

The big takeaway here was learning that when you have a big vision, you still need to ensure what you ship now is going to work for today’s customers, not just tomorrow’s.

Back to the drawing board

At this point we took a step back and regrouped. It’s easy to look back now and realize we were so excited about the company’s vision to be a workplace platform that we didn’t stop to think about the fact that at the time we were only two products built for very different audiences. Combining those two ideas into a unified app didn’t ultimately offer more value to either user set.

We took a step back and again utilized design to visualize how a more unified approach could be accomplished.

The more time we spent trying to solve this problem the more we realized the app needed more to be successful. Taking what we learned, we started to explore more concepts and iterated on our initial ideas with a fresh perspective. We started to hone in more on the office as a focus point. Visitors, Employees and Admins converge together at an office. That unifying physical place could be the unifying concept that would provide more value to all of our users.

Focusing in more on the office as a guiding concept

With fresh designs in hand, we had a renewed energy around how we could see this vision finally come to fruition. This time though, we knew we needed to be a bit more methodical with our approach. We knew this office-centric design concept required more than just a Deliveries and Visitors product.

Mistake #2: Too much blue sky designing

As we got more excited about this renewed direction, we still hadn’t sorted out how we’d get there. Conversations interally and with our customers led to questions about how much value users would find within this app. Admins might find regular value in the Visitors and Deliveries functionality we had included. Still, if we wanted to drive a much bigger user base, we needed features that Employees at companies could really grasp onto.

While these designs had been great exercises, we were still spending a lot of time on the concepts and less on the features that would drive more value. This was a valuable lesson in learning that there’s a point when you can spiral down spending more time on the how than the why. Understanding that blue sky designing is a piece of the process and not the only part is essential.

Finding value

At this point, as a company, we had started to build our first concept for a new meeting rooms focused product. This was another place for us to continue to build on our workplace platform vision. We utilized those past blue sky designs to help guide us toward a path of unity with our other products.

A meeting rooms product would need to be focused heavily on the employee experience allowing the mobile app to have more reach to all the user types we had been struggling to find value for. This was when the real vision was finally realized. We could build one app that does everything for your workplace, simplifying the overall experience to just what was most relevant to you.

This was another good lesson in learning where to focus our brainstorming efforts. In the early years, it was more around the concepts and how they would look and function. But as we matured in the process, it became much more focused on the feature set necessary to deliver the value to everyone, and not just one particular group.

Feeling confident in knowing we now had value for each of our different user types is what ultimately helped us feel ready to pull the trigger on building this complex product.

Finally, time to ship

Learning from some of the earlier mistakes we made, we knew we needed time to build this right. We needed to see the whole thing through and not just build one part of the puzzle that didn’t make sense by itself. That being said, we also needed to balance that with scoping this down to something achievable. We wanted to avoid trying to make this perfect right off the bat versus shipping something great to start and iterating on it as we learned more from how our customers were going to use it.

We began to scope out the project, making sure we could deliver some value across all of our products instead of just focusing on one. We could cut scope by leaving the functionality more surface-level for each product. Rooms, for example, just needed a super quick easy-to-use “book now” feature to deliver value. Deliveries only needed to focus on a simple scanning flow. We didn’t over-engineer each feature; we focused on building a stronger base for each product.

So we got to work, working with a small team we quickly built a foundation that would be the groundwork for everything else to come. This is where the blue sky concepts really came in handy. We could build the MVP by knowing what we needed to accommodate for and making the right decisions to create that foundation. We had also designed what the MVP would look like; this way, we could validate that the version everyone used first would still be great and that it wouldn’t rely on having to ship everything all at once, learning from that mistake we made a couple years earlier.

Going live

A few short months later and a period spent in beta with customers, we were ready to go live.

Because we focused on the right things, we were able to build more in six months than we were able to do in the previous years combined.

We had conceptualized the long term vision, putting together a feature set that we felt better resonated with our customers based on more direct feedback from them and scoped it down in a way that delivered value right out of the gate.

Envoy Mobile 1.0

Just recently, we were able to see the fruits of our labour in our latest product Envoy Protect, a product we launched to help companies go back to work safely. Because we had this platform already built we were able to pivot quickly and ship a really strong mobile based experience. Having this platform base will allow us to keep adapting and utilizing mobile as our differentiator.

We still have a long way to go and our mobile app will undoubtedly change dramatically over the next year. What we have done, in the meantime, is create a flexible and extensible platform that we feel complete confidence in building upon further support our vision of a workplace platform. Stay tuned to see what comes next!

At the same time we launched the new mobile app, we also unveiled a new brand. Read about how Amy Devereux and team brought that to life in her post “Building a brand”.

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