About the “On The Side” Series
On The Side is an ongoing series documenting the challenges, decisions, and successes of a side project that dreams to get bigger. It’s our attempt at giving an honest and transparent narrative of the challenges and opportunities confronted when creating a product from scratch.
“Just Enough to Learn”
It was extremely hard as a designer to deliver something so functionally and visually unfinished into the world. I had to remind myself that if our product solved a real problem, users would ignore all of it’s short comings (and there were plenty).
The Initial Design
The design problem focused on solving for where. Where can I go camping for free in Colorado? A map-based design seemed appropriate, and it would be easy for Glen and I to build quickly.
My belief was that if we created something that people wanted and used, we’d get enough daily traffic to put it in a position to evaluate multiple revenue options at a later date (the “make it cool first” approach).
I wanted to have ads right away. While I agree they are generally pretty ugly, I thought we needed to gauge how viable this site would be as a business.
We were right in the heart of camping season in Colorado and I didn’t want to lose a lot of clicks or a chance to test and improve our monetization strategy once traffic (potentially) subsided in the fall.
That said, ads are ugly. Maybe it was possible to find a middle ground where ads existed but didn’t feel in the way.
I settled on a layout that would put the primary content (the map) in full focus, while setting aside space for additional information and features to come later (the right rail).
We took a different approach to gathering feedback from users, and simply asked them how we could improve the site via an imbedded Google Form.
I knew framing the feedback in terms of features was a potentially risky move, as the Lean process would advocate asking what problems the users currently have. I had originally framed the questions in a way that diagnosed their current problems, but that had very little engagement. We ended up with a form asking what single feature would be most desirable. Our market niche was free camping, so all features would contribute to that mission and solve the initial problem of where.
How We Launched
Our launch of the Proof of Concept (P.O.C.) in a limited market (Denver), was successful as defined by our goals outlined in part 1.
Goal #1: Gauge Interest. We posted links to our site on Denver’s subreddit and a 14ers.com camping forum, and saw tremendous interest- our post on reddit was the top post in Denver for almost 2 days! We had over 2,500 unique sessions that day, and easily surpassing 3K over 2 days. It was safe to say people in Denver were interested in finding a product that solved their camping problem.
Goal #2: Verify the Problem-Solution Fit. Admittedly, this was harder to prove at this stage. We could hear what people were saying about the site, but could we see what they were doing?
Returning visitors were our best metric at this point. Users who were returning to the site likely felt it was providing enough value to be worthy of a re-visit.
We were excited to see a good chunk of our users were returning, even though our initial product was pretty limited in data and was essentially a single feature (a pin on a map).
Goal #3: Get Feedback
Reddit Is Full of Lovable Assholes
As a Redditor, I suggested that we post on a couple subreddits after our initial launch. I thought this would benefit us in two ways:
Lots of Views
There was a good chance that Reddit would bring some eye balls to the site. We started with /r/Denver because it has a large community that is active on the site and active in outdoor activities (our target demo).
Reddit is really great. It’s also full of assholes (hi guys!). Every time I post anything to Reddit, I mentally brace myself for negative or pedantic feedback. Usually there’s a kernel of truth in almost every comment, so it’s really a win-win scenario, but I knew we had to have a thick skin in order to sift through the few Negative Nacys that would inevitably throw shade.
The most valuable result we could get from this P.O.C. launch was constructive criticism. What improvement would make the biggest impact to our users? Reddit would surely deliver some critiques.
Shifting Through The Noise
After a few hours, we got a ton of feedback.
We had lots of positive feedback, which helped validate the idea and confirm it was a problem many people were having. We also received some good feedback on what future development could entail:
- More info per camp site
- Filters on the map
- More camp sites (better coverage)
Then, Something Surprising Happened
A new use-case emerged: some people didn’t want their campsites listed on the site where others could discover it.
I would consider these people outside of our initial target persona, but maybe I was wrong? Honestly we weren’t sure what to make of this problem at this stage, but it was interesting and we’ll definitely keep an eye on it.
It just shows what kinds of insights you can get from getting your product in front of users. We would have never anticipated camping enthusiasts being unwilling to share their camping spots, but in retrospect in makes totals sense.
What Do We Do With All This Feedback?
It’d take a few days to sort through the feedback from Reddit, camping forums and the feedback form on the site, but a few patterns started to emerge:
- Users wanted to more info on each camp spot
- Users wanted more campsites
- Users wanted to see BLM and USFS regions on the map
- Some users were afraid that their campsites would be listed
The most beneficial aspect of having a business partner (for me) is maintaining discipline. It SO EASY to get excited when you’re getting a deluge of feedback. It’s then very easy to start developing new features based off that feedback. Having a partner has given each of us an avenue to express our excitement- but we act as our own system of checks and balances.
We’ve tried to be disciplined and methodical about anything we do for the site. Since this is One The Side, we each have a limited amount of hours each week to devote to the project, and we need to make sure that time is put to good use.
In other words, being busy is different than being productive.
In part three of On The Side, we will discuss our plans for an improved “MVP” release- which will include new branding, a revamped UI, and a new feature or two. We also build a launch team as an initial marketing strategy.