1SB - Connecting High School Students
"Sidechat" makes group conversations on mobile feel more like conversations IRL. The app brings high school student conversations to life with innovative group-centric features, customization and video media integration.
1sb was founded in 2012 with a vision to connect the world's high school students by leveraging the rapid growth of smartphones.
1sb built a series of applications to improve student life, including NoteSnap and Fess. I led the development of a new concept, from inception to launch, called "Sidechat".
When I joined I was tasked with leading development on a new product. The idea was constrained to a mobile app targeting students.
Since I knew very little about this user segment, research was critical to understand teen habits, trends, wants, and needs.
86 hours of interviews were conducted with 26 teens about general life, challenges, loves and frustrations.
Responses were synthesized into three themes - time, money, relationship.
Time (organisation, academics, extracurriculars)
P1: There is no one approach to how teens get help with homework. Most of the time they go direct to friends, and get distracted with other questions or general chit-chat.
P2: There appears to be no structured or logical way that teens manage their school, extracurricular activities and personal lives. Without a clear view on what you should be working on, they would get distracted on tasks that aren’t as important and find they’ll need to play catch up later.
Money (get more for less, earn more)
P1: Teens never feel like they have enough money. When probing they admit they could make more money, but they have a limited amount of time available. They mostly live hectic lives and school is almost always the highest priority.
Relationships (dating, public perceptions, interests, social pressure)
P1: This demographic is mostly social, however “social” means different things to different segments. To some, being social is actively seeking out new friendships. Others are content with friendships in their current circles. As a teen, it’s extremely difficult to meet new people, outside their school or local area.
P2: Teens are faced with an endless amount of social pressure - not only in their school lives, but in extra curricular's and with maintaining friendships. Some thrive in these environments, as they’ve made a conscious choice to prioritise school and college above all else.
Using Google Ventures Design Sprint framework, we divided into small groups, assigned a theme/problem set, diverged on as many ideas as possible, each group pitched their top ideas to the wider group before individually voting on their fave.
More than 16 ideas were pitched.
Together with the CEO, I developed a criteria to benchmark all ideas against. A 'supervote' of sorts.
- Does this product idea have clear network effects...
- Can this product idea be 10 times better than existing solutions...
- Can this product idea be habit forming eg. DAU...
- Can this product idea prove to be a viable business model...
- Can this product idea make a difference in the lives of teens...
Under the theme Relationships, we recognized how fragmented group messaging was amongst friendship groups. We felt we could build an experience more superior than competitors.
After narrowing the focus area, we set out to learn about teen messaging behavior - apps they use to communicate with friends / family, likes, loves and dislikes. This round of interviews wit 20 high school students would help us validate the following assumptions.
- That current group communication for teens is currently broken (unmanageable group texts in terms of messaging volume & number of groups)
- They have problems with organization with groups of friends with similar interests
- They like anonymity sometimes - friends vs school vs local based conversations
- That word of mouth virality would be effective
Sidechat value proposition
Fun & personal group chats for you and your best friends.
"Fun" in terms of:
- Addressing temporarity
- Addressing identity & individuality
- Easier to find relevant news & people
- Easier to discover interesting content & cross platform sharing
- Easier to navigate between highly active groups and individual chats
Personas were developed to represent the personalities and interests of the teens we were building for.
MVP feature set
I identified an MVP set of features to support our proof of concept.
Developing an MVP is a repetitious process to help prove riskiest assumptions and validate a market need. In a post-mortem of more than 100 startups, CB Insights found that the number one cause of startup failure (42% of the time) was “no market need.”
What were the riskiest assumptions?
- That students with engrained habits in messaging apps would convert to a new app and advocate their friends join
- That invited users would have the patience and curosity to join a new messaging app to chat with their friends
- That first time users would invite 4 of their best friends to join Sidechat
To help validate our assumptions, we used Layer Messaging Platform as the core messaging foundation (send / receive messages, notifications, alerting) to help expedite development and allow us to focus of differentiating features and a smooth onboarding experience.
In addition to developing the following features:
Change the appearance of the app to suit your mood. Double tap-double size text to get someone's attention!
Don't think too hard about app notifications. Easily toggle your group notifications to all, some or none. The 3-level settings let you keep up-to-date with the conversations you care about, while ignoring the messages (and people) you don’t.
Branch into a "sidechat" to ask one friend a question you don't want the whole group to see. Auto destruct/timed Sidechat conversations so there was no record of it!
Search and share the funniest gifs, curated by the community. Chat about topics that matter to you in public forums, and create new friendships. And #Tag any word to instantly get related content in your group chat.
User testing occurred at several points in the development lifecycle.
Paper prototypes were created to showcase some of the early feature ideas. Using these prototypes we were able to approach high-school students in the local Starbucks coffee shop after school hours guerrilla-style.
Why paper prototype?
Paper prototypes are an efficient and fun way to test an idea. Research indicates that users feel more comfortable taking to a paper prototype with a red pen rather than a high fidelity prototype. Why? Presenting a user with a beautiful, glossy high fidelity prototype can be intimidating.
Paper prototypes often encourage reactions over feedback which in turn can result in false positives. The important distinction here is that feedback comes from the brain, and reactions come from the gut.
Paper prototyping is best used in conjunction with alternative means of user research such as interviews.
Through the success of 1SB's other products; Fess & Notesnap, we fortunately had access to a database of high-school students, segmented by locality, interests and demographics.
Every two-weeks, we would invite a select few high-school students or via Skype in-person wasn't an option.
Guerrilla usability testing is a powerful technique that designer Martin Belam describes as “the art of pouncing on lone people in cafes and public spaces, [then] quickly record them whilst they use a website for a couple of minutes.
At the end of each development sprint when we had a demoable app, a small group of us would head to the local Starbucks after school-time, approach high-school students and test various features of the app.
It was a great method to help validate assumptions in a cheap and timely manner.
An early access website was created and broadcasted via email to a database of over 30k high school students resulting in nearly 40% expressing interest in the group messaging concept.
Post release of our beta messaging app, through analysis of data I identified early adopters, and offered them the opportunity to join the Sidechat community as a Sidechat Ambassador. We recruited 22 teens.
Ambassadors had a few key responsibilities:
- Provide app feedback on features and report bugs/issues (using Sidechat)
- Generate buzz about the app in their local community and friendship groups
- Leverage Sidechat as their primary group messaging application
1sb hired 4 high school interns to help the product and marketing teams generate buzz, share ideas and test early concepts. Our interns would work from the office 2-3 days a week.
More importantly, surrounding ourselves amongst teens meant that we were able to learn about latest trends, fads and lingo ("bae", "lmfao", "Doe", "TBT", "Yassssss", "Swag" and a ton more). It certainly kept us oldies on our toes.
After 3 months of development, we were ready to share Sidechat to a wider audience. The app was launched in the App Store, and shared with 30k users via an email campaign.
40% signed up. 20% created a group and invited at least 1 friend.
To increase number of groups created, we iterated on the first time user experience to encourage users to invite 4 friends upon registration. This enhancement lifted conversion by 14%.
We partnered with local schools and community groups to leverage Sidechat as their primary messaging application to help organize events and collaborate after school hours.
Daily Active Groups = Number of 5-person groups posting at daily.
To reduce the barrier of entry for first time users, we released a feature called "public groups" that allowed users to join an interest group (eg. sports, music, makeup) without needed to create a group and invite friends.
This created an opportunity for users to explore Sidechat, build advocacy and trust that led to an increase in DAG's by 70%.
Old habits die hard
Even with a myriad of pain points students felt with existing messaging products, deeply rooted habits are difficult to change.
Millenials are a tough crowd to build for; a limited tolerance for bugs, load time and impatience.
Verbatim's from users:
“Once you have more features, my friends will be more likely to download it. Right now, it's just as good as Kik or FB Messenger“ - Brittany
“My friends are too lazy to download and try Sidechat” - Neha
“A lot of the reason my friends like iMessage for groups is that it doesn't actually require any downloading” - Steven
Messaging is the ultimate habit forming experience. Apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Apple's iMessage continue to grow at a significant pace are evolving into global communication hubs, with China’s WeChat and Japan’s Line leading the way by supporting commerce, games and delivery features.
Even with differentiated features, there was an expectation that features & functionality supported by these messaging apps was available in Sidechat. Competing at a feature by feature level is not however a race we would win.
“My friends and I have been using Line for 3 years so I think that's part of the reason why they don't want to use Sidechat- they're really attached to the stickers too” - Ashleigh
Sidechat was in the market for two-months and grew to 2k DAG's.
Soon after launch, the start-up disbanded as there was no remaining funds in the bank.