Building a product from the ground up

Researching the problem of human connection amidst a global pandemic. We created a product to help people connect more intentionally with physically-distant friends and family. Includes: entrepreneurship, brand design, concept testing, user research and prototyping.

Project Details 🌱

Entrepreneurship, brand design, concept testing, user research

Team: Alex Steele, Cody King, Renee Yuan Zhuang

My Role: Concept development, storyboarding, research, prototyping, experimenting, UX/UI development, pitch creation

Greatest challenge: Starting in a problem space and going all the way to a finished product is a challenge. We had no idea where the problem space would ultimately lead us in terms of a product, but we accepted the challenge and dove in anyways.

Area of growth: I learned how to sit in a problem space without rushing into solutions. Trusting the process of affinity mapping, user journeys, and research taught me the value of understanding problems deeply and trusting the design process.

About Budding

Social media set out to connect us better to those we love most. Instead, social media has connected us with everyone. Instead of making time to connect intentionally with the people we care about, we can easily check-out of intentionality and check-in to social media scrolling. We can set reminders or try to be more intentional with long distance friends, but these actions end up fruitless as other things take priority and we're left feeling guilty.

This is where Budding comes in. Budding is a digital product that uses visual and interactive reminders to encourage you to connect with the important people in your life.

But before we get into the solution of Budding, let's start with the problem we were trying to solve.

The beginning


Understanding a problem

Beginning in August 2020, our team was given the problem space of human connection. This space felt very unique because of the ongoing pandemic and challenge of connecting with humans. COVID19 led to friends and family being more physically distant than ever.

Our first affinity mapping exercise.

To begin, we started affinity mapping everything that came to mind in the space of human connection. We wanted to understand the problems and opportunities within human connection.

Here were our starting research questions:

- What currently exists to help humans connect?
- What works and leads users to deeper connections?
- What isn't working and is in the way of connection?
- What's does a user feel is most lacking?

To understand what specific problems people had we started extensive research.

Researching a problem

Survey: We wanted to find out what groups of people users felt most connected to on a daily basis and what groups of people users felt least connected to on a daily basis. From there, we asked what groups of people users wished they were more connected to.

From 60 responses, across all age and gender demographics, we learned:

- People are connected most to immediate family
- People feel disconnected most from extended family
- People want to feel more connected to close friends (long distance)

Qualitative and quantitative research

Academic studies: Read reports on human and social connection in the days of the pandemic. Developed an understanding on what connections people need most to survive and the hierarchy human needs.

User interviews: We conducted a dozen user interviews to gain a better understanding of what was keeping people from connecting to their close friends and family.

Interview for empathy: We were not naive to the fact that we were working on this project during a global pandemic. There was a deeper need than ever for human connection in our world. We conducted deeper one-on-one interviews with different members of families who were separated during the pandemic. By listening to their stories we gained insight into the user needs and a better understanding of how users approach connecting with loved ones.

Synthesizing data

After gathering our data from research we started to correlate the themes and insights. We found commonalities of identified problems and were narrowing in on the main problem to create a problem statement.

Key insight: The common feeling across user research was that people are not connecting with those they wish to connect to due to a lack of time and incentive.

User need: A tool to help them connect with the technology they already use, not replace the technology they already integrate into their day.

Developing a problem statement

After identifying a problem, understanding the problem and framing the problem, we developed a problem statement:

Narrowing in, setting solution constraints

After completing research and understanding our problem space we started affinity mapping different possible solutions. We kept coming back to three possible solutions: daily status app, a friendship tree and a video mailbox for FaceTime messages.

We decided to set solution restraints around concepts we did not want to pursue. Those restraints were:

- Not starting another social media app
- Not replacing traditional means of communication
- Not creating a new app that replaces

Developing a solution

We wanted to help people keep track of their important relationships by reminding them to reach out and help them see how much time had passed since they last talked. The challenge was how to visually show that information in a way that doesn't lead to someone being motivated by guilt alone.

The solution we kept coming back to was the idea of a visual garden that shows the health of your relationships through a forest of trees.

Each tree would show the visual health of someone's relationship through growth, changes and scenery.

This solution addressed our problem statement by serving as a visual reminder app that is engaging and interactive for the user, helps them connect in a more meaningful way, and encourage repeat use to maintain close relationships. The visual of the tree could show the virtual health of the relationship by being encouraging and fun for the user.

Meet Budding

Budding helps you stay connected to your closest relationships by checking in and reminding you to connect with the person of your choosing. Budding shows you the health of your friendship through the health of a virtual tree. You can grow your friendship tree from a seed to maturity through regularly connecting with a friend.

Budding interacts with a user through two main channels: direct texting and complimentary mobile app.

- Direct texting: we want to meet the user where they are. Texting allows us to check-in by requiring simple yes and no responses on if they have talked to their tree-friend recently. Based on if they respond yes or no, they will receive an animated image of their personalized tree in return. We see this functionality as helping the user practice receiving and responding to texts, just as they would with a friend. A users first Budding tree is primarily through the SMS experience. As they successfully have check-ins and their tree grows, they will be offered incentives to download the Budding app.

- Complimenting App experience: The Budding app will allow the user more in depth features and to set custom communication preferences. The app allows a revenue stream of transitioning users to a monthly subscription with access to: unlimited trees, custom scenery, and more. This allows us to interact with the user on a deeper level if they choose to participate.

We created user flows and journey maps to begin to see the experience a user would take through the Budding process. The next step in our process was to test the functionality of Budding. Would sending images of a tree growing or decreasing in growth motivate a user to check in on the relationship it represented? We wanted to find out.

Testing core functions

To test the concept and function we conducted multiple user tests.

Proving a concept: We started scrappy, returning to paper and pencils. We posted a printed sheet of paper with four trees on it in our living spaces and asked room mates or our partners to participate in the test. They each chose four people they wanted to communicate with more regularly. For a week we tracked their interactions and would hand-color in the tree each day based on their activity.

Findings: Participants talked to their chosen friends/family three times more often during the testing week. Users felt more compelled and excited to connect with their friends/family because they knew they would see positive imagery representing their action after.

Testing a strategy: The second text we conducted was following users through a testing study. We asked the users to identify one person they wanted to be more intentional with and followed the users for two weeks. We checked in with the users three times a week and asked if they had connected with the person of their choice. If they responded yes, they received an image of a tree growing. If they responded no, they received an image of a tree shrinking. Even when saying no, we replied with positive and affirming messages encouraging them to try to reach out still.

Findings: After participating for two weeks users confirmed they talked more with their individual than previous weeks, felt motivated to be intentional, and said the tree images gave them incentive to reach out again.

Experiment, test, iterate, repeat

Budding is now in the prototyping stage. We are continuing to develop our UX/UI for the app and using texting software to reach a small audience of individuals.

Our next steps include:

- We believe the tree visual itself is one of the most important features of Budding. It can leave a user feeling motivated or be ignored completely. We are working to develop high fidelity visuals using 3D software of trees throughout different growth stages.

- Creating a complimentary app experience that takes Budding users to a more interactive and meaningful experience. We are pursing an integrated system through texting and app development.

Focusing on strategy

Moving forward we have developed a strategy to focus on overall product goals. As we continue to develop and iterate our prototype, we are keeping the following goals below in mind.

App development

As we develop UX screens for Budding I developed a style tile for the app experience.

On-boarding User Flow

Tree Growth Stages

We created a flow of a users journey through the different stages of tree growth. By completing each check-in users are sent either an increased or decreased tree image based on if they were able to connect with their friend. Through six successful check-ins their friendship tree will reach maturity. Users will then be transitioned to the Budding app to continue their experience by planting their mature tree and re-starting the Budding process with another person.

Building a UX Experience

Business Strategy

Our business strategy is to convert users through a freemium model. Users will experience the benefits of Budding through our on-boarding SMS trial. Through this trial they will experience growing a Budding tree and have personalized SMS reminders sent to their phone.

Once they've completed the tree growth cycle with a friend, they will be moved to our app experience for a one time $0.99 cost. In our app users will have access to more features and three additional trees to grow.

To unlock unlimited trees and enhanced customization, users can subscribe for a $1.99 monthly charge. Through this subscription users also gain the opportunity to plant real tree(s) each time they grow their Budding tree to maturity with a friend.

Thank you for reading and stay tuned for more Budding updates!

Other projects: 

A. Steele Creative 2021