Read new, exclusive stories by your favorite authors, available only on Ampersand. Read alongside your friends in the app - react, discuss, and provide valuable feedback to the authors to help shape their future work. Because there's always more to the story.
Ampersand (formerly known as Mori, Inc) was an a16z backed startup company that operated from early 2015 to August of 2018. At Ampersand, I grew and learned so much as I journeyed from consulting designer to design director. My team ideated, built and iterated rapidly as we built an understanding of our user base, a relationship with our author base, and learned how to scale them both. We made mistakes, learned from them, and course corrected. We defined success metrics and identified priorities that took us towards our goals and learned to accept setbacks in other areas. As a result, we had a successful product debut at BookCon 2018 in NYC, praised by users, authors, and agents alike for its visual presentation and user experience.
Please note: to comply with my confidentiality agreement, I have omitted confidential information.
Design, and lead 3 other designers plus 2 content design specialists in NYC.
Work with Product VP to turn product strategy and milestones into actionable requirements and product features.
Collaborate with Director of Content and CMO to ensure a cohesive presentation of consumer-facing content and marketing campaigns.
Ampersand approached obtaining readership differently than other companies. Instead of being a global platform where anyone could read and write, we sought a premium relationship with professional users - top authors. Our goal was to engage with Top100 authors for their rich library of unpublished works: trunk books, extended/deleted material, and unfinished drafts.
VISUAL AND USER EXPERIENCE DIRECTION
I was the very first design hire in the company. When we first started, we were in ideation and concepting mode - speed over polish. To help the development team do this, I defined broad design patterns and style guides that allowed the engineers to draw style conclusions and build quickly. I defined font types, sizes, semantic colors, element styles, and organized the language and patterns into a global design library. I owned and updated the app map, so that the company could keep tabs on where we were evolving holistically.
AUTHORS AND READERS: RESEARCH AND WIREFRAMES
On the professional side, our authors needed a clean, powerful writing platform that made collaborative writing better, with their agent and editorial circles. On the consumer side, we ran a nationwide survey and identified a small set of “superfans” who would engage with exclusive content at a much higher price point. Thus, for our first design, we approached Ampersand as an exclusive, early-access membership, gated by premium pricing.
Also due to our author-first approach, design was handed directional mandates to make the product look "friendly" to publishing. For the writing platform, we had to meet - and beat - key features of Microsoft Word (such as comments and redlining), the discerning author's most popular tool. For our consumer reader, we modeled after simple, traditional, and "non-threatening."
Authors have very specific needs and are excellent communicators in the written word - thus, they made very articulate, enterprise-like clients. For the writing platform, we directly listened and asked them about their current tools, their pain points, their wishes and needs.
With their input, research and interviews, I designed a robust versioning and merging user experience that allowed them to collaborate live, or to send out drafts of work to cohorts of people for edits and feedback. We implemented and dogfooded an innovative system of @s and #s used to easily commute with co-authors and collaborators within the manuscript.
These features were very well received.
Click here for a video walkthrough of the writer platform.
With regards to the reading app, however, we learned quickly that both our consumer audience assumptions and perception priorities were wrong. Our engagement metrics would be considered successful by normal standards, but was nowhere near the superfan behavior we expected. Alpha testers described our design as boring, lackluster and uninteresting.
We came together under a new strategy: cater to a broader, young adult cohort.
Design executed on a more colorful and modern look and feel, with our YA readers in mind: Trendy, entertainment, bold, opinionated colors and typography. We introduced animation and movement into the app to help tell the story of the user experience.
DEFENDING DESIGN CHOICES
I encountered initial resistance from our leadership around the re-brand, especially those with traditional publishing experience - there were demands to roll back the style and find something more neutral.
My response was to cut through the telephone tree and identify the request's origin - in this case, the VP of New Business Development. I asked to meet and discuss the concerns behind the ask. As we always say at Ampersand, "There's always more to the story." Here's how I approached the conversation:
Dan, as our VP of BD, you're on the frontlines of finding our customers. Therefore your needs are incredibly important to me. I'd like to discuss how we can succeed at not undermining your sales pitches, and simultaneously move forward on the rebrand, which we have carefully considered when designing for our YA audience."
it turned out, he had never found the reading color modes. After he flipped the reading mode to light instead of dark, there was no further issue with his sales demos.
My two major takeaways from this: One, communicate! Don't let assumptions drive an unnecessary wedge between departments. Two, broadcast the exciting things you are doing to the company! It is both a knowledge and a morale boost when people know and share in your excitement of company progress, and it fosters reciprocal behaviors in other departments.
DESIGN-LED JOURNEY TO OUR PRODUCT ECOSYSTEM
Originally, the company viewed our core offering as a storefront, with authors themselves representing a living, ever-changing body of work that would engage readers over time.
During a roundtable, I firmly presented my view on how we needed to prove a viable product ecosystem. To do that, we needed to establish one. What do our customers want, what they will pay for, how much, and what do they give us in return?
Now that the superfan was proven un-viable as a business, neither was a passive storefront where we waited for people trickle in, pay us once, and disappear. We needed to keep them and see how they acted. To do that, we needed to flood the system with users.
I started whiteboarding hypothetical ecosystems, using what we already knew, in view of the whole company. The high visibility invited impromptu conversations, questions, and new ideas.
This whiteboard sketch is what evolved into our company value prop, the “infinity loop” between readers and authors, with Ampersand facilitating in between.
With our ecosystem defined, we now had a clear value prop and clear product goals. In the second half of this case study, I will go over how we went about approaching and solving for each one.
Attract users to the platform so they can discover works by authors they love
INCREASING REACTIONS ENGAGEMENT
Generate valuable feedback for the authors
Increase production to satisfy readership attention
Cross-promote so readers stay for new/other content
Due to our unique relationships with authors and their (sometimes very protective) agents, we had developed an author-centric design that showcased their names and faces as the front cover of their offering on Ampersand. This presented pain points.
Even the most devout fans sometimes didn’t always recognize their author’s face. This made it a poor representation of their work, and an ineffective engagement hook.
The author-centric approach obfuscated the breadth and depth of material for each author, and made it harder to surface new works. Adding this to our very finite amount of author relationships, and our app looked static and sparse on content.
In a great example of cross-collaborative problem solving, product and design arrived at a solution together: to flip our discoverability to a content-centric model. The categories at the top allowed us to feature our exclusive content, while also allowing users to browse and discover as they pleased.
This led to much more open-ended discovery. Rather than browsing by Danielle Paige or Veronica Roth, readers were hooked by "Dorothy Must Die: New Stories" or "never before seen backstories about the Divergent trilogy". And for the hardcore fans, the listing by author names and faces remained an option!
INCREASING REACTIONS ENGAGEMENT
One of our core offerings was the ability to read, react and write to your friends directly in the book. Appropriately, our metric for success was based on reactions and notes per user.
In our first alpha tests, we had hand-selected a group of authors, editors and agent "friendlies" to participate, using an unpublished manuscript. We curated a reactions set for test readers, in response to the author's specific questions about how to make the writing better. This test did very well and set high baseline expectations for our subsequent user tests.
However, as we scaled, our authors became more diverse. Almost no one had specific questions to ask, so we built up a content team to "instrument" the manuscripts for the authors. This was slow, time consuming, and unscalable.
Simultaneously, our readership was increasing, especially reading groups (2-5 people) - and they became louder about reactions being confusing and hard to use.
So we returned to the source of truth - we polled our users.
I'm frustrated at how many steps I have to take to leave a reaction. I don't understand these icons I'm seeing and I'm afraid to tap them. They don't have anything to do with what I'm trying to leave as feedback. I just want to leave an LOL face emoji and I don't know how to do that.
We realized that in our attempts to maintain our alpha test data's fidelity, Product was overloading the requirements of the reactions set, creating high cognitive load that discouraged users from completing the action at all.
Now informed, I led an design ideation brainstorm and sprint to generate a wide range of ideas. To orient and prepare my team, I first presented our learnings from our latest user test, and both design's and company's new requirements and priorities. We then did whiteboard and post-it exercises together, after which we grouped, discussed, and divvied up our ideas to design out (my design contributions to the idea pool are below.) The result was a highly prolific range of ideas to implement and A/B test, which ultimately led to reaction rates recovering.
Another growing pain while scaling: Authors are a finite resource and they all write at their own speeds. How could we scale our content production to support a growing readership?
The answer we arrived at time and time again was Layers. Loosely defined as anything in the book that wasn’t part of the actual book, layers is a concept I defined and wireframed from the ground up. The feature taps into a much larger pool of influencers who can provide insight, commentary and value within books.
Layers was a great exercise in setting elegant constraints, for both design and the company. Initially, when things were in blue-sky territory, we often fell prey to design group-think, shooting down ideas because they didn't pass an edge-case scenario, or failed scaling to long-term hypothetical situations. I exercised Design Thinking principles, such as IDEO's 5 Whys, to get down to the core of what and why we wanted a feature. Why were layers valuable, and what functionality was key to that value? Could we accept setbacks in all other areas?
As we dropped unnecessary requirements, the answer became clearer. We had approached layers as a mini-story - something that was best read linearly - and we had expected to design for layers of unlimited length. But users largely hated being interrupted from the core reading, and trying to merge two unrelated, book-length narratives was a design disaster.
Our final layer design allowed users to easily turn on/off and parse comparable viewpoints, constrained in length. The result was visually pleasing, easy to read, and engaging and fun to play with.
We aggressively tested our proof of concepts on potential users, such as at BookCon in New York. We prepared eight different high fidelity prototypes and ran two full days worth of user testing on the convention floor, asking passerby to try our prototypes, discuss them, and then name their favorites.
From these tests, we discovered that there were two voices that were significant to users, in addition to the author: influencers (bookstagramers, booktubers, celebrities) and your intimate reading friends.
Not only did the tests perform well, but there was a high level of emotional engagement and reaction to the idea among the con-goers. Our hypothesis proved true when we started cultivating great interest and relationships with said booktubers and bookstagramers, kickstarting the beginning of Ampersand's Influencer Layers.
We didn't quite reach Barack Obama and Kanye-level layers, but I'm sure it was just a matter of time. ;)
Now that our app successfully delivered active content discovery, we needed to focus on passive discovery, re-engagement, and cross-promotion. I led an ideation session to brainstorm all the different points and possibilities of engaging a casual, browsing user. We talked in-depth about the reader lifecycle: when a reader is most receptive to suggestions, and from where. This project was codenamed the “FOMO” tab, and took the shape of a feed.
The result: the design team amassed a large collection of ideas to populate the feed with over time. Each feed item was accompanied with detailed point(s) in the user lifecycle when they would appear.
FINAL PRODUCT AND LEARNINGS
We launched a public debut at BookCon in New York, in June of 2018. The product had a cohesive and visually strong presentation, as well as a well polished, pleasant reading experience. The journey to this point was an incredibly educational experience. The following were some of my big takeaways, as a designer and a director at Ampersand:
Users are better at showing you what they want than telling you what they want.
Users struggle with describing their “perfect” product, but they can identify pain points and frustrations, confusion, and when their user expectation is violated.
Have the difficult conversations, both up and down.
It's crucial that you allow some discomfort in exchange for widening the area of conversation you can have with your reports and your supervisors alike.
Design isn’t magic.
It can’t perform miracles. Good design comes from listening to user need and expectations, understanding their problem and successfully creating a delightful solution. Don’t just dream - make a roadmap to get there. Test, iterate, learn, adjust. Fail fast, move fast!
Crave the voice of the user. Show the user.
Test on your actual customer. Shipping and being wrong is better than being stuck in internal churn and second-guessing. One generates learnings and insight; the other just wastes time.
Autonomy is the key to both trust and good design.
Empowering designers with a product voice is trusting them with authority and accountability to execute on their best vision, end to end. It protects them from well-intentioned group-think. It allows them to be wrong, to own and be accountable for the next iteration's improvement.