Interaction design for startups: A conversation with Andrew Hoag, founder of inviteme.to

inviteme.to is an early stage startup that allows people to coordinate offline social activities with their friends. Founder Andrew Hoag, tired of organizing the "goat rodeo" preceding any event with his friends, found a niche desperately in need of attention, and decided to do something about it. He approached Cooper in April 2008 to work on the design and user interaction for his web-based product.

inviteme.to

The people behind inviteme.to

Andrew: We got started 8 months ago and have two full time people and a couple of contractors and outside staff helping us. As for background, I come from the business side, working in enterprise, security and software for 7 years. Most recently I’ve been advising consumer internet startups before launching inviteme.to. My technical co-founder is a developer that came from a large travel site, Sidestep, which you may have heard of. For now it’s just the two of us working full time with a bunch of people helping us out.

Engaging an outside design firm

Andrew: inviteme.to is focused on a consumer demographic and I knew from my experience with companies I’ve worked with previously how important the interaction and interface is. When I looked at other companies who had similar objectives: helping people plan and organize things, I realized it’s a complex interaction and communication problem. I knew that I needed some help. Although I’ve designed interfaces before and I feel like I have a decent sense of how a product should work, there are subtleties that I believe only an expert can provide. It was very helpful to have people with trained professional experience in the area available to consult with as we built the product.

I’d heard about Cooper before engaging with them. I was fortunate that a friend was a creative director at Macromedia and was very heavily involved in UI design and consulting, so he’d recommended Cooper to me. Then I met one of the designers at a social event and that was what led me to the firm. In another a small world story, it turned out that one of the Cooper directors I met with had gone to a rival college, so we were able to throw tomatoes at each other and talk about the days of growing up and going to college in Minnesota. After all that it seemed like a good fit.

Early start-up struggles

Andrew: When I came into Cooper I had an idea of the problem I wanted to solve and wasn’t quite sure how to communicate our solution to the user. I was confident I could design something that I would use, but wasn’t sure how that would apply to the common man; and how that would work across people with different backgrounds, viewpoints, and needs when they approached the product. I have a certain personality type, but manifesting that into an interaction and a user interface would have been a mistake I think because it would have been a very narrow view of the world. It was preferable to take a broader perspective on how people would use the product, making sure that Cooper could help us lay that out.

What it came down to was: “here’s what I want to do” and needing to turn that into “here’s how it should look,” and “here’s how people can use it.”

Ways to use design output

Andrew: We’ve gone through a few iterations of the product, like any young start up at our stage. It always seems we are a different company from what we were 3 months before, but all along we have been able to use the initial work done by Cooper. There were actually two parts to it.
  1. First was the research Cooper did with regards to preferences, goals and utility. This primary research was very valuable to us, and helped us speak intelligently about the product beyond a research sample of one. I found it really added credibility to the problem that we were trying to solve and how we were solving it.
  2. Second was the actual work product around the design. We used the images Cooper delivered in presentations and to create a tour through the product both of which got a very positive reaction. We also used the design in a video that helped us win an award from Facebook. This was a great outcome.
I believe the reaction was so positive because we had what people understood to be complicated problem and Cooper was able to distill it down into something simple and very clearly actionable. And then of course we started to build product underneath it, which is where it should end up.

We started with an initial version of the product and have since revamped it, but what’s interesting is that we’ve been able to keep the same philosophy, the same direction and scenarios as we move forward. My goal with using Cooper early on was for them to do foundational work that gave us a very firm starting point on which we could build and that is how I viewed the investment. It was very clear from our requirements that this work was to be extensible, rather than trying to go too deep in any particular area. I wanted to ensure we built a firm foundation and so far it’s worked out that way and I’ve been very happy.

The ongoing relationship with Cooper

Andrew: It’s been great because we’ve evolved the product and have had differing needs, but all along we have been able to go back to that initial work and use it for whatever problem we were trying to solve, bringing in Cooper very strategically. It’s very helpful for us to know we’ve got a resource that has context and can give us some guidance. I look at it as bringing in expertise, not so much around the product, but around how to manifest these product ideas in ways that appeal to users from a visual and interaction standpoint.

The right time to engage design

Andrew: It depends on the start up and the space they’re in. I decided very early on that we needed to prioritize the consumer side of the product. Ultimately the money spent on Cooper and using an external design firm saved us time on the development side. When I talk about this with other entrepreneurs and CEOs, I characterize it as a zero-sum game. My developer and I discussed this very early on - he was thrilled to not have to make choices and experiment and iterate with placement and layout and such things, and instead be handed a functioning interface so he could just write code underneath it. Some companies are able to get initial customer traction and then find they need to scale the business. That presents its own set of problems, but overall the earlier the better, although a lot of it depends on your particular customer requirements and product lifecycle. For us, the beginning was just the right time.

The risk of engaging outside firms

Emma: I’ve heard some people at startups say they wouldn’t use an external interaction design firm because they feel the design is so closely tied to the core concept of the product. How would you respond to that?

Andrew: That’s an interesting point because I got some questions on that very issue when I was discussing the relationship with Cooper with a couple of advisors. Their initial reaction was “You should never outsource design.” After talking with them and figuring out what their concerns were, I now spend time differentiating between the product vision and the manifestation or implementation of that product vision. It goes back to the comment I made earlier about our product vision being consistent.

As a company we’ve driven towards that vision and have a very clear idea of the problem we are trying to solve. I think where we’ve been successful with Cooper is articulating the vision in appropriate language and presentation that isn’t my forte. I think in terms of features and functions, and having Cooper there to translate that and act as our tower of Babel when it comes to making this thing work has been super helpful. I certainly understand why there’s some concern and if you get into the subtleties of it, the company absolutely needs to hold the vision for its product and how that relates to its market. For a company like ours, where we are just two people, it’s not feasible for us to have a full time designer on board and you have to be able to use the best of breed resources - Cooper as a form of an interaction mercenary is the way I like to think about it.

Advice for early stage start-ups thinking about design

Andrew: As I mentioned earlier, I believe there’s some utility in bringing design in early in the process, and as it turns out one of my friends, who also started a company, did the same thing. As we compared notes, the results were equally positive. He used a different design firm, but we both were able to recognize the value in engaging with experts early in the process. I think for me it was money well spent because I’m still earning the benefit of that investment today. When I add a new feature - I can go back to the initial work done and look at how Cooper set things up and review the fundamentals and the research that we put together. I have a framework within to fit our work 6, 12 or 18 months down the road and I think that’s really valuable because you get to amortize the investment over a much longer period.