Building the Distributed Internet
Open Garden’s mission is to enable distributed, democratized internet access through mobile applications. With the Open Garden app, any phone can become an internet access point, or connect securely to the internet through another Open Garden app user. With the introduction of the OG crypto token, user can also earn through sharing their access.
The Open Garden project, when I joined, was a alpha-level, Android app that allowed users to turn their phone into a mobile hot spot through new and secure technology. When I was brought into the project as Lead Product designer, my challenge was to build this into a usable and desired consumer product. How can we build a simple way to empower mobile phone users and help them feel safe and in control in the complex world not only of networking, but also cryptocurrency? Though the crypto layer enabled users to earn money by sharing access, we found that even the idea of cryptocurrency was often opaque and scary in itself.
The result? A mobile app build to Android and iOS platform standards, meeting AAA accessibility standards, driving up the average Google Play rating and seeing a more-than-fourfold increase in download and weekly usage metrics.
My Role: Lead Product Designer
- Introduced user research, design thinking, and usability testing into the company culture and workflow
- Led user research, ideation, prototyping, and testing and iteration of new features
- Built design systems and libraries for both Android and iOS apps
- Designed and revised the information architecture for both platforms, wrote microcopy
- Created low- and high-fidelity screens from prototype to final product
- Tested and designed to meet AAA accessibility standards
- Built design process from scratch to integrate with new engineering and development workflow
- Increased downloads and engagement >400%
Discovery: Learning the product/market fit
I began the discovery phase by conducting basic research on populations that faced economic barriers to unlimited or paid internet access and what their experiences were. This was through existing research from sources such as The Pew Research Center and community outreach, including meeting with local access activist groups and one-on-one interviews.
As the product also had a cryptocurrency aspect, I also looked at companies in that space, such as Dent, Coinbase, and others. The goal was to learn how these products helped people negotiate the exchange between fiat and crypto currencies as welll as how they presented the costs and values of these transactions.
What I discovered was that there was indeed a market for "pay for what you use" internet access, as well as passionate supporters of a distributed model. But what I also discovered was that we might be designing a product for two different constituencies; the challenge then was to design a product that dovetailed with the language and mental models of the cryptosavvy while also being usable and not scary to those who weren't – and maybe didn't want to be.
Overload with technical networking details
Betray the trust of the cryptosavvy
Overload with information
Preserve a free-use path
Comprehensible value proposition
Clear and simple language
Show the human side of connections
Tie cost to value when users transact
Understanding: Matching usability to real needs
With what I learned about the most likely users of the Open Garden app was that we really needed to keep in mind the real-world worries, suspicions, needs, and goals. As previous development of the app had been done with no exposure to people outside of the team, I introduced the company to the idea of personas, explaining that they were not real people, but composites of real concerns discovered in research. It was encouraging to see engineers stop and examine the personas that I'd taped to the office walls.
For this project, I examined various research tools, including Jobs to Be Done and scenarios. I chose personas because I wanted to collect what a coherent life situation might be for someone who would find Open Garden interesting and useful – what problems are they facing, how do they interact with neighbors, what range of goals they might have, what would be too high a barrier for them to use the app? And this all had to be quickly comprehensible and digestible for non-designers on the team.
Use "trusted" terms in interactions involving cryptocurrency
Do not require casual users to understand these arcane terms
Preserve the value of using the app for existing users, who learned the app without a crypto component
Ideation and Prototyping: Learning and filling the gaps
The research indicated that some barriers for users would center around trust, for both crypto and non-crypto users.
To allay the concerns of the existing user base, who worried that the introduction of currency would mean they could not continue to use the app to connect or share for free, I decided that the default screen would feature the Share and Connect controls, with no mention of cryptocurrency. Including on this screen a live map of active Open Garden users near you also demonstrated the value of the app and motivated (as seen in testing) users to make connections.
To help users feel more secure in sharing internet access with strangers, I designed a user profile feature, allowing people to create a username and avatar where previously users would have to connect to cryptic phone ID alphanumerics.
Initial designs based on Coinbase's buy/sell model showed high abandonment rates. Based on testing results, we could see that the major reason was that users could not see what their real costs would be and what real value they could gain. Armed with this insight, I created a UI that paired your real cost to what real value that would purchase. Subsequent tests showed abandonment rates dropped to a fraction of what they were.
At each step, I took prototypes of these features through rapid usability testing to validate design assumptions.
As stated above, the nature of the cryptocurrency exchange infrastructure meant we had to ask the user to leave our app, make an exchange through a wallet app or site, and return to our app. Incoming funds could also come from multiple places. This led to numerous potential fail or problematic states I had to map out, build interactive prototypes for, and test for fail states.
Other new features created included a data cap alert, a new onboarding, a transaction history, and privacy controls. I also tested and adapted the design language and assets to meet accessibility standards.
Testing: Where we're not demonstrating value
Through a mix of guerrilla and structured, in-person rapid usability testing, I checked each feature prototype with both crypto-savvy and, let's say "civilian" users. Testing within the company was not a viable option: everyone there was invested in building the app, so they did – or should – know how it worked already.
Using combinations of paper prototyping, InVision on mobile, and live code in moderated sessions, I compiled the qualitative data in Airtable. This allowed me to share my findings, stack rank problems that needed to be addressed, and compile where our language and design was confusing for novice or experienced users. You can find the template I created for this on Airtable Universe.
Delivery and Results: The campsite rule
Within a few months at Open Garden, I had:
- Created a design/development workflow standardized around Zeplin and Abstract
- Integrated this into our agile workflow schedule
- Built a regular usability testing process
- Built a style system guide
The goal was not just to deliver a polished product for shipping, but leave the design environment with a structure and organization. This is the campsite rule: always leave a place better than how you found it.
As we shipped my tested and revised designs, our average user review ratings on Google Play rose more than a half point (I'm not sure how to factor in the one-world and often obscene spam reviews).
In addition, our installed base grew over fourfold, and – more importantly – so did our active weekly users.
It was a difficult and interesting challenge, and my first time leading product design at a startup. I've learned a lot, often by making mistakes. In the end, we were able to create something that reduced the confusion and frustration many people felt when faced with the concept of cryptocurrency, and preserved the communal mission of sharing internet access around the world.