Joseph Baroud

Sponges

Product/UX Design

CONTEXT

10-week academic project (individual)


SCOPE

POC: User research, interaction design, visual design


PLATFORM

iOS


TOOLS

Sketch, InVision

Sponges is intended as a mobile application that provides people with quick, easy-to-find guidance on the best ways to clean and maintain things around their home, including objects and spaces they never even knew they should be looking after.


I created a POC for Sponges as my capstone project when I studied UX Design at BrainStation Toronto.

InVision Prototype

The embedded prototype works best on Google Chrome. Otherwise, you can view it here.


Defining the Problem

Mom and Dad were right (as usual…)

Two days before starting my course at BrainStation, I moved away from my parents' home for the first time. Upon this adjustment, I encountered many challenges in trying to live more independently, one of them being that I had zero clue of how to really clean and do basic maintenance around my new home.


As much as my parents tried to "train" me (as my mother liked to say) to do these things before I moved out, I dismissed the idea, confident that I'd figure it all out when the time came to do so. While I wish I had listened to my parents, I thought there was no way I could be the only one struggling with this. So, I did some research…

But I knew that desk research wasn't enough

To truly understand the underlying issues behind my generation's relatively poorer cleaning and maintenance habits/skills, I needed to talk to people. So, I developed a research plan to supplement what I found online.



CONSTRAINTS:


  • ⛔️ Given BrainStation's tight deadlines, students were advised to interview people they could access immediately, so I relied on close friends and relatives for my research.

  • ⛔️ I sought interviewees who regularly use a smartphone to support my program's requirement to design for native iOS or Android.


  • ⛔️ As perceptions and expectations regarding household chores/responsibilities differ by geography and culture, I focused on a target user group of young adults living in Canada.

I set the stage with a survey

"I know how to clean!"


That's how some of my friends responded when I told them about my project, but I was skeptical. There was no way they cleaned as thoroughly as my Middle Eastern mother does.


That's when I realized, what if my target users don't know what they should be cleaning and maintaining? Are those who truly have this problem even aware of it?


So, I created a survey asking my interview participants to evaluate their ability to clean and maintain various household objects and space.



KEY INSIGHTS:


🔸 On average, participants were confident that they knew how to clean, and clean frequently enough, only 24% of the objects and spaces listed in the survey.


🔸 Some noted that, had they not completed this survey, they would have never known that they should be cleaning some of the listed objects/spaces. There are no channels to consistently tell them what they should be cleaning.

I then interviewed 6 people

With the questionnaire outputs in mind, I sought to understand people's experiences and attitudes related to cleaning and basic maintenance, and grouped my notes into themes to uncover insights.



KEY INSIGHTS:


🔸 While all interviewees refer to how-to articles and videos on the Internet for help with cleaning and maintenance, they find it difficult to know which articles/videos to trust the most and spend more time searching for guidance than they would like to.


🔸 All participants attributed their busy schedules as a reason for their difficulty or reduced desire to clean as often as they would like to or should.

My research helped to put a face to my target users

To pinpoint exactly who I should be designing for, I synthesized my research insights in the form of a persona which captured the goals, behaviours, pain points and motivations of my primary target user.


Doing so allowed me to profile my primary users as: young adults who live away from their parents and want to adopt better cleaning and maintenance habits/skills.

I also uncovered promising opportunities to make things better

To identify where I could improve my users' experience of household cleaning and maintenance, I then visualized Olivia's current-state journey (in the context of cleaning something for the first time) based on what I received from the interviews.


In doing so, I learnt that Olivia's experience could have been less painful if she:


1️⃣ Had a more dedicated means than social media to learn about household objects/spaces she should be looking after

  1. 2️⃣ Knew of a place she could count on to easily and quickly find on-demand cleaning and maintenance information
  2. 3️⃣ Didn't have to bear the burden of knowing, thinking about, and remembering when to clean/maintain something

My findings ultimately begged the question:

“How might we provide young adults with the knowledge and support they need to more efficiently and effectively clean and maintain their home?”

Scoping the Solution

I knew my app couldn't do everything

As I could not prototype an entire app within the timelines of this project, I needed to prioritize features that I believed would most effectively deliver on my solution’s value proposition.


But what was my value proposition? To figure it out, I had to ask myself:


  • 1️⃣ What were the most common pain points and opportunities identified by my interviewees?
  • 2️⃣ If my app could only do one thing, what would solicit the most interest and deliver the most value to my target user?


The answer:

“A mobile application that shows young adults the best ways to clean and perform basic maintenance around their home”

Developing a product backlog helped to narrow things down

With my app’s value proposition at the core, the user stories were driven by the needs and ideas I heard from my interviewees, as well as the opportunity areas uncovered in Olivia's experience map.


My product backlog included the following features for my app:


  • ▫️Ability to search by room or function, or by scanning a live object/space
  • ▫️Tailored "how-to" guides for cleaning household objects and spaces (text and video)
  • ▫️Information on required cleaning supplies and alternatives
  • ▫️User forums to share questions and feedback on cleaning guidance*
  • ▫️Daily cleaning suggestions*
  • ▫️Readings on cleaning and home maintenance topics*


*These features would at the very least be visible, but not clickable, in the prototype.


To create a skeleton for my app's UX, I then developed a flow diagram for what I determined as my app's primary feature (as per my value proposition): learning how to clean a household object or space. (Click on the images to expand)

Product Backlog

Task Flow Diagram

You might be thinking, "Why cleaning over maintenance?"

As I progressed through this project, I realized that to include both cleaning and maintenance in my prototype would be too ambitious with the time I had, so I chose to prioritize cleaning for the following reasons:


▫️Many of my target users rent, rather than own, their dwelling, and therefore aren't responsible for maintenance.

▫️As I found through my questionnaire, my target users are generally less capable of cleaning, compared to maintenance.

▫️Some of my female interviewees expressed that they expect a man to take care of maintenance tasks for them.

▫️Cleaning is a routine task that brings about more daily challenges, compared to maintenance which usually occurs ad hoc.

Prototyping

I was excited to start bringing my ideas to life

With my task flow diagram developed, I populated a design inspiration board and made a number of sketches to decide on the patterns my app would adopt. I contemplated navigation methods, button formats, container layouts and potential adjustments to my task flow before landing on what I felt was the most promising design.


To keep the focus on my app's features and usability, rather than on aesthetics, during testing, I first digitized my concept sketches as greyscale wireframes. Given that I only had access to my own device, an iPhone, for product testing, I designed my prototype to work on it accordingly.

Sample concept sketches drawn to determine the most promising alternatives

Inspiration board containing potential app ideas, features and components

Initial wireframes taken to my first round of testing

Still, I needed other opinions to help me get it right

I conducted two rounds of desirability and usability testing with five unique test users per round to uncover gaps and opportunity areas in my solution. Below are the top issues my test users pointed out to me:

Mood: "Gently playful, yet pristine and tranquil"

I knew this was the feeling I wanted to convey when it was finally time to inject my brand, colour and typography into the app. Think of the echoing sound of a water droplet in a silent, spa-like bathroom.


I conducted a number of exercises to define my brand and experiment with colour and typography combinations before landing on my final design. Below are the main outputs:

Looking Beyond iOS

Marketing my product

As part of an introductory unit on responsive web design, I created a landing page to promote Sponges. While I'm by no means a marketing guru, I did my best to target my audience with compelling messages inspired by my user research and value proposition.


Full page links: Desktop | Mobile

"Alexa, I spilled coffee all over my carpet!"

As part of a one-day challenge my BrainStation cohort did in class, I reimagined Sponges as a voice-only interface that could operate on an Amazon Alexa-enabled device. This accounted for a new variation of my persona's current-state experience as well as an expanded set of user stories.


View my design process here

Closing Reflections

Design impact and future thinking

As I close off my project, I considered the potential impact and future of my design based on some questions I drew from the Tarot Cards of Tech.

  • I didn't consider all forms of accessibility.

  • While I considered visual accessibility when designing my UI, I never considered accessibility for people with mobility issues. The how-to guides in Sponges assume that users are able-bodied and can move as needed to clean or maintain something. Those with mobility limitations might therefore be unable to follow the app’s instructions.

  • To address this gap, I would have to meet with people within my target audience who have mobility issues to understand their experiences within my problem space. Should I even try to address their pain points within my app, or would they need a different solution entirely?

My app's biggest risk is the quality of its information.


  • People could lose trust in Sponges if it provided poor, or even dangerous, advice. For example, what if a cleaning guide recommended using a chemical substance without warning users or advising them on how to use it safely?

  • Mitigations could include:

  • ▫️Researching and setting standards for the kinds of safety information my app needs to provide.

  • ▫️Implementing a quality control process to ensure that  all guidance provided by my app is vetted for effectiveness.

  • ▫️Curating content from credible sources, rather than creating it from scratch.
  • My app could promote "green" products and tools.

  • If the environment were my client, I would want to ensure that Sponges promotes the use of environmentally-friendly products and tools for cleaning and maintaining their homes. Perhaps during onboarding, a user can opt in to prioritize “green” product suggestions when looking up cleaning/maintenance guidance, or at least have the option to toggle for green alternatives when viewing guidance.

Business considerations for implementation

As the focus of the program was to practice core HCD skills, my project did not include comprehensive assessments of business viability or technical feasibility. However, I did give some thought to what would need to happen, from a business standpoint, in order to move Sponges into production.



  • BUSINESS MODEL: A breadth of monetization opportunities would have to be explored, as requiring users to pay for the app might reduce its perceived value when compared to free alternatives like Google and YouTube. There might be an opportunity to partner with consumer products companies to push their cleaning and maintenance supply recommendations to users, but this might come at the expense of the app’s credibility if it appears to be baised. A next step for me would be to conduct business modelling and competitive analysis exercises to establish a better lens of the landscape and adopt a more sophisticated view of the business opportunities for Sponges.

  • CONTENT STRATEGY: Given that the cleaning and maintenance guides are intended to be specific to the particular item models the user owns, the level of effort for providing content to the app needs to be assessed. When conceiving my prototype, my intended strategy for Sponges was to curate content from existing, reliable sources to avoid reinventing the wheel, but to what extent does the content I need exist already? Also, what percentage of household objects would truly benefit from having model-specific guidance? Can guidance stay generic for most objects? These are the kinds of questions I would have to investigate further.

Challenges and lessons learned

  • 1️⃣ Interviewees can contradict themselves
  • When conducting qualitative research, comparing user attitudes (what they say) with behaviours (what they do) is essential for mitigating conflicting statements made by people during an interview (or any form of research). Thankfully, the contradictions I heard during my experience did not impact my project's progression, but I'm now much more aware of the risk.

2️⃣ Inspiration-finding is time well invested

  • If I could redo this project, my first priority would be to invest more time gathering design inspiration. I think I suffered in this step due to a combination of (1) not knowing the best places to look, (2) rushing the process and (3) thinking I should reinvent the wheel. While I'm still proud of my design, I acknowledge that some areas (e.g., the drawer menus) are worth revisiting.


3️⃣ Test your test scripts

  • During testing, I learned that the wording of scripts can be pivotal in a test user's success with the product. During some of my user tests, I found that people struggled with or failed a particular task simply because it wasn't articulated clearly.


4️⃣ "Cool" doesn't always mean "great"

  • Sometimes, an app doesn’t need more than basic-level features to please a user. While “technologically advanced” features might seem interesting to the designer, users do not always need or appreciate them. I thought people would love the scanner functionality I had in my first prototype, but nobody understood it, so I let it go.


5️⃣ Onboard your users

  • Unfamiliar features sometimes need to be well explained to people when they use a product for the first time; it's not always wise to leave it up to them to figure things out on their own. I learned this after observing that many of my test users did not fully understand the purpose or contents of Sponges' home page.

  • 6️⃣ With enough practice, anyone can do UI
  • As someone with deuteranopia, I felt uneasy about visual design. However, I appreciated having this project as an opportunity to experiment with colour and learn pairing techniques. I was also reassured to learn that many seasoned UI designers conduct lots of experimentation before coming up with their final designs, and there are lots of tools out there to help too!

Acknowledgements

As my time at BrainStation and capstone project came to an end, I owed thanks to so many people for their contributions to my success during the program: