Digital Service Innovation SP21

Elysha Tsai
12 min readMay 17, 2021

This spring, I had the opportunity to innovate a digital service from its conception to the proposal of a minimal viable product, pitched to a portfolio of potential investors. Special shoutout to my team: Patricia Yu, Kristel Yu, Zixiong Zhang, and Zijun Lin for making this possible!

Our process was rich with feedback and iterative change. I will document the journey, categorized in the following stages:

Startup Idea
Opportunity Framing
Pivot + Customer Insights
Final Pitch
Final Thoughts

I: Startup Idea💡

WorkL!ve was where we started. Students have gone through many changes in which their education is delivered and consequently, the way they study. This creates an opportunity for a service that aims to connect students together via live streaming to promote accountability and productivity regardless of the space students are studying from.

With additional research into the current political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental landscape, we were able to compile a PESTLE chart of potential external factors that would impact WorkL!ve. This helped us synthesize a SET Analysis Chart and determine a Product Opportunity Gap.

WorkL!ve fills a Product Opportunity Gap by riding the trend of live streaming. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, this service is complemented by the existing popularity of connection means via the internet and struggles shared by students. However, WorkL!ve’s accessibility will provide value to students even after the pandemic.

Though based on a virtual platform, WorkL!ve involves stakeholders such as students, other social media platforms and other public study spaces– their relationships are outlined in the Value Flow Model. The conception of a digital service is incomplete without a specific goal for the launch. WorkL!ve’s MVP (MVP Plan) aims to target all people working online, people familiar with streaming trends, and procrastinators.

II: Opportunity Framing 🖼

Before we pitched our digital service to the class as a team with further research and refinement, we made a collective decision to rename WorkL!ve to OnL!ve, a name that is flexible to the potential expansion of WorkL!ve to areas outside of studying.

Energetic color story and typeface considerations reflect the young school/university-age users.

Fortunate to have easy access to our intended users, we decided to conduct 10 interviews to evaluate CMU students’ pain points, work styles, and ideal study environment directly. It was interesting to observe the variety of ways students have made adjustments to their workflows due to the pandemic. We were even able to consolidate our interview findings into highlighted quotes and data representations. Overall, students at CMU greatly value focus while working, have experienced new struggles with focus and procrastination due to the pandemic, and have varying levels of success with transitioning to a home-centric study environment.

Interview Synthesis + Raw Interview Responses

With the information we know from our contextual analysis via PESTLE, SET, POG, and the interview findings, we devised 3 distinct personas. Bill, Sasha, and Alex are young adults either in the midst of their education in high school and university or recently graduated. They experience trouble creating and maintaining strong relationships with their busy academic or work lives.

Three personas: Bill, Sasha, and Alex

We also took a deep dive into the competition surrounding means of tackling procrastination and the live-streaming scene. Four existing services had similar functions to OnL!ve: Youtube, Focusmate, Studystream, and Clubhouse. We were also able to try out StudyStream, a service that went viral on popular social media platform TikTok, utilizing existing platform Zoom to create specific study rooms with hundreds of student participants studying together.

Competitor analysis with a special focus on StudyStream

Knowing our potential users and competitions to a deeper level, we created a more detailed value flow diagram.

Receiving feedback from our professors and peers, we were encouraged to think about the following:

  • Consider existing service Gather.town. How does OnL!ve differ from StudyStream in a significant way?
  • Need to conduct more customer research to identify who is being underserved.
  • How do the SET/POG factors change with time and after the pandemic? Why would students choose OnL!ve over other services?
  • Do WFH employees truly need this? If not, narrow down your user base.
  • Who is paying for this? If not students, speak with university representatives.
  • Is this a strong enough problem? Is the need painful enough?

III: Pivot 🔀 + Customer Insights

Reviewing our feedback and attempting to consider how OnL!ve would realistically be translated into a true digital service, it became hard to justify addressing the same problem space and personas. In the end, we realized our problem space is both served by other competitors and not “painful enough” to devise other ways to tackle it.

Our idea was too similar to existing services like StudyStream, and we were not convinced that relying on augmented reality technology to differentiate our service would be effective if the underlying pain points are not painful enough.

This led us to pivot to Pipod…

…an online platform that humanizes the experience of connecting students to university organizations to find one’s best fit. We do this through allowing students to easily have 1-on-1 conversations with active members and leaders and allowing student to better visualize the values and activity of organizations in one place.

Separate color story + branding approach for Pipod to reflect energy of student life

Like WorkL!ve and OnL!ve, Pipod aims to connect students together through organized communities. Pipod, however, leverages existing student communities and organizations (currently poorly “organized” by CMU’s The Bridge) to ensure students find one’s best fit in a large student community, no matter the time of the semester. Improving the university social scene can have positive effects past increased social connections, including better academic and career performance, which is really similar to our original goal with WorkL!ve!

Because we were examining different qualities of students, our users, we conducted 10 additional interviews with CMU students to understand their wants and needs from a community, how they currently view their college experience from a social standpoint, and their current ways of maintaining and joining communities.

Affinity Diagramming exercise to organize interview findings into categories

Translating interview responses into five distinct categories using affinity diagramming, we were able to synthesize 5 important customer insights that would drive the direction of Pipod and the features we intend to implement:

  • Students seek for communities that share similar values and beliefs with their own so that they can feel they can trust the community. In order to understand their values and beliefs they need to feel like they are able to communicate on a deeper level with members.
  • Students find it difficult to make the first contact to organizations they are not familiar with, especially when they have a precognition on what that organization is.
  • Students don’t know where they would best fit in when choosing organizations.
  • Lack of diversity in clubs decreases people’s perceived accessibility to interested students.
  • Students want strong social communities at CMU but find it challenging to balance work with social life.

IV: MVP 1 (D9)

Going into our debut of Pipod, we found it important to appeal to the student population of our audience. Thus, we decided to frame the presentation as a story, following CMU Mechanical Engineering student Anna on her journey to finding her place in Taiwanese Students Association. We sold this storytelling approach with a series of stock images and Pipod notifications to integrate our service into the user’s life.

Though still targeting a user base of students, we adjusted our SET/POG analysis, PESTLE analysis, Value Flow Model, Competitor Analysis, Lean Business Model, and personas accordingly.

I compiled the main areas of feedback we took away from our pitch’s audience:

  • Good storytelling, slide visuals
  • What’s the special sauce?
  • Narrow down on student population: which students would Pipod serve? Who are underserved? (International students, specific years?)
  • Consider usefulness of app throughout the semester
  • More info needed on revenue model. How would SLICE be incentivized to pay for this?
  • More research needed with current CMU penpal, coffee chat, etc. services on campus
  • include customer insights research in pitch presentation

There were many holes in our pitch, but this was understandable since this was the first time we were introducing Pipod to anyone outside of our group! We were excited to narrow down our product to its most essential features, be vigilant about our competitors in the university landscape, conduct more research in regards to revenue flow, and see how we can translate our findings into features on a digital app.

V: MVP 2 (D9.5)

To address the important question of what Pipod’s “special sauce” is, we decided to flesh out the features through pretotyping and parallel prototyping.

We utilized the retotyping technique to generate our initial screens in response to our findings from customer insights and other research. Above: Screens of different Pipod functions.
Parallel prototyping: Screens of home/landing page

After the prototyping exercises and group discussion, we decided on four screens that best represent the functions of the Pipod Most Viable Product: Messages/Inbox, Categorical map of organizations, Live event feed, and Campus representative profiles.

L: Iterations of screens based on pretotyping and parallel prototyping exercise // R: Screens we ended up using in our Pitch presentation

Other than adding screens and concrete feature demonstrations into our pitch, we made some minor adjustments to our visual slides to include quotes that reflect our customer insights research. The feedback we received from investors and professionals in the fields were very helpful. Here is a summary of our main takeaways from Devin Harold, Michael Rector, and Dan Gorchynsky:

  • Must include a persona for the university — we aren’t putting enough focus on the people funding Pipod
  • Should talk to university department to connect business and user value in our value flow diagram and to better understand the value proposition for the University, they have their own pain points that we aren’t addressing with the user storytelling approach
  • Since The Bridge is a big contributor the need of a platform like Pipod, focus on the app complements The Bridge
  • Should attempt to emphasize more direct customer insights in the final pitch, potentially include statistics
  • Screen-specific feedback (see next section)

We also started storyboarding Pipod’s explainer video. We wanted to approach our explainer video with a storytelling focus reminiscent of our pitch strategy, with the hopes of humanizing the CMU student experience while effectively integrating features of Pipod. This was a lot easier to do with established screens from our pretotyping, prototyping, and collaborative iteration processes.

First Iteration of the Pipod concept video

V: MVP 3 (D11)

We also received feedback on our screens. Continuing to focus on the inbox, categorical map, campus map, and event feed, we made the color story more cohesive, increased sizes of important features like search bar, incorporated more nuance into our event feed (inspired by LinkedIn and Facebook), and fleshed out the flow of the inbox feature.

Screen iterations
Final slide of our pitch: Looking ahead (teasing fleshed out features that go beyond the scope of our MVP but still demonstrate a clear idea of the functions of Pipod)

In crafting the structure of our near-final pitch, we also considered how we wanted our concept video to make up the short 5-minute time limit. We decided to cut down our video to 1 minute and focus on the relationship between student pain points and our screens and notifications.

Updated (more concise) storyboard
Final concept video

We also refined our MVP to be a lot more focused and reasonable for a first launch. Instead of expecting the university to fund the app from the very start, we were inspired by the Wizard of Oz prototyping method to test out Pipod on The Bridge. With consistent feedback on our features, we narrowed down the most important features to test the efficacy of Pipod is to bring in the event feed and student + organization chat feature to the rigid UI of The Bridge on a small scale (one organization of around 15 people.) Ideally, this would demonstrate to investors the efficacy of a humanizing, student-centric user experience.

Left: MVP Slide // Right: Pitch outline for our “dress rehearsal”

VI: Final Pitch (D12) 👔

This is the final stretch! Although the overall structure of our pitch will remain the same, we decided to add more information about our revenue sources, relationship to The Bridge, and customer insights.

Despite receiving good feedback on the storytelling approach, especially as an underlying thread that tied our pitch infromation together, we decided to ditch it in favor of statistics in our final pitch. This can be attributed to the realization that the pitch’s end goal is to convince investors in the severity of the problem we are aiming to solve. They are less interested in the mental state and feelings of a hypothetical student.

Our first 2 slides, focused on delivering strong statistics to set the scene of our problem space

We also redesigned the way we talked about our competitors and differentiation. Although we had a variety of competitors that are important to mention, we decided to allocate more time talking about the drawbacks of The Bridge: rigid UI, desktop-centric, logistical functions. This creates a good jumping off point for Pipod to shine in its mobile platform and user experience centered on students.

Competitor landscape slide + More info on The Bridge

This effectively leads to our customer insights. With the established notion that Pipod would complement The Bridge, we took our customer insights and related them to potential Pipod features: one-to-one interactions, easy event finding, and effective visualization of campus organizations. We also incorporated stock photos of students and pull quotes from our interviews.

Customer Insights and how they translate into Pipod features

Finally, we expanded on our MVP slide to talk specifically about revenue. This has been an ambiguous topic to our audience that we felt needed specificity and clarification. Pipod has many potential sources of revenue, including Carnegie Mellon University, Campus Labs, and other universities.

Revenue Sources (a more focused Value Flow Model)
Final slide:)

Our final pitch went well! We felt that we delivered a very informative yet concise persuasive presentation about our digital service. We were also able to answer any questions the potential investors had about our service.

VII: Final Thoughts 💭

The process of working on Pipod has been an incredible learning experience. I was not only able to exercise design skills such as branding and UI screen designs, but also begin to understand the many real-life considerations there are to the things designers design. Translating user needs (conducted by our own interviews), into distinct insights, and finally, UI features was also a very valuable experience that I never got to experience previously. Like many design projects I have taken part in, there’s a lot of uncertainty that can only be resolved by just going for it and seeing what feedback you receive. The collaborative nature of this project also gave me many opportunities to reflect on my strengths, weaknesses, and the way I work in a group setting. I’m glad that our group was able to develop our service so much in the past few weeks and in a way, define our own process of bringing Pipod to life.