POP

A story about working as a Designer at a startup while growing from 3 to ~16 people.

Summary

In my role as Designer and Product Manager for POP, I helped build a Facebook Messenger marketing tool that allows you to send fun, interactive conversations straight to your audience.

As part of the first 3 people at the company, we grew to ~16 people in less than 4 years. POP is now one of the 4 widely used Messenger marketing tools in the world.

Role

Product Designer & Product Manager

Timeframe

2016 — now

Early phase

The very first product of POP came in an iOS app I was not a part of. Designed by Awkward, the app had DJ Nicky Romero on board to send broadcast messages to his fans. The messages were simple in nature: Hey, my new track is out. Check it out here.

"Reach your fans directly."

A few problems came up. One being that the management didn't like that they were onboarding their fans onto a new app, another being that fans didn't want to download a new app.

While in search of a solution, about 4 months earlier, in April 2016, Facebook Messenger launched it's API and opened up for developers to build on. Because the artist was already on Facebook, and the chat app was popular, this seemed to solve both issues to build the initial idea.

The target audience were record labels, artist managers, and music agencies (that do the social media part of promotion).

A video showcasing an old Messenger app and illustrating our main product: sending a message.

Initial product

The first wave of companies focused on AI and predicting and automating conversations (letting humans talk to bots). We understood that this wouldn't work and the technology wasn't there. The tech industry understood this too, but unfortunately chatbots now had a bad reputation.

Our first product was a dashboard, with a 'Send' page to send your broadcast. A simple text input field to write your message and a big button to broadcast it.

In the early days, we were struggling to explain the concept to our target audience. It wasn't a public social profile like Instagram. Hence our goal was always to get customers to try it: send a message!

To avoid these broadcasts being seen as spam, we adjusted our product slightly to have fans opt-in to receive messages. This resulted in a new pitch:

Broadcast messages (on an opt-in basis) to your audience. Send your content in a fun and interactive conversation.

We are very early to the market at this point, everyone we get in touch with, doesn't know about Messenger being an available channel. Around this time we had between 25 - 50 customers.

Our pre-redesign send page. Already including targeting.

A first version of a channel overview page. Many ideas didn't make it, but a lot came back in new ideas in our redesigned dashboard.

Features

Looking back, partly because of most customers struggling to just send a message, we were always building features ahead of customer feedback. We were always thinking for ourselves, what will be next? What can make this better?

A big feature for POP is the chat editor, it's where you can build your interactive conversation. Add text, buttons, images, video, audio, branches, questions and more. It was a big project but it made us quite unique at the time. Where others made editors that built blocks and tied them together with lines and arrows, we made a more WYSIWYG inspired editor.

Furthermore, we released quite a few features. The dashboard got upgraded to allow for multiple Messenger channels, we expanded on broadcasting by adding the ability to schedule your message and built advanced targeting based on your segments and data (including location) that your conversations can generate.

Simply put, users could now write what they want, send it when they want, to a specific audience they want. It was really powerful.

Users could write what they want, send it when they want, to a specific audience they want.

Designing all of these features forced me to document components and styles. First in Sketch and quickly to Figma in 2018. Changing our dashboard was a great way to kick-off our design system and spend time on making components (not that many at the time) consistent throughout the app.

Our customers often receive open rates between 90-99% because chat is such a direct way of communication.

One of many iterations for new navigation. We decided not to go for this version because it was very desktop focused with it's dropdowns, and there wasn't much space for new pages in the horizontal navigation.

Sending a broadcast message has always been from this UI. You write your text message or 'Flow' (our conversations format) and decide to who and when it's going out.

The chat editor allows you to write and build interactive conversations. Just like chat, conversations 'play' from top to bottom.

A few components from POP's design system in Figma.

Opportunities

With chat, there are a lot of different directions you can go as a company. We could move into voice-chat to build a platform for Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Facebook Messenger. Or move entirely into social media management by adding Facebook post scheduling, Instagram posting and perhaps Twitter.

We didn't have a great appeal for voice, the initial products weren't all too well received and the natural language processing (NLP) technology was basic, to be generous. We were going to be all about chat.

We got in contact with Apple to develop for iMessage (or simply: Messages). After a few video calls with very bad connection, we got access to the documentation and saw the requirements. It was a long list of 9+ items that seemed reasonable. One big requirement was an Inbox.

The Inbox turned out to be a pivotal project for POP. Besides it being necessary to expand into iMessage, the project would prove to be quite big. It took us roughly 9 months (while continuing to maintain POP and ship other smaller features too). We re-wrote how we stored messages and had an Inbox that could send and receive messages in real-time.

An illustration of the Inbox used for marketing purposes.

The Inbox. The phone displays the customers conversation, behind we see the Inbox showing the conversation in real-time.

Receiving a question and replying live in Inbox.

A screenshot of the user-facing experience in Messenger.

Changes and challenges

In the midst of us building for iMessage and designing and building an Inbox, Facebook announced platform changes.

The platform changes were rigorous. As mentioned before, we had made a deliberate effort to make our customers not being able to spam messages. But other platforms didn't do this, or solo-developers did this anyway. The result was that (during the Cambridge Analytica fiasco) broadcasting was to be removed from the platform, in swift fashion. The deadline ended up changing substantially, but initially it was planned to be removed in ~2 months of us receiving this news.

In our very rare contact with people from Facebook, we had heard hints of this, but no concrete plans or API changes. It caused us to essentially scratch adding iMessage, killing another side-project but continuing with Inbox, since we were already quite far.

News organizations could continue on broadcasting, free of charge (after review).

Sponsored messages are an ad format. Broadcasting that was free before is now paid.

Although only added in February 2020, this 'Notify me' component allows for more closed notifications.

Pivot

Though we had ideas before, Facebook platform changes brought more speed to our decisions. After exploring Shopify plugins and automated conversations triggered by events, we decided to move into advertising campaigns that can run through Messenger. The Facebook Ad Platform has a solid format for Messenger campaigns, that (combined with our platform) can prove to be really powerful for businesses looking for new customers (lead generation) or simply creative advertising in a conversational format.

We quickly morphed our product and website to fit that audience, and continued on exploring other opportunities meanwhile.

During this time I got to hire another Designer, a graduate student. It turned out to be a good fit, a UX Designer that can figure out how things work and could work for us. It provided us with more designs for ideas that were just Trello cards before. It made decision making easier and provided development with more clarity. I essentially made him in charge of more technical features (that would take me ages to research and discuss) like accepting webhooks, displaying data from API's in chat and more.

We assigned design work (a Trello card) to a single designer. Often in the idea phase or wireframe phase, we would split the idea up.

A slide from a presentation comparing traditional landing pages to chat landing pages. As part of pivoting to a more ad-focused product and sales strategy.

An example of KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) building their own travel updates over Whatsapp. In order for POP to be able to do this, we need: (1) a widget on the checkout page, (2) able to send conversations based on events and (3) display data from the event in our editor.

The image that will display when you would share iampop.com across social media.

The future

With platform changes and struggling sales in the music industry, we are moving to a more business minded and tech-savvy audience. Marketeers and ecommerce marketeers.

Businesses chatting with customers.

We see the future of POP being all about businesses communicating with customers. We don't think we'll be the go-to company for customer support, but the go-to company for growing your business. Either through (ad) campaigns that go to Messenger, or while on your website accepting an offer that leads to Messenger. A business can automatically send their campaign in chat, reply (automatically or manually) in Inbox and retarget their customer or lead with new campaigns.

Advertisement to Messenger conversation experience for a travel company. The conversation segments and ultimately recommends a destination.

Advertisement to Messenger conversation experience for a clothing webshop. The conversation exchanges a discount for the user's email address.

Retrospective

Looking back we have made a lot of correct bets. I believe our customers always got their money's worth out of our product, and I think we made a lot of tools that allow for creative conversations on the Messenger platform. To reach true scale however, we have to make a pivot to a tech-savvy audience that reliably uses our product. Even though we were forced to make this change quicker by Facebook platform changes, this is ultimately the right move even without the platform changes.

In regards to the team, I'm proud that we hired a lot of people that came in and fit well. With the complexity of growing a team to it's full potential, we are definitely getting there to where we are a well-oiled machine.

Our front-end is also something I'm really happy with, as a Designer I like that it is well-documented and consistent throughout the app. We've hired 3 developers with just Coding Bootcamp experience and they have been able to jump in smoothly. At this point we are able to build UI really quickly.

This project wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for: Tim Heineke, Vincent Onderwaater, David Sigley and Adrian Voinicu.

Notable clients for POP include: Nu.nl, Armin van Buuren, Armada Music, Tash Sultana, Noel Gallagher, Run The Jewels, Spinnin' Records, Maroon5, Lowlands, Elrow, Creamfields, Protocol Recordings, Sónar Festival, Warner Music, Universal Records, MOJO, Motley Crue, Resident Advisor, Enter Shikari, XITE.

This was written on March 9th, 2020.

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Reach me at hey@lucvanloon.com