Overview of my time & projects at a fast-paced San Francisco startup that ended up being a very memorable experience working on a product overall.
Lead the redesign direction of the app.
Updated the user experience in key areas of the product.
Took part in usage monitoring.
Aided user research/interviews.
Brainstormed growth initiatives.
Created unique visuals for the app (illustrations, icons, etc.).
Shared various expertise with the team.
The start of it all was very unexpected - an old acquaintance got in touch with me and basically told me “dude, they’re looking for someone exactly like you”! Which definitely got me excited and after a few rounds of talking - I started slowly working for Elsa as a product designer.
Elsa Speak is an app that’s basically your dialect coach that fits in your pocket, she helps you improve your pronunciation as you progress. The engineers at Elsa built a powerful AI which helps the users take carefully crafted lessons that pinpoint the exact parts of the words spoken to provide feedback where something’s a bit off or could be improved, you’re then evaluated with a score at the end that contributes to your overall proficiency level and you simply improve over time using their systematic sound list. There’s a lot more to it than that too - you can take an assessment test in order to pinpoint your exact proficiency, there’s specialised courses and topics built right into the app that you can utilise to really up your pronunciation quick - anything from a custom IELTS or OXFORD courses to actual lessons compiled by real-life dialect coaches, games, user communities and the feature list goes on (more on that later).
Initial app UI.
The very first issue was fairly simple: a facelift. Stakeholders, investors and users felt that the app’s look & feel needs to be up to date. Understandable - at least the first priority is very clear.
Everything’s fine with approaching this through the facelift angle, however - in order to properly make the life a lot easier for the users we’ll definitely need to look at the experience side of things a lot more than on a superficial level. An consensus was therefore met that whatever area we decide to facelift first - we evaluate it from a user experience side first followed closely by a behavioural evaluation whether said area (if changed) would’nt be a great blow to the end user in terms of usability/clarity of use and only then we apply the facelift.
I found myself in a very specific product, which only meant that the user base was also a very specific group who’s needs had to be met. In very general terms: the app is used by someone who wants to improve their pronunciation, learn and improve their english or is perhaps studying for a english course verbal test. in addition to this the base app was very much well received in countries such as Vietnam & Japan. That only meant that users from this side of the world love visual elements more than what we’d see in Europe or the US - illustrations, icons, mascots, you name it, all of it is very much appealing to that user base. While the initial app had that put together, it was immediately known that an update to said visuals is bound to happen - which should please our users as well as give the app even more character than before while also pushing the needle on the retainment metric. Luckily - I was able to help.
With years of illustration experience I was able to work out a simple, yet welcoming style for the whole app to follow that was not that hard to replicate for my peers within the company + was trendy at the time. Needless to say I was having a great time.
We have a visual direction, we have clear goals - all that now remains is to start chipping away at the app one feature at a time and dress up every experience with both common practices and new threads. The main front facing areas such as the selection menu’s were mostly my domain for a while - we were able to enhance everything in a way that would work as a foundation for future updates - the UI/UX were then both able to evolve because of the initial work done in the early stages. I then stuck with both growth and retainment aspects of the app for the entirety of my stint at Elsa. The projects in these two domains were never dull and often required quick turnarounds, rapid testing and delivery. All of that was helmed & beautifully managed by an amazing product lead - My N. Tran. She always made me feel at ease even in the toughest situations - she still remains a shining example of how a lead should set you up for success & enable you to do your best work on top of being an empathetic and kind person, major kudos to her.
Updated app UI. More familiar structures eventually applied throughout.
Now, the facelift that we did increased engagement and the app started to grow even more bit by bit. All of the tiny aspects definitely add up to a big picture, but that’s certainly hard to see at first. One of the more challenging aspects of this whole ordeal is the sheer scope of it all - every screen seemed important and deserving of a facelift in order to appear consistent throughout the whole product - however it’s rarely the case that every single case gets the same treatment and that’s fully understandable. Our goal was to update everything that the users set their eyes on in order to either retain them even more in the whole product experience or in some cases - offer a bit of a more polished look. That was the case for all the paywalls too. Even though that’s normally not my go-to, I was happy to lend a hand there and monitor how the data/usage changes when implementing the new approaches, therefore - not only did they look good, the metrics spoke for themselves.
That sets the precedent overall I suppose - rapid testing & experimentation was one of the more challenging aspects of working at Elsa, while also the most exciting. Imagine a day at work where anything goes (as long as it’s not entirely crazy that is) - experimental new UX to bring the community aspect together, games, challenges, connection, special events, custom country-specific features, interesting one-off projects - all that to make the experience exciting to the user. We experimented A LOT, but again - you have to explore a lot of avenues for users to get excited & play along. The velocity at Elsa was insane, but just because people were so devoted to bring the most exciting experience to the users where the goal at it’s core remained the same - improve your proficiency. Silicon Valley speed really hit hard, but it was such a thrill! I brag how much experimentation there was, but I won’t be showcasing them here - it might just be that some of them will be picked up later (or already were), but mostly is that it would take me a long while to describe each of them in detail, haha.
From a product design perspective - core aspects simply need to work. Period. Whenever we didn’t have any experiments or tests running in the background - we’d always come back to the main areas that are the most visited by users and see how we can improve them or otherwise simplify the experience even more. At a certain point my domain received a bit of a challenge - we initially thought that the newly reached user base wanted something clean and modern to work their way around on a daily basis. Basically give the app the look & feel of what a usual Silicon Valley startup would produce. Got to work and made a whole new approach for Elsa. However, as it turned out after a bit of testing/insight gathering - this was ultimately not what the users wanted. I was a bit taken aback by this because of the strong conviction that we had at first, however it was simply clear and they have spoken. It’s important to also take these instances and be able learn from them. Maybe it was a bit vain, or longing for something very clean, but it just goes to show that initial insights need to be challenged as well and in some cases. Luckily we weren’t very far in the process of finalising this approach, thus no real time was lost. Nonetheless - lesson learned.
All-new approach that was ultimately scrapped.
To sum up: I got what I wanted. Wanted to be a part of a fast-paced San Francisco company that moved at the speed of light and I got to experience that first-hand without ever leaving my own country. The crazy 11 hour difference with my colleagues seemed impossible, but we did so much work despite that fact (come to think of it - it’s kind of amazing too). Seems like I worked here only just a bit, but the sheer volume of lessons I learned along the way makes it feel like a long while. I can’t help but feel a bit nostalgic of the times I had with the team. Won’t be able to see the bay area views the same way again. Good times.