Unify: Designing a Hyperlocal Social Media to Foster Startup Growth
Getting a community to rally around a platform, contribute, and learn from it.
UI/UX, Strategy, User Research, Branding
Figma, Principle, Adobe CC
While Richmond has momentum, energy, and an abundance of resources to help entrepreneurs push their ideas to the next level, it lacks unification and coordination that fosters a community of entrepreneurs regardless of what stage they are in. To solve this problem, we built "unify", a hyperlocal social network for professionals and created a go-to-market and activation strategy to get a community to rally around it, contribute, and help the thriving startup ecosystem.
The Richmond startup experience often feels rudderless for the uninitiated and frustrating for the uninvolved. How do you get a community to rally around a platform, contribute and participate to help drive a thriving startup community?
More importantly, how do we create a lasting impression through driving societal change, not just economic change, to propel Richmond to national recognition?
Richmond's startup ecosystem has access to resources but they do not provide proper tools to build a professional business team. By connecting makers, thinkers and doers to people in the business community, we encourage more founders and founders-to-be to turn a spark of an idea into a blazing fire and, thus, contribute to driving the thriving startup community.
Introducing "unify", the first hyperlocal (location-based) social network for professionals. Unify empowers professionals to build meaningful local connections in the communities where they live and work. It is the best way to build trustworthy and meaningful business relationships — whether it is finding the right people for a business idea, professional networking, finding people to go to events, or just grabbing a coffee. Even further, it is a solution that not only serves Richmond but could be applied nationwide or even worldwide and provides significant value to the startup ecosystem.
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Unify is a location-based social network which means it shows activity based on the user's current location, by default in a 20-mile radius, to focus on meaningful social interaction within a local community. It features a local feed with public posts of all users in the area and a trending feed of the most popular local posts. Users can easily add professional local connections to network or find potential business partners and follow local businesses to stay up-to-date. In addition, when connecting with locals, you can request to "grab a coffee" which is a connection request that has a meetup event attached to it. Unify automatically asks both parties for their availability to calculate the perfect meetup time and reminds them shortly before. Users can also find other local events on the platform based on their interests, specific categories, or which connections are going. Lastly, you can create groups to discuss certain topics such as entrepreneurship or you might use it to start a local business, manage your team, and find potential new people to hire.
💡 Did you know? You can click on headers of the content overview on your left to quickly jump to a section.
Local & Trending Feed
Keep up with your professional local community
The local feed including an onboarding message when first visited. You also have a quick overview of local events and all users that are currently online which is the equivalent of them being nearby.
The local feed shows all activity (text and image posts) from people and businesses around you chronologically sorted. This is beneficial when a user has just created an account and does not have any connections yet. It is also a great source of inspiration for potentially interesting and valuable connections. People or businesses normally post in the local feed when they want to target many diverse users in the area. This might be useful for networking, when looking for quick reactions and opinions from a variety of expertise, or simply to stay-up-to-date within the local ecosystem. The trending feed is similar in structure, however it is sorted differently meaning that the most popular local posts are displayed at the top.
The structure of a text post
The image above shows the general structure of a text post. Posts can be liked and commented on. The "3-dot" menu at the top right enables the user to flag the post for abuse which will make it go through the moderation system. In addition, each post has a location attached to it, which is the distance of the location where the post has been created. Distance/location is explained in the following image:
Possible locations of posts
💡 Click an image to expand it full-screen.
Personalize your experience through a hyperlocal micro community
The home feed is a curated feed of your local connections and businesses you follow.
After adding people and businesses, Unify automatically creates a home feed which is a personalized feed of connections and followed businesses. This creates a hyperlocal microcommunity of people and businesses users want to keep up with the most. It is therefore a great way to strengthen professional relationships.
With Unify, networking or finding local business partners is easy. The networking page shows local connections and businesses to follow. Those can be filtered according to parameters, our research found to be important for networking with local professionals. This includes filtering by distance, work experience, and expertise. For example, if a medical young professional was looking for experience designers and engineers to realize a business idea, he could simply filter by creative disciplines or engineering, or directly search specific keywords.
The businesses tab shows local businesses that hire local professionals and organizations that foster the startup ecosystem as accelerators or incubators.
Follow local businesses to stay up-to-date
Grab a Coffee
Simplifying the meetup process through greater commitment
Users can request to grab a coffee with a local professional they are interested to network with.
In addition to adding local professionals to your network, users can request to grab a coffee with professionals they are interested to engage in business with. Unify encourages real-life meetups and aims to remove any barriers that may prevent people from taking this step. Besides the hyperlocal aspect, part of that is the "Grab a Coffee" feature that automatically asks both parties for their availability to calculate the perfect meeting time and date, creates an event for that, and reminds users prior to that. We believe, real-life meetups through joining local expertise are the best way to establish successful businesses.
Once you click accept, there will be a prompt to quickly determine the best meetup time and date:
An in-depth look at professionals
The profile view may help if unsure about whether to accept requests or connect with professionals.
The profile view gives an in-depth look at specific expertise, skills, and tools of professionals as well as their intention to use this platform and what they are looking for. You can also view an about section with an optional biography and get more details about education and experience. Users can choose whether they want their activity to be public or private. However, some of the posts, such as when posting to the (public) local feed, are always public and may therefore be publicly viewed by users who visit the profile.
Find professionals local events to network and be educated
Check out your upcoming agenda, popular events, or search by category.
The overview page of the events section shows the user's upcoming agenda including all event's that the user is interested in or going and "Grab a Coffee" events. There's a dedicated spotlight for the most popular event of the week. The page also shows a calendar which displays a dot below every date of events from the agenda. On the right side, there is a personalized message about upcoming events and Quicklinks for event categories. On the discover page you can explore events by different categories including marketing, business, creative, technology, and more.
How to keep the platform alive
Maintaining a platform is costly. Besides server costs, there need to be employees that work on new improvements or fix existing problems. Otherwise the platform won't be able to compete on the market. Monetization is a way to finance that. This can be achieved through sponsored posts that may either show a text or image and include a CTA (call-to-action). Due to its hyperlocality, Unify has tremendous potential for monetization. In contrary to being global, sponsored posts are local and appear only in a specific city, optionally also for a specific user group. This enables many sponsored posts to be available for sale for each city or location and, thus, creates a high revenue stream, given companies are interested to advertise on Unify.
In the following, the process of how we arrived at our solution of building Unify is thoroughly explained. In our strategy process, we conducted primary and secondary research through one-on-one interviews, focus groups, surveys, and online research. In addition, we researched competitors based on our findings, defined a business problem based on the Lean UX canvas to concept our solution, ideated to define our concept, and created a go-to-market plan.
In the design phase, we created the brand "Unify", iterated through low-fidelity designs of screens, rapidly prototyped them, tested them with users, and repeated that process until we arrived at an easy-to-use solution that we could turn into high-fidelity screens which we further validated with users.
Lastly, we pitched our solution to clients.
The Process: Strategy
Understanding and Discovery
One-On-One Interviews and Focus Groups
After conducting some primary (one-on-one interviews) and secondary research, we sought to find out more about the startup experience of founders from the perspective of founders and mentors in Richmond, VA. Selected quotes from our primary research are shown below:
"You're so nervous because you have no idea what the hell you are doing"
– Founder *
"I was so confused about what's out there between Activation Capital, SCORE, NRV, THRIVE and all these things. And you get a different answer from each person!"
– Founder *
“(Some) founders aren’t equipped to manage (the startup) process.”
– Mentor *
We concluded the following problems of Richmond's startup ecosystem based on that research:
1. The Richmond start-up community is fragmented.
The reason for this is that there are so many players. For example, Activation Capital is just one of the organizations in Richmond hoping to foster business growth in the region. There’s StartUp Virginia, New Richmond Ventures, Score, Lighthouse Labs, etc. Though they all are promoting business growth, they’re also all throwing in, meaning there are a lot of people that think their way is the right way.
2. The ecosystem seems hard to break into.
Founders and founders-to-be don't feel like they have the necessary tools to manage the startup process. Equally, they do not know how to acquire such knowledge.
On this basis, we conducted further primary research to get more insights of the Richmond startup ecosystem. Selected quotes are shown below:
"The start-up ecosystem lacks coordination, but the energy is here. There are lots of fun things and events happening."
– Polly White, COO of Gather
“The start up community needs a place where you feel accepted no matter how much of a business background you have. Starting alone can be discouraging but finding inspiration from others can be encouraging.”
– Earl Mack, Co-Founder of Chilalay
"The people that helped me the most during the process of establishing my business are from right around the corner. I see them the most and we help each other a lot."
– Founder *
Quotes marked with a "*" are from individuals who asked us not to disclose their name.
We concluded the following opportunities of Richmond's startup ecosystem based on that research:
1. Richmond is on the rise.
Richmond is on the up-and-coming lists, and it’s got some of the highest millennial net growth in the country. People are moving to Richmond, starting businesses, and are succeeding.
2. The entrepreneurial community is strong and supportive.
Richmond has got a very strong network: there are plenty of powerful smaller players, and there is a lot of corporate appetite (Capital One, Carmax, Markel, to name a few). Also, the ecosystem is incredibly supportive. The first connection is often the catalyst to a greater relationship. There are multiple generations of talent here in Richmond that want to collaborate, want to meet each other, want to see their vision come to life. These people have ideas that are worth pursuing, and sometimes what that takes is a meaningful connection.
Final Research Conclusions
After our initial research, we concluded the following based on problems and opportunities of the Richmond startup ecosystem:
1. Events are happening, and people are engaged.
Richmond has a lot of promise within its communities which shows that there is a lot of momentum. That momentum is what will push Richmond forward.
2. Talented individuals want to network and collaborate.
There are multiple generations of talent in Richmond that want to collaborate, want to meet each other, want to see their vision come to life. These people have ideas that are worth pursuing, and sometimes what that takes is a meaningful connection.
3. Neighborhood networking continues to provide value.
People in Richmond get the most value from local connections because they can easily meet and network. Their neighborhood is where they find out about the buzz around town for networking and events.
There are a lot of events happening, but people need guidance which ones are out there. They would also love to collaborate with others, yet they don't have the proper tools for that because their most valuable connections are in their close vicinity.
Our goal is to create a strong community by connecting people and businesses within the larger societal context.
The image below shows the larger context of the problem and where we should play.
Richmond already has access to resources through a digital front door and founders and founders-to-be have access to resources. With our solution we have to focus on empowering connections by creating an intake and connecting to individuals, groups, and businesses. The goal is to increase genuine interactions.
Competitive/Market Research for Location-Based Networks
Based on our research findings, we conducted competitive research on location-based (social) networks and how they provide value.
Nextdoor is the world’s largest social media service for neighbourhoods. Its main purpose is practical, e.g. to find a babysitter or spread the word about a lost dog. There’s a reason people rally behind it, because it’s your immediate community, which is automatically relevant to you based on your location. And it’s useful, too.
As of may 2019, Nextdoor has raised a total of $123 million and is valued at $2.1 billion.
Eventbrite is a popular event management and ticketing website. It features workshops around town, whether it’s professionally, e.g. related to a field of study or work, or just an interesting event. It’s a nice resource to see what’s going on around you.
personal and professional
Craigslist is a website to post advertisements which features sections devoted to jobs, housing, for sale, items wanted, services, community service, gigs, résumés, and discussion forums. It has pages for each major city and is used both for personal as well as professional purposes.
personal and professional
Competitive/Market Research for Global Networks
What global (social) networks would a professional platform have to compete with? To answer this question, we conducted competitive research for global (social) networks. In the following, we will focus on one competitor in particular, LinkedIn.
LinkedIn is an employed and business social media used for professional networking. On their profile, users can list their experience and skills and endorse other users for them. Connections on LinkedIn are global, which means that they are not restricted by the location of the user.
The Process: Strategy
To kick off our ideating phase and having our goal in mind to empower connections, we asked ourselves how do people connect in a professional context over the internet? For all of us, it was clear that LinkedIn was at the top of the list. However, LinkedIn does not solve most of the problems that have been researched during our discovery phase. That lead us to assumptions about the business problems of LinkedIn for our context (based on the Lean UX Canvas by Jeff Gothelf).
1. Most of the connections on LinkedIn are not meaningful and do not provide significant value.
People have 500+ connections on LinkedIn but only a fraction of them are actually meaningful.
2. People engage the most with professionals in their close vicinity.
The fact that LinkedIn is global decreases the overall value for many users.
3. People would prefer a location-based platform for professional networking.
Local connections provide the most value to users.
To back up the assumptions, we conducted primary research by sending out a survey to young professionals. The results of the survey, which had 49 respondents, is shown below.
Based on a survey with 49 responses among young professionals
The results were clear and strengthened our assumptions. Roughly three quarters of people only have one tenth or less meaningful connections on LinkedIn. In addition, about half of the respondents said LinkedIn "lacked sincerity and authenticity" while 19 participants found it "geographically too broad". This strengthens our assumptions 1. and 2.
Based on a survey with 49 responses among young professionals
For our third assumption we had an even clearer result. 89 percent of respondents said they are inclined to use a more localized platform.
Competitive Analysis - Where We Can Play
A venn diagram to show where there is an opportunity and how it differentiates from other social medias.
Based on your research, we identified a gap. As of 2019, there are global social networks that are both for personal (Facebook) and professional (LinkedIn) use. There are also localized social networks, such as Nextdoor but none of them are intended mostly for professionals. There is clearly an opportunity for a localized professional platform.
The Process: Strategy
Unify combines talent, events, resources, and locality.
Richmond has talent, events are happening, access to resources is guaranteed, and it has locality but how do we bring all of this together? The answer is through Unify, the first hyperlocal networking platform for professionals.
Persona – Meet Marissa
To better understand our target users and to make it easier to empathize with them, we created a persona.
User Journey – Marissa
In order to understand how our product and service would benefit our target users, we created a user journey for our persona.
The Process: Strategy
How can we bring our product to market and ensure people are gonna use it? To answer this question, we came up with an activation strategy.
First we want to start with business leaders in Activation Capital’s existing network, and utilize a Unify Beta roll-out.Secondly, we’ll engage active members in the community through organized events; a lot of those are already happening now.Then, we’ll partner with co-working spaces in the community like Gather and The Broad—places that are echoing the motives of what we’re trying to accomplish digitally.And then lastly, through our early research, we found that most of the thriving start-up communities we’re seeing around the United States are plugged into local universities, which activates a young talent pool, essentially creating a pipeline. We want to do the samein Richmond, activating the student network and young entrepreneurs through Unify Academy.
So with this, we’re able to build a scalable system that has the power to span city and state lines, one that we want to pioneer in Richmond, but can easily see it spreading to other cities around the US.
Sponsoring local events is a great way to spread the word about Unify while also showing potential new users the value they can get from it. According to our research among young professionals, 93% of respondents stated they are interested in participating in an entrepreneurial workshop.
On day 1, which will be an 8h course, participants will develop a business plan, learn about design thinking and ideation, become familiar with competitive analysis and trends, and build a collaborative team.
On day 2, which is 4h long, participants engage in 3h of practice and feedback with an industry mentor, and pitch their business plan to a panel of industry leaders in 1h.
Before the platform will be released, we have to make sure that there is enough activity. Otherwise it would not provide enough value to retain new users. For this reason, we are planning a beta rollout with about 150 local professionals which are committed to test Unify. Detailed info about our target, goals, and measurability are shown below.
The Process: Design
In our early design process, we used Figma to build low-fidelity wireframes.
Selected low-fidelity screens in our early process.
The Process: Design
UI / UX
In the following, you can see our design workflow which is derived from the Lean UX cycle.
The Process: Design
Logo designs and guidelines from the design system we set up for Unify as a brand.
Different logo styles for a dark and bright background
Typography and color palette of Unify
Brand Design Principles
Design should be unified, social, and responsible to conform with the brand’s identity.
Design should convey unification. Shapes and structures belong to a system. At no point should there be standalone elements.
Companionship is what makes Unify thrive. The use of motion to makes our conversational interfaces easier to understand.
Unify is a professional business brand. It is therefore crucial to create a balance between serious design and playful pattern elements.
Brand Accessibility Guidelines
Unify's brand design elements should be readable, ubiquitous, and simple to ensure accessibility.
Text should at all times be clearly readable. There should always be enough contrast to maintain that.
The brand should be consumable in a comfortable and easy-to-use manner by users with a wide range of disabilities. At no point should design elements be ambiguous because of that matter.
Any interactions should aim to make complex tasks simple and straightforward to perform. Therefore, common used UX patterns should be used and taken into account.
When you visit the homepage of unify, you'd visit the landing page shown in the following picture before you login.
The Process: Prototyping and Testing
Tools and User Feedback
To prototype our desktop screen designs from Figma we used Principle for Mac.
The Unify prototype made in Principle for Mac.
Throughout our prototyping and testing phase, we received feedback from young professional users about the product. Selected quotes are shown below:
"I feel like I’m part of something cool, growing, and new."
"This is beautiful and I could actually see myself using it to find experts from around here."
"I honestly hate LinkedIn but this seems way more promising."
The Process: Pitching
After pitching our new product to our client Activation Capital, we received very positive feedback. Early in the process, we made clear that our solution is an ambitious look at the future and a long-term opportunity. It is a risky solution and return on investment is not guaranteed as is the same with every business. However, to minimize the risk initially, key features of our product will be build out and tested to see if people receive value from it in a real-world setting.
I love to push my thinking to the limit and this has been the broadest problem I have worked on so far which made it an exciting challenge I liked to tackle. It was really valuable and interesting to experience how a very broad problem can be narrowed down to a concise solution through strategic thinking and research. Along the way, I was not only able to get better at strategy but also learned a ton about branding a product and perfected my concepting and prototyping skills. I really can't wait to work on more projects like this in the future!
Special thanks to Activation Capital and Shockoe for their help and guidance during the process!