Product Designer Karl Koch explores creating the Home as a Service and how HomeHero is defining a category
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Before I started my working career as a designer, I studied Fine Art at University. Far too many times, lecturers and students alike would recite the oft quoted Picasso statement “Good artists borrow, great artists steal”. This statement—also appropriated by Steve Jobs famously in 1996 when referring to the Macintosh graphical user interface that came originally from Xerox PARC— is used a lot to justify why stealing product ideas is acceptable.

BORROWING IDEAS

If you read the mainstream press or follow tech more closely, you’ll know that a certain company known as Facebook, Inc. (stylised FACEBOOK) often takes inspiration from other successful product ideas. When you’re a big enough company and want to gain market share via new features, but don’t want to commit the resource to it, you generally have two options; buy the company that has a good idea or steal it for yourself. Either way, you’re able to take a massive shortcut in going from idea to execution.

FACEBOOK famously tried the former, attempting to buy Snapchat, Inc. back in 2013 for $3 billion to leverage the potential of reaching the younger audience that they’d lost over the previous few years. When that failed, they had to resort to the latter option, steal the Stories feature Snapchat had made famous (including the name!) and plaster it on every product they own.

CREATING IDEAS AS A STARTUP

The thing is, this kind of “luxury” isn’t available to every company. When you’re a company like us, you have to think very differently about designing product features. At HomeHero we’re transforming how people manage their homes. Our native app helps users manage their bills and household services, as well as bringing users closer to their neighbourhoods. This falls under the emerging category of Home as a Service, which is set to be critical to the future of home management across occupiers, owners and property managers alike.

We have to take advantage of our position as a start up. We’ll need to be the nimble speed boat that can fly in a straight line at record speed or change course without worry. We have to be much smarter about our approach to testing and validating these ideas with potential customers. But ultimately, we can look to others too. We might not be able to borrow or steal in the same literal sense that businesses like FACEBOOK can, but we can take advantage of lessons others have learnt across a plethora of categories.

DRAWING INSPIRATION

For example, we’ve looked a lot to AirBnb to learn from their ability to remain close to the Apple Human Interface Guidelines whilst maintaining a sense of personal brand. This has helped us to deeply integrate our own HomeHero brand throughout the experience, whilst still keeping our product feeling native to iOS. We’ve also leveraged some of the ways in which they surface dynamism through transition and animation, using it to transition between smaller cards and their full screen views. 

Equally, we’ve looked to products and services such as Artsy, who help people to find art on a map. Here we’ve been able to take inspiration from how they use filtering, map-point aggregation and individual location highlight cards, to all make navigating a map more intuitive, clean and informative when looking for curated places to check out or individual requests from other platform customers.

Finally, we’ve looked to mindfulness and habit forming apps such as Headspace to help us with thinking about how to best curate and personalise the daily view for one’s home page without it getting cluttered and unusable. Your bills don’t change that often, so we wanted to focus on bringing more dynamism to increase the daily value of your home, rather than showing static monthly figures.

THE CHALLENGES

The biggest challenge we face, though, is that our future customers aren’t aware of what they actually want or need. The problem we’re solving and the category we’re leading is new to everyone, so when we’re testing our assumptions our customers aren’t clear on what they expect to see from a specific niche feature, all they can do is share what they think they’d expect. Then it’s our job as designers to take those problems, suggestions or concerns and turn those into finalised features that we can then re-test and evaluate in the real world. But, we have to do this without being able to directly borrow or steal from others.

That might sound like a normal “day in the life of a Product Designer” but in reality it isn’t. Our target problem area is huge and untouched, and the available team resource is small in comparison, so we have to be extremely good at picking our battles. We don’t spend lots of time developing an idea that we can’t quantify and get behind—we choose quickly which hills to die on. Conversely, we do have to spend a lot more time iterating on a single concept to get it just right, to hit the perfect balance between feeling completely intuitive but also ensuring that it fits our goals of being category defining.

DESIGNING A NEW CATEGORY

Naturally, if you’re designing for a category that exists, and your goal is to augment that industry, you’ll find that a lot of problems have been solved before—and solved well. This provides you with a solid base to build from—a confident set of assumptions around the user experience—so you can experiment more slowly with these pre-existing paradigms as your security blanket.

When designing for a new category, you don’t have the same level of cloud cover. You’re reliant on your ability to look around at other industries and take inspiration and guidance from the least likely of places; from banking to mindfulness, healthcare to productivity. You have to be willing to step away from the expected and leap into the unknown. So whilst you can’t easily beg, borrow, or steal; you can look, learn and discover.

Ultimately, good artists may borrow and great artists may steal, but category defining artists innovate.

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