I led brand, design strategy, and visual design at a prefab backyard home startup with the goal of adding high quality housing density to residential neighborhoods at scale.
I helped to distill and then wrote the copy for the core product values and vision that would drive both messaging as well as product development. We found that the vision of quality housing, in a small package that could fit in your backyard and make a difference (by adding to the housing resource) was compelling.
Prefab has always promised better design to a mass market, enabled by scale – but variation from project to project has in the past been a wrench in the gears. The smallness and simplicity of backyard units removed a lot of variables. We thought of the accessory structure literally as an accessory to a primary residence, and framed it explicitly like a product. The core values reflected this while speaking directly to homeowner needs.
The very first deliverable I produced was a product brochure. As the team networked, this was a crucial touchpoint to both begin and follow up on conversations. The first iteration was relatively quick and dirty. As resources expanded and the company obtained photography of built work, I continued to evolve the collateral and messaging in this core document.
It was bright and cheerful, but also grounded in a high level overview that offered the right amount of information in terms of design, philosophy, logistics, and cost for customers to know right away if they were in the right ballpark.
The company’s interest in scale was present from the outset. The team had to be scrappy and work creatively around immediate limitations, but funneling those lessons in to a repeatable process was always front of mind. There were many meetings with production partners with whom we were using one or two projects as a test case, while talking in parallel about what 10 or 100 projects would look like.
There were also pitches to investors, partnership conversations oriented toward more efficient vertical integration, community group and housing task force discussions meant to build mission-oriented momentum and learn more about customers, discussions with real estate and finance professionals meant to build referral networks – all laying the groundwork for growth.
I built a slide library that we could draw from for presentations, representing different business, housing, design, and logistical concepts that collectively made up the vision.
As I generated a rapidly exploding number of public facing documents and presentations, I built standards that solidified the visual identity I was crafting while supporting a more efficient rollout of new resources. The design principles I was shooting for were: simplicity, human-ness, and trustworthiness.
Everything about the customer experience had to be curated. If we did a good job of communicating the design priorities and their purpose, customers could focus on overall product alignment rather than vetting details one by one. Everything also had to be friendly. I saw the brand as being about “friendly modernism”: full of simplicity and brightness and clean details, but also about warmth and broad accessibility. Finally, it needed to be playful without being frivolous. The product the company sold was a major investment, and the brand needed to be rooted in expertise.
The web overhaul reflected these principles. I led workshops with the team to present UX concepts with wireframed sequences. I then created high fidelity mockups, and partnered with a front end engineer to implement a custom coded build on a tight budget.
The basic concept was that a fluid single page layout with ultra-simplified navigation would move back and forth between a landing and product page, like the heads and tails of a coin.
The landing page focused on the company vision in increasing detail as it moved down through the first handful of tiles. From a carousel of images, to a one sentence summary, to a six part explanation of the vision, it was meant to speak to a broad audience of anyone interested in the company. I wanted to make the page feel distinctive while keeping it as simple as possible. The header includes only three elements – a familiar logo, a contact icon, and a sticky green call to action to move to the product page.
Separating product information from the landing page allowed the product page to be a self contained environment.
A playfully simple framework keeps primary information front and center above the fold, with more detailed nuts and bolts below. As a first iteration of a design tool built with limited resources, the goal was to use interactive features to solidify expectations about customization and price, while letting customers arrive at these expectations through their own exploration.
This was key – there was enough variation to make the interaction feel personal and let users consider their own vision, enough specificity to push the conversation forward, and a limited range of options that prevented the experience from feeling overwhelming or confusing.
Something else we quickly realized was that with a very high value and low volume product like an accessory structure, the website could and should skip some early stages of the typical sales funnel, and even help customers self-select. The contact form output included design selections and resulted in appointments with the sales team. We found that these were far more productive conversations than correspondence that began with simple email capture.
Though I was investigating future options for interaction with 3D data for the design tool, I came up with a brute force approach to simplify implementation of the initial version. I rendered about 60 different photorealistic shots of design options, figured out how to create as much variation as possible with a minimum number of screens, and went back and forth with the engineer on strategies for acceptable load times.
Other content I created included a suite of product illustrations used for the website, as well as for marketing collateral and presentations.
Shortly after the web launch, the company got picked up by a local magazine. From there, a mini-wave of viral attention spread and the phone started ringing. Between 3 and 30 promising leads were coming through the website every day and the response was enough to require hiring a head of sales.
The sales pipeline moved through initial sales calls vetting inquiries, followed by an on-site free consultation. This required a set of resources to support customer interaction along the way, which needed to be consistent with the brand and experience that was attractive to customers in the first place.
These materials were touchpoints for setting projects up for success, by clearly communicating expectations. Here, I used an engaging graphic in what are usually dry contract documents to link payments, timeline, and process in a clear, easy to understand overview.
Through customer interactions, we learned that there were a few broad groupings of people interested in the product. One was family driven, often looking for options for mixed generation living. One was housing evangelists who felt that adding an ADU was a win-win option to address a broader community need. And while having a project pencil out was important no matter what, there were also customers looking to add rental cash flow to pay for a mortgage, or otherwise maximize their asset growth. I worked with the CEO to drill down on some hard numbers and design collateral communicating potential dollar value.
While more than enough business for a 10 product initial run, and even a 40 product phase II run was coming in the door through referrals, I used municipal GIS data to start identifying concentrations of potential customers in target markets in the bay area and beyond.
I used lot, zoning, setback and building footprint data to identify buildable areas of backyards, and vetted them for minimum widths and required area (represented in dark green) to accommodate a backyard home.
The data were presented as part of a white paper to a local housing task force including elected officials and other community leaders.
Actual projects completed by the company brought the hypothetical analysis to life.
A lot of my work was focused on front end communications, but I was also responsible for information management and communication of the product development and documentation. While the front-facing vision was about scaling a housing offering, on the back end, that meant detailing a construction system and supply chain that could support that deployment. This was an ongoing and herculean effort made in collaboration with the entire team.
With the CSI construction specification system as a boilerplate, I organized all of the components in the structure in to families. Classifications were based partly on traditional distinctions, but also on construction and delivery sequencing. From working on the design, to soliciting bids from vendors, to storing inventory, to construction and project management, the families and subfamilies in this model were the organizing principle.
I maintained and continued to push the capabilities of a corresponding 3D product model. It included every single piece of material (including screws and bolts – no nails) used in the product, had a tolerance of 1/16″, and was invaluable in working out unusual construction and waterproofing details required by the rapid prefab assembly.
By far the most important aspect of communicating the technical details of the model was creating a system for producing and iterating fabrication drawings for components, and interacting with vendors that were part of the supply chain. This was a major cost to the team in terms of time. Prototyping efforts for the system were promising.
Ultimately I was able to contribute across the board to the launch of an early stage startup, and learned invaluable lessons about value propositions and customer engagement for designed products. I gained an enormous appreciation and greater understanding for the challenges of product launch. Most notably, I was able to think about an industry with a professional services model in which I have a deep background, as well as the important issue of housing, in the context of a scaled business approach.