This humble little project started from a sense of frustration with the tedious process of shopping for independent brands.
When I moved into a new apartment a few months ago and started planning the interior decorations, I realized how exhausting the curation process was. I would spend a lot of time scouring through multiple platforms like Taobao, Shopee, Lazada, Carousell, Instagram, Etsy, and Hipvan (phew!) just to find the right pieces for the apartment.
Through the process of curating items for our home, I realized I fit into a certain buyer demographic.
My Buyer Persona
I am not always content with items off a big-box store and prefer pieces that have a bit more personality. My first thought is always “can I buy this secondhand” and “how can I support small businesses at the same time” when I need to buy something. I also appreciate it when brands are transparent about their causes and values and want to try my best to make sure my money is going to a meaningful cause (this of course doesn’t need to be always the case).
The Modern Buyer Journey
The modern buyer journey can oftentimes be very non-linear. For example, I would start by creating a Pinterest board of visual inspirations for the home. This is a happy place for me when daydreaming starts and ideas kick in. Then, I would usually start by identifying the items we need urgently, usually more practical things for the kitchen and bathroom, and start sourcing them on eCommerce platforms like Shopee and Lazada (Southeast Asian-equivalent of Amazon). These are usually non-statement pieces in the home.
For statement pieces where style and uniqueness is more important, I will try to source on second-hand markets like Carousell, and Facebook Marketplace. If I do not find what I’m looking for, then I go down the rabbit hole of Taobao (China’s answer to Amazon, known for its superb recommendation algorithm).
Usually, at this point when I’ve done a substantial amount of research on specific items, I start seeing very targeted and relevant ads on Instagram. This has been how I discovered some really cool small businesses in Singapore, such as Stohr, soilboy, State of Matters, Bijou Objects, and Fourth Orbit.
The road to finding the perfect piece for the home seems like a long and winding journey, more so when you add on the extra layer of wanting to shop more ethically and intentionally (making sure you know where things are produced, where your money goes to).
And so, I wondered, why isn’t it easier to discover and support small businesses?
Considering the digital ecosystem
The Customer Journey Map
I started mapping out the different platforms and shops I was visiting, the good and the bad, and how different apps were integrated for a seamless customer experience.
Ecommerce big boys: Lazada, Shopee, Taobao
These platforms are usually built on amazing recommendation algorithms and seamless checkout. What I loved about Shopee and Taobao specifically is that shipping estimations are transparent and you can even track the status of your parcel periodically on Taobao. Search filters can be super helpful and I loved the ability to browse similar items even if what I was looking for did not show up immediately upon search.
I loved the variety of sellers on Taobao. The listings are usually a good mix of more creative, unique crafters, and suppliers of trendy items.
My main gripe with Shopee and Lazada specifically was that most of the listings almost feel like they are simply resellers of popular items off Taobao, which means they are also more often overpriced. There would be multiple listings of the same exact item on Shopee, it gets tiresome and dull after a while. It is incredibly difficult to find something unique on these platforms.
My reservation for Taobao comes with this air of counterfeiting that seems to be normalized on the platform. Counterfeit art prints or designer chairs can be bought at ⅕ its original price points on Taobao. The biggest challenge seems to be the lack of transparency around the sources of the designs, which may result in buyers unintentionally buying a knock-off, and most importantly a threat to any artist’s copyright and authenticity.
Secondhand marketplace: Carousell, Facebook Marketplace
My favorite pieces of decor in the apartment are all from Carousell. There’s truly a joy to thrifting. I like how I’m able to find more unique items, especially small furniture and decor on the platform as compared to platforms like Shopee.
I loathed the oftentimes rude exchanges with sellers or other buyers. The app also doesn’t seem built purely for a delightful thrifting experience. My feed was often an unsightly mix of relevant items coupled with car and home listings, things I did not explicitly sign up for. Ads also took up huge screen real estate, which led to a lot of accidental clicking and redirecting to advertisers’ websites.
Lifestyle brands: Instagram x Shopify
I discovered most of the independent brands through Instagram ads, thanks to the incredibly accurate targeting. I loved how these shops usually have an air of DIY spirit to them. The branding is usually super well-thought-out, trendy and authentic.
Their Instagram feeds are usually super well-curated, the perfect embodiment of a “lifestyle brand”, where the brand also serves as a form of visual and thought inspiration when they engage with followers through polls and insta-stories.
For shops that do not already have a proper Shopify shop, the check-out process is incredibly manual, where buyers will purchase through direct messages to the seller. For sellers who are not as active on their Instagram, the brand can easily lose visibility in front of buyers.
There is also no way to search for specific items on Instagram Shop. The platform seems to advocate for a more “organic” way of discovering brands, when they are tagged on posts and stories or when they are highlighted in Collections.
Inspiration from other apps
The Korean home decor mobile app O-House helps people discover and purchase decor items by exploring a user-generated style gallery for design ideas, and it will help you discover your own design preferences. Within the app, there are options to select the type of home-style — apartment, one-room, two-room, country house, etc. — and check the interior styles. Click on the product tag for more information and to purchase items in-app.
I enjoy the amount of details provided as part of the product info, clear shipping fees and delivery estimations. I also like the filtering system on the app and the helpful recommendations based on my likes and the ability to curate my bookmarks.
Instagram as the chosen platform for the case study
The reality is that gaining new users can be a huge challenge to any app and so it made more sense to build on top of an existing platform instead of designing a completely new app for the sake of it. While I enjoyed using Etsy, there are not too many Singaporean sellers on the app and I wanted to focus on a platform where there’s already a good mix of local and overseas independent brands. Since I did discover most of these brands through Instagram, I decided to double down on this platform as part of my solution.
Instagram has apparently launched the direct check-out feature to a selected group of sellers in late 2020, however this feature seems to be limited to sellers based in the US at the moment. Instagram has also shown its dedication in growing the platform into an eCommerce platform.
There is an official account dedicated to celebrating small businesses on the platform: https://www.instagram.com/shop/. However, it looks really centric to American sellers.
Focus on solving for the customer discovery stage
Since Instagram has already designed and partially rolled out the checkout experience, I figured it only made sense that I focus on solving for the top of the funnel — matching shopping lists to discovery.
It is not lost on me that Instagram is already known for its amazing recommendation algorithm. However, I’m still curious if I would be able to design an alternative onboarding journey.
How might we make the process of discovering and buying from small businesses more seamless?
The design solution should hopefully be able to help the modern shopper find and support small businesses a lot easier, and ideally a solution that can be easily implemented. Success would be a robust and inspired pool of independent small businesses and shoppers who are able to buy from brands they truly resonate with.
~3 weeks. This was a self-initiated personal project I worked on in my free time during weekends. I took charge of research, design, and testing.
Key takeaways from the research
I spoke to both buyers and founders of small businesses to find out a little bit more about how they feel about the state of shopping for independent brands. I was interested in understanding the problem from both points of view:
- Motivations for supporting small businesses
- Things they value when they shop online
- Frustrations when they shop online
- Pain points when managing a small online business
- Motivations for starting a brand
- Thought process around brand building and customer engagement
- The age of the intentional shopper — The modern shopper is sophisticated, well-researched, and intentional. If only there was a way to quickly connect brands to buyers who have aligning values and styles.
- Inspiration and discovery are a big part of the eCommerce journey — So much time is spent on researching, it would be a priority to make the discovery journey more delightful and less painful. Would be cool if search options could directly be influenced by the buyer’s taste and style.
- Seamless digital payment + inventory is important for small business owners — an issue for smaller and emerging sellers who do not already have a Shopify account set up I suppose. Interim solutions include using Cococart, a Typeform-like website builder that can be set up easily, albeit with very little freedom to play around with shop branding.
Designing the Solution — The Prototype
The final prototype was designed to include these features to Instagram Shop:
- Purpose-driven onboarding (eg. apartment decorating)
- Integration with Pinterest
- Comprehensive filters for shopping list (brand values, delivery options, price, etc)
- AI-driven recommendation system based on user’s preferred style
I shared the prototype with some friends and gathered some interesting feedback.
In general, I was happy that people seem to be excited at the possibility of linking up their inspiration (Pinterest board) to a shopping list. Another feature people enjoyed was the ability to filter and curate a shopping list for a very specific purpose.
Here are some of the thoughtful questions and feedback raised:
- Cross-platform integration (Pinterest x Instagram) might be a challenge for the backend engineering
- How would the current Bookmarks interact with Shopping Lists? Will Shopping Lists complement Bookmarks? How will all the new user data influence the Instagram Shop homepage feed?
- Will these shopping lists be public or private?
- How will sellers benefit from all these user-generated shopping lists?
Closing the loop — Did I answer sprint questions?
I think the prototype presented is still at the stage of a conceptual proposal.
I am aware that with such a popular and extensive app such as Instagram, there must be a lot of complications involved when it comes to the backend systems. I would also admit that without an in-app checkout system (Instagram check-out has not rolled out in Singapore as of yet), buying from independent businesses can still feel a bit tedious.
I’m still glad I attempted to create some sort of visual brainstorm to a very open-ended sprint question.
- Lots of areas for improvement — Since this is my official product design case study as part of my portfolio building, I definitely felt a strong sense of imposter syndrome at various stages. One area I will surely need brushing up is establishing the discipline to create and reuse components for screens.
- User interviews will light the way — I started the project slightly baffled and overwhelmed. I knew I had many personal pain points but struggled to translate them into a visual, tangible product solution. Talking to users really helped to provide some structure to my thoughts, and guide me in scoping down to the actual user journey to design for.