Creatively

A web-based productivity tool for creative small businesses who feel burned out by business logistics.

Overview

Creatively is a web-based application is inspired by creative small businesses starting out who feel burned out by business logistics which usually takes away from the fun. We want to keep business operations fun while being purposeful–providing a hub for data tracking, resources, and a source of motivation for users.

This project was my UX Research and Design graduate school capstone at the University of Michigan School of Information in collaboration with my colleague, Cynthia Ding.

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Role

Designer

Timeline

January - April 2022

Skills

User Research
Product Design
Visual Design
Product Thinking

Tools

Figma
Blush.design

Problem

More young professionals have started to turn creative hobbies into businesses. However, these creatives experience burn out and struggle to stay motivated.

42% new business formation

growth in 2020 reported by the United States Census Bureau

62% of Gen-Z individuals

(born 1997 - 2012) and 56% of millennial individuals (born 1996 - 1981) have started a side hustle since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

20% of small businesses fail

within their first year according to data from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics

When we talked to an initial set of creative small businesses, they also felt the pressure.

Question – How might we design organization tools for creative small businesses to sustain their operations?

Research

From our beginning stages of problem discovery, we needed to scope down through research since creative small business burnout is a very broad problem.

Want more research? View the full report here

1 expert interview

conducted to understand what it means to be a sustainable creative small business and what experts hypothesize as to the largest competency barriers for operations and finances

9 interviews

with creative small businesses to gain a deeper empathy on what it means to be a creative small business and what are the end goals, investigate the workflow of a creative small business from conceptualizing to executing product sales

11 competitors

analyzed to identify what market gaps exist in existing tools for young people with creative small businesses

22 TikToks

observed to get a wider sample of data to further investigate our findings from a relatively small sample size of user interviews.

Research synthesis

Creative small businesses love their craft, but dislike the business logistics that come along with it.

01
Sustainability is not a tangible financial benchmark but a state of well-being for creative small businesses.

Sustainability can be a subjective measure but the majority of users felt that fun and/or level of commitment were key to their success

P1: “Even if it business runs to the ground, I’ll stick with it”

P2: “I guess, I do think about it a little bit like a business but mostly I think of it as a hobby just to keep in mind like I don't want to make it something that isn't fun for me anymore”

P3: “Success means different things to different people” and “I identified that I wasn’t taking the next step to build a brand. The work I was doing was not sustainable.”

P4: “I don’t think I can see it full-time because I don’t want it to feel like work. To me, my stores don’t feel like work to me”

Our expert interview talked about the importance of leading indicators which are factors that are not quantified by money but rather items to keep track of that are related to eventually making money (e.g. reaching out to X amount of customers, sending out X amount of emails, getting X amount of email sign-ups). Part of being a successful business is not always directly thinking about money

TikTok observations indicate that taking breaks is important. 18/22 observations included some moments of relaxation to balance their day of full-time work and creative small business logistics

Sustainability means setting benchmark goals with direction. Expert interview alluded to the fact that “If you want to make it to the SuperBowl, you have to achieve different benchmark milestones” meaning that creative small businesses need to have smaller steps when thinking about bigger goals they might have

However, knowing where to start can be intimidating

P3: “Starting with a blank screen can be scary. Having prompts would be useful”

02
Current tools assume a high level of prior business knowledge and track complicated business features that beginning creative small businesses do not use

In our competitive analysis, we see that business logistics and finance tools can require a lot of prior knowledge with little assistance to help orient users. They also keep track of complex business logistics that might not be relevant to beginning creative small businesses. Existing productivity tools can keep track of simple logistical tasks, but they too can require a lot of time to get situated with no built-in tutorials or recommendations to assist users.

03
Creative small businesses are confused and concerned about how to price their products.

3/5 users expressed uncertainty and/or concerns with pricing

P1: “It’s kind of difficult because you have to know your numbers” and “pricing depends on having confidence in the product”

P3: “There is that spirally culture of people paying others what they aren’t worth” and “it makes my blood boil”

P4: “I don’t know how much I’m making per piece, but I know I’m making profit” and “I could do a better job at pricing”

However, our expert interview indicated that “it makes no difference” if a creative small business has formal finance training. Pricing should be set with basic metrics.

04
Our target audience aligns with an identity at the intersection of being a creator and a small business owner

5/5 users tend to lean more toward the creative side, not seeming to associate as much with the business side

P1: Defines himself as a creator but views the business side as a bottleneck

P2: A “hobbyist” with a business background

P3: Prescribes to the larger idea of being a maker but “if I see myself as being a side hustler, then I see other people as side hustles who are doing a lot more”

P4: Identifies as a “small business creative” but feels that being labeled as “small business owner” could have negative connotations to consumers

P5: “more of a creative and with the business stuff I’m kind of doggy paddling through”

4/5 users indicated they prefer a trial and error method to explore their creative small business. This aligns with expert advice where he mentions that the best way to grow and start a creative small business is to just try things out, see what works, but properly documents experience

05
Creative small businesses stress over juggling a variety of roles and responsibilities, taking away time from the actual creation process of products or services.

Although we understand that each business is unique, experts indicate that there are fundamental building blocks to establishing a sustainable creative small business. Our expert interview stated that starting a successful business means taking the time to figure out market segmentation, value proposition, and end-user needs

4/5 users expressed business logistics to be tedious and wished they had more time

P3: “I’m tempted to start fresh all the time” and “creative small businesses still need general direction”

P5: “I’m only one person” and “want to learn how to streamline process and make more efficient in order to make more work in less time”

In one TikTok observation, we noted that participants are showing more than two different tasks in their “day in the life” videos. One creator “got back home and I was exhausted” from her extensive day of doing small business tasks such as going to buy supplies. Two other creators ate breakfast while doing business logistics. One creator would use their lunch break to answer emails and fulfill shipping orders for their business.

While creative small businesses can do a lot of traveling for business, they like to find as many opportunities to sit down to do their work

4/5 users expressed interest in some sort of assistant to help them balance their different tasks and hold them accountable

Hypothesis – Focusing maintain business sustainability can help creative small businesses handle logistics by (1) providing step-by-step instructions and (2) focusing on simple tracking features

Product positioning among others in the market

Ultimately, small business creatives want a starting point so they can spend less time on bureaucracy and more time on their artistic passions.

Ideation

Our research showed that creatives preferred laptop devices, but what should we be tracking in such a product? How would we give creatives direction? After ideation (voting, combining ideas, and referencing our research), we created user scenarios to illustrate and guide our design opportunities.

Onboarding & Progress Tracking

“I am a ceramist who sells fandom-inspired clay coffee mugs on Etsy.
Today, I am trying to catch up on my business logistics.
But I also need studio time to create this week’s orders.
Which makes me feel overwhelmed.” – Scenario #1, Clair

Onboarding to tailor recommendations to help users stay on track

Pricing Calculator

I am a baker who sells sourdough bread at farmer’s markets.
This week, I am trying to prepare for Saturday’s booth.
But I am unsure if I am pricing my bread accurately.
Which makes me feel unconfident. – Scenario #2, Graham

Pricing recommendations backed by data for a more confident creative

We also finalized our system architecture

Read the full technical implementation report here

With our system architecture and scenarios, we wireframed our product for several rounds and made adjustments based on user testing with two creative small businesses. Feedback mainly centered on more explanations when user inputs data, skippable sections, and data visualization.

Read full user testing report here

Solution

Do what you love. Love what you do. Creatively.

Metrics

If Creatively was deployed, success is measured through the following measurements:

01
Limited liability company (LLC) readiness

LLC readiness could be an indicator of continued interest and seriousness. By checking in and asking users if they are ready to be an LLC, we can gauge their level of commitment.

From interviewing experts in the creative small business domain, we learned that registering for an LLC can give structure and help legitimize small businesses to external entities.

Users also told us that they understand that filing for LLC is a mark of legitimacy. We can measure this by administering a survey asking users during their set check-ins when prioritizing tasks or even in email notifications.

02
Work happiness and stress levels

Oftentimes, work is how creative small businesses define self-worth as it is one of their largest investments of time and emotional capital. Therefore, it’s important that we are able to measure work happiness and stress levels which are captured during the onboarding phase and set check-ins. We looked at the existing literature and found scales developed by experts and researchers that can measure happiness and workplace well-being.

Indeed Work Happiness Score
From happiness expert and an advisor for Indeed’s Work Happiness Score Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, “research has shown that happiness is a cause of success: happier people receive more positive reviews, are more productive, creative, earn higher incomes, and are less likely to burn out or be absent from work.” (Indeed 2020) From this scale, we would tailor the categories to measure drivers of work happiness for small businesses.

Perceived Stress Scale
The items in this scale were designed to measure how unpredictable, uncontrollable, and overloaded respondents find their lives. From our interviews, users told us how they often felt overwhelmed by all the tasks they had to figure out and complete for their business operations. The volatility of their sporadic schedules often led to high stress and feelings of burnout. (Cohen 1988).

Our team is limited in resources to create our own individual scale, but we will implement a similar scale inspired by the Indeed's Work Happiness Score and Perceived Stress Scale to measure creative small business happiness.

03
Measure business retention after one-year using the system

According to data from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 20 percent of small businesses fail in the first year. (U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016; Gustafson 2020). Longevity can be an indicator of continued interest, validation, and greater potential for creative small businesses.

Therefore, by measuring how many users stay on the app after one year we look at both business retention and app engagement.

Reflections

Given the time constraints for the project, here is what we wished we could have done.

Research

  • Usability testing - for a more standardized method to test the usability and interactivity of our product
  • User interviews - recruit more creative small businesses in the beginning stages or creatives who are thinking about starting small business
  • Competitive testing - get a deeper understanding of existing tools’ interaction design to gain inspiration for design patterns or implement new ones

Design

  • Resource page - fully design what the resource page would look like with blog posts published by users
  • Pricing visualization - design how users can save pricing recommendations from the calculator, comparing one products’ different pricing over a period of time
  • New & archive tasks - design how users can edit tasks & sub-tasks as well as view previously completed ones

Overall, Creatively earned an A+ and here is what I learned.

  • Lean into storytelling – Many parts of our product deliverables were was as model examples for the capstone class, and our classmates commended our ability to pitch our product and its value. Not only is it important to have a quality product but also a clear narrative.
  • Content design is product design – I learned to continuously workshop through written conduct for the product. The more concise and to the point, the more usable our product could be.
  • Have conversations often – It was important for my partner and I to have many, informal meetings to talk about our work. Whether it was an hour meeting or just a quick 5-minute chat, frequent conversations led to more brainstorming where we could converge robust ideas.

Big thank you to the creative small businesses we worked with

1 expert interview

conducted to understand what it means to be a sustainable creative small business and what experts hypothesize as to the largest competency barriers for operations and finances

9 interviews

with creative small businesses to gain a deeper empathy on what it means to be a creative small business and what are the end goals, investigate the workflow of a creative small business from conceptualizing to executing product sales

11 competitors

analyzed to identify what market gaps exist in existing tools for young people with creative small businesses

22 TikToks

observed to get a wider sample of data to further investigate our findings from a relatively small sample size of user interviews.