Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Whiteboard to Reality: Part 2 of 2, I Can't Visualize for Sh*t!
Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Whiteboard to Reality: Part 2 of 2, I Can't Visualize for Sh*t!

After two plus years of discussing the idea and white boarding all sort of possible business models, it came time for Jibao's Founder, Kimble Wan, and myself to find someone to help us visualize the new education technology service platform. As I mentioned in my previous post, I'd discovered that I typically can not "visualize for sh*t."

We had been schooled by a PhD Student at National Taiwan University ("NTU"), who we'll reference as Xiao Chang. He told us of the need to help students make connections between concepts, rather than the traditional way of merely listing information. To this end, Xiao Chang had even sketched out his concept in a workflow for us to better understand. Even though concept maps have been around for 50 years, we felt this was a novel concept, and we really liked the idea.

Initial Presentation of Concept by Xiao Chang

Looking to take Xiao Chang's initial sketches and turn them into something more visual, we sought out engineers. This didn't turn out the way, we had hoped. Two months of meetings typically went as such:
"What is it that you want?" asked the engineer.
"We want a new kind of education platform that involves a concept map," we'd reply.
"Where are your specs?"
"We don't have specs, as our idea is evolving, but we have some samples of what we'd like it to look like."
"Sure, but where are your specs?"
"We don't have specs."
"So, this is a new service, unlike any others?"
"Pretty much."
Needless to say, we didn't gain any "fruits of our labor" from the two months of solid meetings with engineering teams. (When I look back now, we must have sounded like a bunch of "loons").

What Kimble and I felt like should have been an easy exercise, turned out to be an odyssey. We knew that one of the big differentiators for the service was this Concept Map. Thus, we didn't want to give up.

Since it was becoming pretty obvious that this tactic of "hiring" the engineer wasn't working, we settled on searching for a designer instead. Designers! They should be able to help us visualize something that didn't exist. After all it is called visual arts, right?

Unfortunately, we ran into the same problem of trying to describe something that wasn't pre-existing. We thought that by presenting many popular concept map-like sites or apps that a designer could come up with something close to what we were looking for. Unfortunately, this wasn't so, and in fact, no designer wanted to take on a project with clients who didn't seem to know how to verbalize their visualization.

Early concept of Jibao concept map

Persistence. We didn't give up, and instead felt that perhaps some sort of documentation would help. We came up with a 22 page document that acted as a request for proposal (RFP). The document described the basic premise of the problem or current situation, our proposed solution and the how & who would pay. Most importantly, the document included a lot of the high level functions that we believed we would need. This document was sent out to some of the engineers and designers that we had met over the previous four months. Even with the document, we had engineers turn down the request for proposal, because they couldn't be bothered with "applying" or "bidding" for the job. We even had one twenty year veteran team suggest that we do a six month research study (no actual coding) and pay for the research!

Through this process, we finally hired a team and got our initial designs out of this process, or what we've come to call internally the "green concept map". With this early working "mock up," we'd already gotten favorable reviews from teachers in controlled settings. The importance of this phase is that we were able to show outsiders something with movement and some "fanciness"; some colors with art and design.

Finally, we were able to connect with Augus Chen of OG Design and Jonathan Shieh of Little Robot Studio to come up with the current Concept Map for the Jibao System. The design not only helped Kimble and I to visualize the Jibao System, but far exceeded what we could have hoped for.

Jibao System GA Version
(Image from OG Design)
With the help of Paul Shih's engineering team, Fable, and our own product developer extraordinaire Tony Ming, we were able to build a web prototype as well as iOS Version that we've been demonstrating to teachers throughout Taiwan since the beginning of the year.

We no longer have to rely on our own visualizations to gain a common understanding between founders and our users. Jibao's evolution, from whiteboard concept to reality, took the steps of Concept Documentation, Wireframe Mock Up, Working Demo, Prototyping and beyond. In doing so, Jibao achieved 80-85% likelihood of use rates after showing the Jibao system to over 100 high schools and 400-500 teachers. This would not have happened if we had merely tried to just "visualize" the product.