Making an App: The Vision Behind the Eye to Eye Project
[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts about our collaboration with Eye to Eye, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the life of every person with a learning disability. Our goal for the Making an App series is to help spread the word about Eye to Eye’s important work — and offer a behind-the-scenes look at how an idea becomes an app.]
Much of the beauty of our work at ArcTouch lies in the variety of industries, technologies, and experiences we’re able to learn about — and the impact we can make for our clients and their customers through mobile experiences. When ArcTouch recently became involved in a pro-bono project, I seized the opportunity to be part of it. Our project will eventually culminate in an iOS app for Eye to Eye, a national non-profit organization with a proven successful program that fosters a network of mentorships and advocacy run by and for young people with learning disabilities (LD) and ADHD.
The app will solve a real problem — Eye to Eye is currently limited to only being able to help the communities in which it actively runs a school chapter, about 60 across the United States. An app-based experience allows Eye to Eye to help anyone with LD / ADHD, regardless of their location.
The real work on the project — design and engineering — is just getting started. But in this post, I’ll share how our two companies came together and how our teams collectively defined the vision for the app through ArcTouch’s mobile app services.
On a personal note, I am involved in a number of empowerment and education initiatives, both within my community and afar. I am an adult literacy mentor at Project Read, a program at the San Francisco Public Library, which pairs volunteer tutors with English-speaking adults to help them improve basic reading and writing skills. I also support the Thai Child Development Foundation (TCDF), an organization based in rural Thailand that provides education and medical care for children with disabilities. I visited TCDF to volunteer with these strong, capable children for two weeks in 2013.
I can attest firsthand to the value of thoughtfully-developed mentorship programs as an effective way to bring out the best in people: namely, improved self-advocacy and a newfound confidence to learn. So, let me share just a bit more about Eye to Eye and the important work they are doing.
Meet Eye to Eye
David Flink started Eye to Eye in 1998 when he was a student at Brown University, growing it into a national movement that seeks to unlock greatness in the one-in-five people who learn differently.
Eye to Eye’s mission is simple yet bold: to create a world in which people with learning differences and/or ADHD are fully accepted, valued, and respected — not just by society, but also by themselves. With 60 mentoring chapters at middle and high schools across the US, Eye to Eye is the only national mentoring movement that pairs students with LD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (LD / ADHD) with similarly-labeled college and high school mentors. Using an arts-based curriculum, Eye to Eye Mentors help their Mentees understand their unique way of learning and thinking, building self-esteem and fostering essential skills like self-advocacy.
While the Eye to Eye mentor/mentee model is very straightforward — meeting once a week to create art projects specifically designed to share similar experiences and promote social-emotional skills — they have a clearly defined set of principles that focus their work and distinguish them as one of the most innovative movements in the country in support of students labeled with language, reading, and math based LD and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
ArcTouch and Eye to Eye: A personal connection
We at ArcTouch often talk about the personal connection an app can create between a business and its users. Fittingly, for this project, the connection our team shares with Eye to Eye couldn’t be more personal. Ross Buffington, our chief of staff, is a longtime supporter and board member of the national nonprofit. He’s also the father of two sons diagnosed as LD / ADHD. And, he is chairman of the board of Star Academy in San Rafael, a leader in education for Bay Area special needs students. So, his roots in the LD community run deep.
Ross was at a recent board meeting for Eye to Eye when strategic growth plans were being presented. An analogy of a “three-legged stool” was used to describe the plans for the organization, and one of the “legs” was a mobile app. Click went the light bulb.
“I could see how these two teams that I’m so proud to be involved with could come together and extend the reach of Eye to Eye through mobile,” Ross said. “This idea of creating a virtual mentor was hatched — and ArcTouch has an incredible track record of taking ideas and transforming them into engaging mobile experiences.”
And a few conversations and a few weeks later Eye to Eye’s founder and chief empowerment officer, David Flink, and president, Marcus Soutra, boarded a flight from New York to San Francisco to kick off our partnership.
The ArcTouch mobile app strategy service
Every project we embark on — and every client we work with — is different. But one thing is the same: to help our clients craft an app experience that meets their business goals, we begin with our mobile app strategy services.
We start with research about the market and target user base, usually a joint effort between our team and client stakeholders. Armed with that upfront information, we kick off an in-person discovery workshop. Our team literally becomes domain experts overnight.
During the workshop, we take an idea and try to distill it down to its very core — the place where user need and business opportunity intersect. From there, we start to define the feature set of an app’s first release. In lean development terms, that’s our minimum viable product (MVP).
The outcome is complete alignment between ArcTouch and the client on both the opportunity and the plan for how we’ll get there. We jointly create a working definition of the product, complete with measurable goals for success. Then, armed with this product definition and roadmap, we’re ready to move into the app design phase.
The Eye to Eye mobile strategy phase took place in four parts.
Part 1: Eye to Eye comes to San Francisco
David and Marcus joined an ArcTouch product team of three designers, an engineer, and a product manager (that’s me) for the discovery workshop at our San Francisco headquarters. Together, we worked through a series of exercises for two days to determine how a mobile product could amplify Eye to Eye’s impact on the LD / ADHD community.
The crux of the problem we were trying to solve: How could we transform Eye to Eye’s proven hands-on curriculum into a meaningful digital experience?
We started with some blue-sky ideas and delved into the specific challenges and pain points for the target audience. Questions we asked included:
- How do we impart the useful lessons that LD/ADHD students learn in-person, without making the app’s activities feel like homework?
- How do we prevent users from completing all of those activities at once, and never re-engaging with the app again?
- And, finally, how do we provide the same level of support and encouragement as the live experience?
We spent hours plotting, charting, and conceptualizing a user’s path from start to finish.
“It’s amazing when someone outside your world is able to take your vision and translate it in a way that will make it accessible to a new audience,” David said. Marcus added, “It was incredibly exciting to see the ArcTouch team begin to take the mentorship experience of Eye to Eye and transform it — ‘gameify’ it, if you will — into a meaningful digital experience.”
At a high level, the app we defined will mimic Eye to Eye’s existing 18-week, project-based curriculum through a linear sequence of activities. Each successive project will build upon on the self-advocacy, grit, and cognitive skills achieved during the previous project.
We also devised the key metrics against which we will measure the app’s success — a step that’s often overlooked, but among the most important in all stages of app development. We use these metrics to guide our decisions during both the design and engineering phases. We set goals for usage of the app as a part of the individualized education program (IEP) and targets for increasing users’ feelings of self-advocacy, self-esteem, metacognition, and sense of community.
Part 2: The product manager synthesizes two days of input
With the strategy session complete, it was time for me to really get to work. I dove into one of my favorite elements of product management: honing in on the salient features that make the cut for an MVP. A great app MVP must focus on a few specific, well-defined things that it will do better than anything else out there. Or, as we like to say, build a steak knife, not a Swiss Army knife.
Building world-class apps requires tough product choices. One of the first we confronted: Which mobile platforms should our MVP support? Our philosophy of focus and simplicity in an app’s first release directed us toward a single platform. With most of the target users being school age, and Apple’s commitment to promoting technology in every school, we decided to lead with iPhone first for our launch.
By the end of this exercise, I created an early roadmap of prioritized features, each detailed out. Before we would frame this as our official recommendation to Eye to Eye, a full product-team huddle was needed to confirm that our app’s narrative was on the right track, from both design and engineering perspectives.
Part 3: Testing the conclusions with team ArcTouch
Now it was time for our product team to regroup and vett my thinking — and to fine-tune the app’s narrative. The outputs of a lengthy internal team meeting were:
- A final product roadmap: A list of the features we’ll focus on now, soon, and later (MVP, Version 2, Version 3)
- A system overview: A technical architecture of databases, CMS solutions, programming languages, devices, and mobile operating systems that we recommend supporting
- Wireframes: Early blueprints depicting the elements of each screen
- App schema: A visual mapping of each and every screen
- User flows: A depiction of the user’s movement within the app
With internal alignment established, we shared our recommendations with Eye to Eye.
Part 4: Getting Eye to Eye community feedback
As the final step in this strategy phase, we had a unique opportunity to present our vision to members of the Eye to Eye community for feedback and validation. Ross and I joined David, Marcus and 200 of their mentors, alumni, diplomats, and staff for their annual Young Leaders Organizing Institute (OI) at Brown University, where Eye to Eye started 18 years ago.
The OI is a four-day celebration that helps its chapter coordinators cultivate leadership and empowerment skills through workshops, lectures, and activities. I participated in the same workshops and activities that coordinators attended and gained some amazing insights into their LD experience, much of which we will incorporate into the app experience. On Partners’ Day, I presented our MVP concept to a cross-section of the Eye to Eye community, including educators, researchers, mentors, donors, partners, its employees, and its board of directors.
I explained our vision for the app, described the features we would build for the first release, and shared some early wireframes and user flows. The app proposal was received with enthusiasm and gratitude.
“Of course, our young Mentors and Eye to Eye Diplomats got it right away — they live on their phones, so it made total sense to them,” David told me. “But our partner foundations were also really excited. They look to Eye to Eye for leadership in the mentoring and learning rights movement and what we’re building with ArcTouch is the first app of its kind for kids with learning differences and ADHD.”
Making an App: What’s next?!
App development is a journey. Navigating from the initial light-bulb idea, through the strategy phase, toward a well-defined MVP takes several weeks of teamwork and is no small task. But thoughtfully planning how a mobile experience will help drive Eye to Eye’s noble mission is an investment worth making. Our team is humbled and inspired by Eye to Eye’s eagerness to embark on this mobile journey together.
There’s much more of this Making an App story yet to come, and we look forward to sharing more throughout the rest of this year and into 2017.