The Co.Labs and Target Retail Accelerator challenged entrants to design and build an app that would extend the Target customer experience into new areas, leveraging mobile software--native or web-based--to produce new and pro-social effects in their community, family, school, or social network. Our celebrity judges selected their finalists, who each received $10,000 seed money and a Target mentor for the next stage. But it was an app called Divvy, designed and built by a distributed seven-man team calling themselves Team Pilot, that will receive the $75,000 grand prize.
The field was extremely competitive: Our Retail Accelerator drew more than 350 registrants and 76 fully spec'd app entries between March and April 2013. Seven finalists were selected in May by a panel of industry experts including Target’s head of multi-channel Casey Carl; Matt Mankins, CTO of Fast Company; Tom Preston-Werner, CEO of Github, industry standard for code repositories; Ruchi Sanghvi, VP of operations for Dropbox; and Suhail Doshi, CEO of the cutting-edge analytics company Mixpanel.
For our finalists, Target opened up its entire e-commerce API for the first time, allowing complete programmatic access to the same endpoints used by Target.com and the official Target apps. Armed with access to Target data--product descriptions, SKUs, store location and other perfunctory information--competitors were challenged to design and build apps which would use the Target APIs in new creative ways, mix them with other extant APIs, or create a new kind of user experience on top of Target infrastructure. All in less than 90 days.
Divvy is a social shopping list that solves a nuanced problem: How to make group shopping with an app easy. But not just easy, easier than it would be without any app at all. Real-life obstacles to group shopping such as splitting the bill, sharing copies of the receipt, maintaining shared transaction history, and earning rewards points are difficult to solve programmatically. But they’re even harder to squeeze into a mobile interface in a way that feels frictionless.
Divvy won over the judges by attacking that friction head-on: It solves what we’ll call the "Mint problem.” That refers to the necessity to manually track items you buy inside the app; the sobriquet refers to the personal finance app Mint, which only receives basic information about your purchases a credit card processor, and asks the user to categorize them by hand. Mint is a fantastic utility owned by a publicly traded personal finance company, Intuit.
Divvy's reason for being is to remove all the minor inconveniences and deal-breakers from group shopping. To make it practical and rewarding enough that people will actually do it. The upshot is obvious: Less trips to the store, less time wasted shopping, and a more transparent budget/expenditure situation for your family, group, or team.
Divvy also makes sure that users don't lose out on any of the perks of shopping solo. They still get their receipt, they still can connect their purchase history to a Mint account, they can still accrue rewards points on purchases, and they can still have easy access to repurchasing items quickly, as they would on their own discrete Target.com account.
One of the beauties of this app is its flexibility. Group buying is organized smartly around shopping lists, not permanent user groups, making it easy to make ad-hoc groups.
Imagine a family out and about their daily activities. One family member decides to take a trip to Target. She can add other family members to the shopping list, allowing them to contribute items. Or she could add a friend just as easily, without having to permanently add that newcomer to any kind of closed user group. The family member taking the trip to Target collects and buys the items, and the other family members or friends can settle up in-app, right away, along with receiving a copy of the itemized receipt and appropriately distributed rewards points.
Divvy was one of the best developed concepts we received, and it held several surprises. One notable twist was a well-placed invitation system which uses email as a call to action to download the app and participate in shopping lists. Few if any of the other apps had such a well-considered distribution strategy. Other impressive features include the use of QR codes, which the app uses for returns and discounts, as well as small visual details, like the perforated edges along the perimeter of the table cells in certain list views.
While we received a variety of shopping-list app proposals, this one was the best implementation, according to our judges. Several of them suggested there is even more potential here for features than the team included, which alludes to the fact that this team knows how to build an MVP app without getting carried away with excessive features (even though options abound). Their mockups and their team roster show they can execute on their designs. Another nice feature of their entry: clear descriptions of functionality and features. "A Divvy member is a friend that has accepted your invitation to join your Divvy [shopping] list," the opening slide of their walkthrough declares. That's the kind of clarity you need when presenting a new concept to users, and we hope it comes through in the final app.
Some judges were skeptical that, despite the clearly well-designed and well-considered execution here, in real life this app just wouldn't hold up to everyday use. People are already fairly set in their ways, and it just may be that a paper list or ad-hoc text message exchange can take care of this problem for all but the most avid Target shoppers.
But after a development sprint in the post-finalist stage, aided by Target mentors which were assigned to each finalist, Team Pilot was able to complete the app to such a degree that work is already underway to release it to the public under the official Target brand. It may be Target’s fourth mobile application; the others include the official Target e-commerce application, Target Ticket (currently available only to Target team members, as it's being tested), a streaming service providing instant access to new movie releases, classic films and next-day TV, and Cartwheel, which allows shoppers to curate discounts and organize planned purchases.
This seven-person team is an amalgam of developers and designers led by Chris Reardon, a user experience expert with 15 years’ experience and the team’s strategist. Reardon imagined the initial concept for Divvy, but the core concept was developed fully through group ideation.
The team came together from disparate parts of one advertising agency. Chris Reardon, Erick Kopicki, and James Skidmore work at TBWA-Chiat here in New York. Juuso Myllyrinne, Charlton Roberts, and Chris Kief work at Pilot, a NYC-based product development outfit owned by TBWA but operated separately. Steve White works for the TBWA-owned firm Integer in Colorado.
This wasn’t a pre-existing team, although each of the members has worked with one another on projects piecemeal. It was Chris Reardon who pulled Team Pilot together specifically for this project. (They borrowed the name "Team Pilot" from the Pilot shop where Myllyrinne, Roberts, and Kopicki ply their day jobs.)
Make no mistake: This is a team with specialized individual skillsets and a deep knowledge of their fields; not only that, but our interviews revealed a real creative cohesiveness which comes across saliently in the designs for the app itself.
The team that built Divvy had worked together before in fits and starts, but never all at once in any official capacity. Here we’ll get to know each of the team members, their contributions, quirks and--most vitally--their philosophy on usability.
Chris is a user experience designer with over 15 years of experience, nearly a decade of which he spent as a creative director for print publishers. He acted as project lead and creative director on Divvy, designing the wireframes--a kind of blueprint--and planning out the app’s task flow: The path users would take through the app to achieve the desired result. He lead brainstorming and ideation sessions with the other six members of Team Pilot, where they rapidly generated ideas, tossing most away and culling only what was necessary. Their model: Kill ideas quickly when proven they would fail. It wasn’t until the third major round of ideation that the team solidified their concept, Reardon told FastCo.Labs by phone; the team wanted to build something that wouldn’t require users to change their shopping behavior, but instead extended it in a way that solved significant problems.
Selling the idea to the judges required matching the Divvy prototype to Target’s branding and meshing with the retailer’s existing digital properties. His other side projects include a “digital receptionist” app for unmanned buildings, and other projects he says can help people form new habits or breaks bad ones.
Chris Kief was the technical lead on Divvy and responsible for their overall technical strategy. Kief worked heavily with Target’s API, which wasn’t publicly available, but told FastCo.Labs he was amazed by all the product information that could be accessed through it. He also worked to smoothly integrate Divvy with Target’s debit and credit cards, REDcard.
Kief was responsible for one of the most difficult strategic decisions the team made: Build Divvy as a native iOS application, or an HTML5 web app that could be loaded into a web view? With HTML5 they were able to prototype much more rapidly and build a more feature-complete prototype, all without necessarily losing App Store distribution--by building a simple container application, Divvy can still look and feel like a native app downloadable through iTunes, but its contents are all stored remotely and served up over a wireless connection.
One major trade-off building the app in an HTML5 web view would be the inability to access contacts in iOS, since Apple doesn’t make data available via the browser. It’s the kind of decision that seems counterintuitive: Social connectivity is at the core of what Divvy is. But in the end, they were able to just mock up the contacts functionality--which is easy to understand--and develop a more robust app to show off Divvy’s innovative functionality. When he’s not coding, Kief is an avid mountain biker and is partial to small California-based bike builders.
Eric was the team’s digital designer. Chris Reardon showed Kopicki sketches for the UI and Erick transformed them into full-fledged designs for the prototype. Erick realized that design was key to make Divvy feel consistent with Target’s existing digital presence, and strove to make the look and feel of Divvy match Target’s existing app from color scheme to textures.
Because of the need to rapidly prototype for the short timeframe of the Accelerator contest, he and Reardon shunned formal prototyping tools opting instead for old-fashioned pen and paper for most of the designs. In the end, Kopicki put together the polished designs in Photoshop. One of his major tasks was to figure out how to visually represent different elements within Divvy to intuitively distinguish different lists from each other. He likes to get away from the digital creative world by sketching and painting watercolors.
Myllyrinne was the product strategist for Divvy. He did a lot of research into the retail world to see what’s out there already and what’s succeeding or falling flat and why. He also took a long hard look at Target to try to discern their internal strategy and what kind of product would be appealing to them.
This research formed the basis of the creative ideation process lead by Chris Reardon. One of Myllyrinne’s main insights was that Target would be attracted to an app that creates more shopping opportunities for their customers. This was realized in Divvy, which lets you leverage your real-world social network so that any time one person shops at Target they’re not shopping only for themselves--essentially extending the in-store shopping experience to people located physically outside the store. Myllyrinne is a veteran of the digital and mobile world, but prior to this project didn’t have much experience in retail.
He did, however, know a lot about what didn’t work in mobile--he was the head of planning for Nokia’s N-series, their so-called iPhone killers. One thing he was quick to emphasize was that a phone app can’t just be a website squeezed into a smaller screen. It has to have a more fine-tuned purpose. Myllyrinne likes to go jogging but finds New York summer heat too oppressive for that activity (at least at this moment in July 2013--fellow New Yorkers, you know what we mean). Instead he’s been spending his time rounding out his skillset by dabbling in learning how to program in jQuery.
Skidmore was Divvy’s producer and product manager. Although he’s only been in advertising for four years, he started selling ads in college and clearly has a knack for it. On Team Pilot had the difficult task of wrangling “seven really busy guys” outside of their normal work hours to build something that felt an awful lot like work. Skidmore also contributed heavily to research into the retail sector, which lead to the concept of “social shopping” that eventually became Divvy.
Skidmore wanted to build an app that could be used with only minimal, if any, instruction. He pushed the team to fight their impulse to add more features into Divvy as development progressed. Instead, Skidmore argued that a solid app prototype should do one thing and do it really well. With that in mind, the team polished the core Divvy user journey into something that they could really show off to Target.
White was Divvy’s account director and the only team member not based in New York. His job was to educate Team Pilot’s more technically minded members on the language of marketing and advertising so that they could really sell Target on the concept during the finalist stage. He pegged his own value to the team as being the guy who’s “always asking really hard questions.”
At one point White completely reversed course on Divvy, telling the rest of the team that it was a terrible idea. Rather than getting everyone down and pushing them to scrap the project, he instead turned it into an opportunity to strengthen their concept. He made everyone re-pitch the idea and convince him that it was worth pressing on. The result was a more refined and purposeful prototype.
With a background in industrial engineering, White’s career has gone through many different iterations within the advertising world, from offset printing to being a partner in a digital agency from 1997 to 2003. Like Chris Kief, he’s also an outdoor enthusiast, but is more of a hiker than a biker. What interests him most? Where digital financial transactions are going. His hunch is that, in the future of retail, how we transact around consumer items will be more important than the actual outlet where the consumer is buying.
Roberts is a software developer and is one of the team members who presented to Target in Minneapolis. Recruited by Team Pilot fresh out of college, it was his superlative mobile web development skills (and the rest of the team’s dearth of native iOS app dev experience) that influenced Reardon and Kief’s decision to build Divvy as an HTML5 web app.
When we embarked on the Target and Co.Labs retail accelerator we had no idea what to expect. We had put out a challenge to our newly minted readership, our site only weeks old, asking them to meet or exceed the abilities of a major corporation with renowned design cred and an obviously capable team of iOS and web developers. What we saw in the 76 completed entries was a remarkable diversity of strategic thinking, impeccable design, programmatic cleverness and--above all--originality. We continue to be humbled by our readers, and we thank you for sharing your ideas, sweat, pixels and code with us.--The Editors
With additional reporting by Jay Cassano.