A Smartphone App for One-to-One Coaching
Coach+ is a mobile app for personal coaching. It enables freelance tutors, advisors, sports coaches, and their clients to connect, schedule one-on-one meetings, and share organized notes in one convenient place. The main design challenge was to resolve a number of issues in how these different types of hourly and part-time contractors communicate and work with their clients via smartphones.
As a product designer, I employed an end-to-end user-centered design process, with a particular focus on the interaction and UI design phases. After conducting semi-structured interviews to understand the nature of users’ motivations, and then ideating and merging together a number of potential solutions, I tested and refined the application design in many steps, progressing from low-fidelity sketches to a high-fidelity prototype. Along the way, I engaged in extensive comparative analysis of relevant applications in the marketplace to help develop an optimal implementation of design patterns and features.
I interviewed several part-time tutors and coaches, focusing primarily on those in their 30’s who were relatively established as freelancers. My initial impetus was to improve smartphone communication for this group of people, so my questioning at first revolved around their experience using their devices to interface with their clients. It then broadened to inquire into their motivations and goals for their work.
One of the key motivators that I identified was wanting to attract more committed clients who were interested in developing themselves over the long term. As experienced tutors, they didn’t enjoy working with newbies or dabblers who were not likely to continue as they viewed this as more of a risky investment of their time. They also didn’t like taking on new clients on very short notice.
Some of the freelance athletic coaches liked to encourage progress and further learning by sharing notes and video clips over text messages, and they wished there was a better way to organize and archive them for the clients so that they wouldn’t get forgotten and lost. Their scheduling systems for setting up lessons were also antiquated and not mobile-friendly.
After synthesizing my research into a user journey with a time scale of one week, I was able to start identifying some opportunities:
- Make it easier and more efficient to convert clients for follow-up lessons by integrating messaging and scheduling in the same app; create a modern and mobile-friendly scheduling interface.
- Discourage clients from requesting lessons on short notice by allowing users to share statuses and availability or establishing mutually respected parameters for communication.
- Create a reliable space for coaches to document and organize feedback/ notes and make these easily accessible to the client.
- Allow coaches more control over which clients they take on by offering client profiles to view.
- Provide a way for clients to be reminded about lessons through non-aggressive means.
I used the S-C-A-M-P-E-R method to generate potential ways to capitalize on the opportunities in the form of useful smartphone app features. Some of the ideas included:
- Substitute (at least partially) the default SMS messaging app on smartphones with a customized one-to-one “coaching” app that would not only provide standard messaging capabilities, but also a way to organize and format long-form content including notes and other rich media such as images or videos to be shared with clients.
- Combine the functions of messaging and scheduling in the same app to avoid switching between separate applications. Coaches would be able to mark their availability in a shared calendar ahead of time to minimize back and forth messaging with clients.
- Adapt the concept of a user (client) profile, giving the experienced coach more control over which clients he chooses to take on, or a better idea of what he can expect before working with them.
- Adapt timeline-related features from other apps to chart a client’s or a project’s progress.
- Adapt the hashtag feature from Twitter and Slack by allowing messages to be tagged so that they can appear in separate topic-based threads. This would provide ways for notes to be organized and accessed later.
- Adapt the non-intrusive notifications served by apps like Facebook and Trello.
- Modify standard text messaging by incorporating or simulating the rich text capabilities of RCS (rich communication service) which will universally replace the SMS protocol in the near future. This feature would allow more structured and stylized messages, such as ones with bold headers and lists, to be sent between coaches and clients.
- Modify the function of sending messages by incorporating a way for drafts of messages to be saved, either automatically or by clicking a save button. This way notes in progress won’t accidentally get lost.
- Reverse the typical texting process. Instead of having a text message always be the starting point of communication between coach and client, let the coach first enter notes or other content into the app’s interface for the client to view. The app would then automatically send the client an abbreviated text message (and link) generated from the full content. This would encourage and remind the client to log in and use the app regularly.
A lot of ideas for smartphone features came out of my ideation process, but for a new-to-market product, not all of them were worth pursuing. As an addendum to my user testing sessions with target users, I created a survey for them to fill out, asking them to indicate the level of usefulness or personal importance for each proposed feature. This helped to narrow and refine the scope of the prototyping as it progressed from one iteration to the next, making it feel more manageable.
Based on the results, I determined that the following features were the most appealing and useful:
- Connecting directly with clients
Ability to mark availability on your profile for clients to view
Sending nicely formatted rich media messages (images, videos, etc.)
Tagging messages to clients
Features that were deemed to be moderately useful included:
- Browsing/ searching for clients
- Inviting existing clients/ friends
- Displaying experience, skills, education, links on your profile
- Setting an advance notice buffer period for scheduling meetings
- Showing statuses automatically connected to your calendar
And two features that I cut out or decided not to pursue altogether:
- Inviting clients to work-related events (to encourage continued patronage)
- Showing different statuses to different clients
- Sending preset messages through a shortcut menu
I analyzed the user interfaces of a wide range of communication-related apps that offered relevant functions. These included Slack (messaging and tagging), Calendly(scheduling), Apple iCal (calendar), Uber (on-boarding), Roomi (matching), WhatsApp (messaging), WeChat (messaging), Brief (messaging, productivity), Basecamp (productivity) and many more. I combined what I considered to be the best and most efficient UI patterns from these apps, and most of their influence can be seen by the wire-framing stage.
Outline of Architecture
Based on early testing of sketches and paper prototypes, I was able to distill all of the most viable feature concepts into an outline of architecture (with some simple text-based user flows). This outline would continue to get refined as wireframing and testing progressed.
The coaches were very pleased with the in-chat tagging feature and ability to write rich-text messages to their clients. They also liked the format of the calendar which they found intuitive to use from the get-go. Nonetheless, they had a number or issues and requests along the way. One significant request was the ability to maintain separate profiles for each line of coaching work as this was a more common need in this user group than I had anticipated. Also, in the case of coaches who taught both an academic subject and a sport, they didn’t prefer searching for both types of clients in the same view.
This certainly added a new layer of complexity to the app and was one of the bigger architectural challenges to tackle. I needed to ensure that each profile created would be sufficiently unique and identifiable while also not over-encouraging multiple profile creation as this could make the app less manageable for coaches. I devised a comprehensive coaching category and role list from which coaches can choose in forming the basis of each profile and embedded this as a key element of the on-boarding process. I also created split tab views within various sections to draw a clear line of separation between types of clients. So far, the feedback on the way that I integrated this upgrade has been positive.
Some other issues that I uncovered in my testing included the following:
- The language used in the on-boarding process, such as “Services Provided”, was overly formal. To address this, I worked on making the prompts more conversational.
- When notifications were placed directly on the home screen and mixed in with reminders, it confused some users. I separated them into a dedicated slide-out panel, following the example of Instagram and other apps.
- Users didn’t take to the idea of the blocking out all of their different activities and engagements, such as vacations, in the calendar. They were only interested in putting meetings into the calendar or having them get added in automatically. So I decided to remove the option to add general “events” and rely fully on syncing with their other calendars like Calendly. (This decision had the added benefit of streamlining the architecture and removing unnecessary variables from the mix).
- Coaches didn’t prefer to enter their available meeting times in the same way that a client might select them (by clicking on 60-minute blocks one a time). So I followed the lead of Calendly more closely here, allowing for precise time ranges to be entered in text fields.
- Users wanted to be able to add private notes to themselves about each meeting in the Calendar. I added an option for this.
- The tags icon at the top-right corner of the Chat view was confusing to some. I replaced it with an info icon (similar to Apple Messages) which links to a view showing a broader array of pertinent content, including tagged messages, photos, videos and past meeting info.
While there is still more work to be done, feedback on Coach+ has been positive so far. In the words of one tennis coach:
“Coach+ is the app I’ve been looking for. As a tennis coach, I have no alternative but to text my clients, recording notes and scheduling lessons. This is an inefficient and unsustainable process that Coach+ has solved. In demoing the app, I found it very intuitive and easy to accept bookings, add comments and tag them into categories. Ian has taken the time to interview my coaching needs, and has added key features such as uploading videos for clients to reference pro technique. I am very hopeful this app gets developed and I cannot wait to use it!”
I am currently in the process of refining the high-fidelity interface screens and compiling them into a new prototype to be tested. At the same time, I am seeking more specific input from a second user group (clients) in order to come up with the best parallel design for their side of the app. Eventually, I believe that more nuanced testing can be done with an advanced prototype that handles micro-interactions and saved user states. Because of the limitations of prototyping tools such as Sketch and InVision, I am considering integrating the designs into a more powerful tool such as FramerX.