A Community Platform for Movie & TV Show Ideas
The IF List was a user-generated platform and social network for authors, actors, and fans to promote stories to become movies and TV shows and to propose casts for upcoming productions.
Out of a shared interest in film, fellow IF List co-founders, Benny Hung and Noel Spangler, and I were inspired to create a crowd-sourced casting platform for movies and TV shows in which authors, actors, and fans would all be active participants — proposing ideas, sharing, and voting on them. My partners, who were from business, graphic design, and writing backgrounds, wanted to build a database of stories, actors, and characters from which countless ideas could be generated. They envisioned a platform in which book authors could post profiles of stories — as potential movies — and in which fans would nominate and vote on various actors to play the roles. In addition, actors would be able to pitch themselves to play roles that interested them, and casting directors and producers would consider the most popular proposals in their decision-making processes. Fans would gain social recognition from getting their ideas heard.
This was a large endeavor, and my responsibility as a creative CTO was to help translate these creative visions and business objectives into an interactive system that would be not only engaging and rewarding, but also functionally practical — for users to publish their ideas and to view the ideas of others within a meaningful and coherent context.
As a co-founder and creative technology director, I took on a number of roles in shaping the product.
- UX Architecture. I was responsible for distilling a broad range of unique feature concepts generated by my partners into a logical information architecture scheme. I created site maps and led the wire-framing process.
- Interaction Design. I worked with my partners to create user flows for each target user and to devise user-friendly and imaginative interactions that made The IF List a singular, delightful experience. I conceived and prototyped the vast majority of micro-interactions and animations, including the behavior of forms, modals, uploaders, pop-ups, rollovers, scrolling mechanisms, list sorting, filters, and more.
- User Testing & Analysis. I set up usability testing sessions. I analyzed user behavior through Google Analytics and employed techniques to boost search engine rankings.
- UI Design. I defined a large portion of the guiding visual style of the UI based on overall branding direction and input from my partners.
- Development. I built the initial MVP for desktop users from scratch using a variety of web development tools and APIs.
- Management. I led and managed a team of developers in building an adaptive mobile site, optimizing architecture, and expanding the platform offering. I used different project tracking tools to help us release new features under short timetables. In addition, I guided the design process on a production level including tool selection and preparation of mockups and assets.
The project progressed from planning to design to development, and through two rounds of seed funding and growth, over three and a half years. The team expanded to 6 full-time employees plus several part-timers shortly after the MVP was launched at the end of the first year and a half.
The design process began with extensive idea-mapping and strategy sessions. In order to turn The IF List into a reality, we decided to design a custom user-generated web application that would fulfill all of the core functions we had envisioned. The platform would have a variety of forms for users to create story profiles, add characters, and publish casting proposals. Those who did not wish to contribute ideas would be able to enjoy searching and browsing ranked lists of other users’ ideas and liking, disliking, or commenting on them. They could also simply support their favorite stories or actors.
In putting together a sitemap of the application. I identified a number of critical pages or modules that could be logically categorized, linked together, and tied to common templates:
- profiles (story, actor, and character/ role)
- posts (casting proposal)
- lists (stories, actors, characters, casting proposals)
- create forms (new story, new actor, new character, new casting proposal)
- edit forms (story, actor, character, casting proposal)
Later, as our plans evolved, we also wanted to allow users to nominate directors, writers, and composers for movies. Hence additional units, such as filmmakers list and filmmaker proposal, were included.
From an architectural standpoint, I viewed the proposal as being the pervasive, trademark unit of the system. Each proposal was essentially a unique combination of story + actor + role, and it became clear that the ability to add a proposal should be accessible from almost every page of the site.
I created a series of user flows, one for each of the application’s target users — author, fan, actor, casting director, and producer. This was helpful in forming a coherent view of each stakeholder’s path to fulfillment. As it turned out, book authors and their fans would end up being the early adopters of our platform. Aspiring actors and movie fans would be the later adopters. (Casting directors, producers, and filmmakers did not ultimately form a noteworthy part of the user base).
[Note: Early on, The IF List was called MoviePotential]
Proposal Form UX
Given the great scope of this project, I will focus the remainder of this post on one of the aspects of The IF List in which I had the most significant impact as a UX designer – the design of the proposal form system.
In my mind, the average user’s ability to quickly and intuitively publish a proposal into the database was an essential part of making their experience worthwhile. My co-founders had conceived of the casting proposal being visually represented as a linked actor-role pairing, and I carried this concept over to the form itself. My initial decisions to 1) have the form follow a visual template, 2) employ a search field to call up existing actors, and 3) put the entire form into a single frame (pop-up modal), were all significant. It not only made users acutely aware that they were making something cool but also helped them feel as if they could complete the task quickly and easily.
I wire-framed a user flow showing how a casting proposal could be created in three short steps, and then a longer process for power users. In the “quick publish” scenario, the user would be already logged in and on a story or character profile, so when when launching the proposal form, the character side of the form would be pre-populated. Thus, the user would only need to enter an actor’s name in the actor field, and assuming the actor already existed in the database (a common scenario once we had built up a large repository of actor profiles), a default image would load into the image box automatically. Additional steps would only be carried out if the user wanted to swap in a custom image or add an unrecognized actor.
These screenshots from the live platform show the flow in action:
MVP and Usability Testing
Using my knowledge of web development, I built the minimum viable product of The IF List platform from scratch. We ran this early version of the site through usability tests with several friends, who we deemed to be potential users, in order to identify any trouble-spots or hang-ups. In the tests, we attained much-needed validation for all of the core functions of the platform including quick-publishing a proposal. There were only minor issues that needed to be patched, and these pertained to uncommon user input scenarios such as adding a duplicate story when proposing an unrecognized role for an actor to play.
Private Beta Period
We launched The IF List in private beta mode to only users who requested an invitation. This two-month period allowed us to effectively test the newly built product with a sizeable group of different people and to optimize according to their behavior as we observed it remotely through Google Analytics, as well based on feedback that we requested. One of the changes we made during this period was streamlining story support by removing film vs. TV designations.
Shortly after releasing the platform to the general public and experiencing a number of large surges in traffic from Facebook, we hired a lead technologist/ backend architect and a systems admin to help scale and optimize the architecture. And with the addition of a front-end developer, we created an adaptive mobile version of the site, and expanded the feature set to include a variety of social network features including user profiles, newsfeed, notification system, and real-time messaging service.
The Final Product
The following is a selection of screenshots of the platform in use toward the end of its run in 2016.
Home Page — desktop
Stories List — desktop
Story Profile overview — desktop
Story Profile actors section — desktop
Login modal — desktop
Casting Proposals list — desktop
Propose Menu — desktop
Casting Proposal modal — desktop
Actors List — desktop
Story and Actor Lists — mobile
Casting Proposal Post and Newsfeed — mobile
Story Profile — mobile
The following is a demo of the site we pitched to actors at the New York Actors Expo in 2015.
The IF List enjoyed a two-year run as the go-to platform for dream casting and the only notable social network for movie and TV ideas. It attracted over 1.1 million visitors collectively from nearly every major country and over 155,000 registered users (a 13% conversion rate). Over 300,000 proposals were published in the system, and a large minority of users published over 20 proposals in the span of a half hour. The site gained a loyal following, particularly among the coveted teen and young adult demographic, and some 300+ best-selling authors also joined the community.
Looking back on our journey, there has been much to reflect upon and a great deal of learning that has taken place since creating and running The IF List. One of the challenges I encountered was in working as part of a three-man design team. In the creative process, there was considerable overlap in roles between my partners and me. Given that we all had varying design backgrounds, we each wanted to have a big impact on creative decision-making. While there were certainly some benefits to having multiple perspectives, I have learned that efficiency and consistency occur when a single vision drives the design.
Another challenge was in scaling. Having developed a product on very fertile ground, there seemed to be a myriad number of directions to take and a plethora of user groups to cater to. The MVP and its architecture became complex very quickly, making maintenance and quality assurance a tough job for a small development and content management team. In hindsight, I would have relaxed some of our custom design constraints and designed for a broader integration of existing database APIs to automate our content. But more importantly, I would have spent more time convincing my partners to go leaner in our feature set and hone in on fine-tuning the experience for one primary stakeholder. In particular, authors saw The IF List as a unique marketing tool for their books and were happy to blog about it for free.
Like many tech startups following a social network model of acquiring as many free users as possible, The IF List forged a long road to monetization, as much of our time and resources went to building freemium features over revenue-generating ones. Nevertheless, it seems clear that we managed to accomplish a significant creative feat with a lean team. By eschewing many conventions and challenging ourselves to invent new UX patterns (such as a scrollable filmstrip interface), my partners and I built an experience that delighted its core users and kept them returning at a steady rate (25%). In my view, the high conversion and retention rates are a major testament to the success of the design.