The story of Polity is also the story of how I learned product design. In this case study, I will cover the process of building Polity, an app that increases access to government info, in the following sections (click to skip to a section):
- Origin story
- Planning and first sketches
- The brand
- Design iterations
- Polity version 2
- Crafting a company
- The Polity website
- Where we are now
- Update / November 2017
A year and a half ago today, I took a $5 Megabus from Los Angeles, where I lived and went to school, to San Francisco to stay with my friend Ben in San Jose. Longtime friends since our time together in community college, our hobby was to dissect issues ranging from public policy to history, cognitive science and beyond. We never dreamed of bringing our solutions to life until one rainy day I asked him: “Do you know what’s happening in the Supreme Court right now? How about the House of Representatives?” Expanding the idea from the federal level of government all the way down to the state and municipal levels, we realized we never read anything about what our government was actually doing unless it was major or scandalous. Why isn’t there a better way to read about our government?
Planning and first sketches
Fast forward some months later and I asked another fateful question: “What’s stopping us from building this ourselves?” There is a critical gap between what information major media outlets can cover given their revenue streams and what the government itself provides with its difficult to access and navigate databases and APIs. If we could circumvent the troubled media and social media industries to deliver clean, neutral and verified information directly to you in a compelling way, then it might solve the first problem in democratic government: access to credible and easily understandable information. The only problem was, we had never built anything together. I drew up what we needed to know to make it happen and began to learn the process of how to design apps.
We identified the problem, but still needed a brand to capture what it was we were trying to do. A poor brand would make us difficult to trust, and an overly tech-sounding brand wouldn’t inspire use by all segments of society. We checked the USPTO and found that the trademark for Polity was free, and ran with it. At the time I was using Inkscape to draw vector shapes on my PC, and then started running Sketch through a virtual machine. As the project grew larger and I became more competent in design, I outgrew the constraints of my PC. I pinched together my savings and bought a Mac. I’ll never go back.
In the end we decided on an eye-catching red-orange brand color and a mixed “P” and microphone vector graphic to represent the original way in which people received information from the government: a speaker behind a podium. The result was an app that stood out against the dozens of others on your home screen and a unique and memorable shape distinct from others in the civic tech space.
Still working from my undergraduate apartment in Los Angeles, the next step came visualization. I learned very quickly how tedious planning a user experience could be, especially doing it alone. I started using the Sketch Mirror app to design in real time on my iPhone. Soon the first version of the Polity UI was out, and it wasn’t too pretty.
I went with a black background originally because my eyes hurt from staring at the screen so long. Although this version was not the very first, it is still representative of my thinking at the time. While the backend consisted of web crawlers, APIs and natural language processing to produce legislation summaries, the biggest problem of building an effective Polity was one of design. Every piece of data or information had to be presented in the simplest and most context-aware fashion to be impactful. That summer, my head full of design concepts, I graduated from UCLA and flew to Seoul to stay with my longtime partner, Eileen. It was in Seoul, my second home and place where I had already lived for a year, that I designed Polity version 2.
Polity version 2
I spent those few months in Seoul designing and redesigning Polity every day. Knowing the designs might be used in our website one day, I dug into the actual FCC and Center for Responsive Politics data so I could use true data in the mockups. When I visited those sites, there was so much information that none of it was useful. It was overwhelming. In Polity, I settled for two approaches that would help simplify and unify the relationship between government activity, leaders and lobbyists: symbolization and minimalism. In other words, I would use a common language of symbols instead of words where possible and always choose less when more is available. What resulted was a version of Polity that I was much more satisfied with.
Looking back, I realized there were far too many static mockups. This mound of images would be better served as a short series of interactive prototypes. I made a mental note to learn tools like Facebook’s Origami and Framer. In the coming months I would move to Beijing to attend a Master’s program at the Yenching Academy of Peking University, and work on Polity would slow because of my commitments there.
Crafting a company
With our product vision more complete, our next move was to begin building a business around it. With the distance, this proved challenging at first. However, that winter Ben decided to fly to Beijing and Seoul to visit Eileen and I. Needless to say, we took the opportunity to get our momentum going again.
We flew together to Seoul and had meetings at 한강, or the Han River, too.
We slowly grew to further understand our product and how we envisioned it might one day turn into a viable business. We also determined that we would apply for Y Combinator in a few months. That meant I had to build the Polity website.
The Polity website
The website was a turning point for me as a designer and a programmer. In just two weeks, I designed and coded the responsive and retina-ready site that became polity.tech. Although in hindsight I was eager to rewrite it once we became more established, this project made me feel for the first time that I could build a beautiful and functional digital product in a timely manner. It gave me the confidence to rebuild (over a dozen times!) the portfolio site you are looking at now. However, this high was soon met with a new low: Y Combinator rejected our application.
Where we are now
Failure gave me the opportunity to stop and reflect. I felt more relieved than disappointed. Somewhere deep down inside I knew we had skipped a step in our blind drive to build Polity: we created a brand, a website and a detailed design vision but had yet to succeed in creating a basic functional prototype. All of a sudden the hundreds of hours designing I put into version 2 of the Polity UI seemed empty without something that people could hold and use. I longed to see the thing actualized.
This is where this case study stops, and the present begins. As of this writing, Ben will come to live with me in Beijing this summer. We will spend the 60 days allotted on his tourist visa building that elusive mobile prototype of Polity. Should we fail by the end of summer, we will close the Polity chapter of our lives for good. Should we succeed, we will see where the future will take us. Regardless of the outcome, I will move to Singapore to be with Eileen and continue developing my abilities as a designer and coder. As we enter the summer, I can say I’m beyond excited to join a company filled with creative people and once again join a team that builds things together.
Update / November 2017
Last month we decided to shut down the Polity project indefinitely. It was an extremely difficult decision to move on, especially given Polity was the first startup we ever tried to lift off the ground. An amalgam of factors played into it, a few of which I will try to outline here.
Our main issue was we built the company before we built the product. As first time founders, we tried to tackle an incredibly technically complex problem that stood far beyond our ability at the time to prototype. After realizing that, we tried to bring on a former engineer at Amazon as CTO to help us build it out. But in order to hire him, we needed to be able to compensate him beyond the promise of equity (people got bills!). In order to compensate him, we needed funding. In order to get funding, we needed to prove to investors that we can actually build what we say we can. Thus began the negative feedback cycle that stalled the project.
At the same time, Ben and I fell out of love with the project. An increasingly toxic political environment slowly drained our excitement and energy to be productive in the political and government spaces. Like many others, endless negative news cycles and notifications brought a profound unhappiness to our lives. As of today, we still believe a Polity needs to be built someday. But for now, it’s not going to be us that does it.
Finally, we became progressively weary of the state of play for information providers. We live in an age where truth is relative, and information is cheap. A clever observation by James Gleick in his book The Information is illustrative: when information is cheap, attention is expensive. News is an industry undergoing a painful, slow-burning self-destruction, and we didn’t want to be competing for eyeballs while the world burns around us. Building an ethically designed product is difficult enough when you also need to turn a profit to survive, and doing it as a startup in the political news industry today is near impossible.
All of these things taken together pointed us in another direction. Something far less political, and far more delightful. To those who have read this far and supported our work, we’d like to extend our warmest gratitude. Thank you for being there when no one else was.
And now, onwards!