Digital Life is a digital asset management (DAM) and photo delivery tool commercial photographers can use to collaborate with their clients. It aims to streamline an overwhelming and scattered process.
Our clients were a team of two photographers and one developer. Frustrated by the scattered communication between photographers and their clients, the Digital Life team created a platform for these two parties to communicate back and forth about photo edits. Digital Life’s beta product offers features in three key areas:
Our clients looked to us to fix usability issues and to create a pleasant user experience for Digital Life.
I was overwhelmed by the project’s wide scope; there were many directions we could take to approach this challenge. To begin, we cast a wide net of research to learn as much as we could. We explored how the market addresses the platform’s three key features: digital asset delivery, storage, and project management.
I was surprised to find that over 100 DAM platforms already exist. I was even more surprised to find few photographers use them. To understand why, we spoke with Dennis Lee, a photographer our clients recommended for his knowledge of DAM systems. He explained most DAM systems are too expensive for a photographer with a smaller operation. He also pointed out a huge gap in the industry: there’s no central place for collaboration between photographers and clients.
“Everybody’s playing the storage game, but nobody’s playing the collaborative game.”
We turned to user research to determine whether this opportunity addressed a real problem for photographers and their clients. We talked to four corporate clients, one agency representative, and six photographers to find out:
We’d established our primary users were Designation graduates and wanted to identify the following:
1. Goals and frustrations of graduates
2. How they stay organized
3. Their relationship with counselors and fellow cohort mates
We collected the following insights:
Clients were comfortable with their platforms and had no interest in moving all their assets to a new one. Photographers were also hesitant to change the way they store their data.
“I can’t see myself using anything but Google Drive for a very long time.”
-Megan, CEO & president of Van Petten Group
Clients were frustrated when photographers sacrificed professionalism for artistry. Photographers also said delivering assets on time was crucial to their workflow.
“Even if my images are not perfect, if I’m timely, I’ll be chosen over the perfect image.”
-Kelly, owner of MAK Photography
Photographers emphasized the importance of having a paper trail. They recalled times when they relied on email to keep clients on the same page. Unfortunately, this paper trail isn’t always easy to maintain.
“I get contacted through too many channels. I prefer email because I like to have proof of what we said.”
Photographers expressed it’s ideal—but not always possible—to work with their clients in person. Without a way to simplify collaboration, users end up with lengthy email chains.
“It takes anywhere from one to a thousand emails to get that selection down.”
-Geoff, principal of Peyote Creative
We took a look at photographers’ current delivery tools to see if anyone else already did what Digital Life wanted to do. I discovered two groups of competitors: popular photo galleries (SmugMug and Zenfolio) and storage-based DAM systems (Flight, Google Drive, and Dropbox). I dug deeper to find out why photographers prefer some platforms over others.
Photographers prefer photo galleries because they are visual and offer customization. These sites also make it easy to send deliveries with a link. However, they lack collaborative features, which is frustrating for photographers and their clients.
Many clients already use storage-based platforms because they are powerful organizational tools. These platforms also make it easy to collaborate with others. However, their unfriendly interface runs the risk of alienating users.
We also looked at Pics.io, which offers a highlighting tool like Digital Life’s hotspot feature. Photographers don’t use this site because it’s an internal tool without a delivery feature. It’s a clean and visual, but it doesn’t allow users to change the size of hotspots.
These competitors are great DAM systems with organizational and delivery tools. I learned Digital Life needs to be both visual and collaborative to stand out in a saturated market. We noticed none of the competitors addressed a primary concern of photographers—a simple way to communicate selections and edits. Users collaborate through several platforms, which demands more effort and increases the chance of human error.
Based on our research, we decided to scope away from content and project management. Instead, we focused on alleviating the frustrations around communication in the users’ process. We identified four phases of the process: upload, selections, edits, and delivery. Among these phases, photographers are the most frustrated during selections and edits. This led to our problem statement:
Without a streamlined method to communicate selections and edits, photographers and clients alike are frustrated by a slower and fragmented collaborative process.
To address this problem statement, we came up with three design principles to guide our solution:
Be powerful enough for tech-savvy photographers and easy enough for clients to understand.
Create crystal clear communication, especially with naming conventions and organizational structure.
Integrate with other popular DAM systems so users don’t jump back and forth between platforms.
Our design principles helped us ideate around user communication. We wanted to make sure users found value in this tool so Digital Life takes advantage of the market opportunity.
We conducted a groupthink session to outline the overarching photo delivery process. We identified opportunities to improve communication between the photographer and client.
We also looked at indirect competitors to explore different ways to communicate selections.
Instagram uses two forms of selection—likes and bookmarks. Likes are social and used to communicate a quick reaction. Bookmarks are private and easier to access later.
Pinterest uses boards to group images. It also has a “Tried” feature that acts as a checklist of ideas.
After studying these competitors, we wondered whether our users could benefit from multiple selection methods. We also found an opportunity to incorporate project management, and I wanted to figure out how it would play a role in the selections and edits phases.
From this exercise, we created and tested paper prototypes. We still had a high-level understanding of the process, so we used these prototypes to get users to walk us through it.
Each of our four concepts addressed the problem in a different way. Click through the tabs below to read more details about each one.
I created this concept to simplify the collaboration between photographer and clients. Users can see which photos are relevant to a comment by clicking on that comment.
Our users liked being able to see all comments in one place, but they noted it could get overwhelming at a larger scale. Photographers also said they didn’t want to lose control if their clients could make unlimited comments.
I developed this concept to standardize the delivery process. The timeline acts as an activity history of the four phases—upload, selections, edits, and delivery. Clients can view their selections separately from the rest of the photos.
Users responded well to the timeline. They liked that it stayed at a high level and showed what happened at each step. However, they also noted the process isn’t always as simple as four phases; there is a back and forth that isn't captured by the timeline.
We incorporated hearts and checks so photographers can mark their preferences and recommendations. We tested using two forms of selection.
We found photographers didn’t need to communicate their own selections on this platform. They filter out bad photos on their own photography software, and they use star ratings instead of hearts and checks.
Users can pin photos to boards. We used this concept to discover more details about the delivery process.
Our users understood this concept because it reflects their current workflow. They organize their assets by folders and seeing different items in different folders made sense to them. However, our prototype’s calls to action confused our users. The layout also didn’t provide a clear direction; users didn’t know what to do on the page.
Through testing, we learned photographers needed control and clients needed transparency. All users wanted to expedite their process—they needed something simple to use but flexible enough to fit their workflow.
With these insights, we edited our task flow to clarify our understanding of the delivery process.
Users click this menu to interact with the images on the platform. We wanted to create a learnable patterns and reduce the number of buttons so it’s less overwhelming for users.
To notify users without being overwhelming them, I incorporated an activity summary. The platform generates a report when users click this button or after a time of inactivity.
We incorporated this layout to combine the two concepts that tested well—the timeline and global comments. We wanted our users to digest information quickly.
The comment box appears right next to the hotspot. This makes it easier for the user to look at the photo and the comment together.
When we tested these screens, users appreciated the clean layout and understood the structure of the site. However, they were confused by some terminology, especially “hotspot.”
I imitated Google Docs’ design by grouping comments and adding a “Reply” button. This helps users manage a large number of comments.
Our users expressed the need for versioning, so we kept old versions visible.
I used star ratings—a system familiar to photographers—to show the platform pulls metadata from photography software.
Our biggest challenge was to converge the action-driven timeline and asset-driven board concepts. We gave photographers the ability to select the number of rounds of edits to stay in control throughout the process.
I was excited that users responded well to the features we added, especially the star ratings. Photographers recognized the platform integrated with their own software. They also liked the ability to set the rounds of edits while still engaging their clients.
“I like that it makes the photographer feel in control. It really empowers them and adds a layer of professionalism..”
-Greg, owner of Gregory Rothstein Photography
With each round of edits, photographers can view their clients’ comments and requests. They can then upload new versions based on that conversation.
Clients’ interactions with this site are more complicated, as they have more options with each round of edits. With each round, clients can approve or request edits for photos and then update their photographer.
Our clients were pleased with the final design we presented, particularly the timeline. They felt Digital Life was one step closer to their goal of becoming the industry standard for photo delivery. They plan to implement our design right away, and will gradually build out our other recommendations. In three short weeks, we learned enough about this domain to simplify the communication between photographers and their clients.
Because our time frame was so short, there were many opportunities we didn’t explore. We recommended the following to our clients:
To make Digital Life as useful as possible, we suggested an onboarding dialogue where the photographer can set:
This dialogue will help establish communication early in the delivery process. It will also act as a paper trail so users don’t forget these details.
We recommended the following to improve the understandability of this feature:
Right now, photographers and clients can only “Reply” to comments. A “Resolve” function will help both parties keep better track of which comments are being addressed.
Our users had a difficult time understanding the word “hotspot.” We recommended further testing around this terminology so it’s less alienating to users.
This platform benefits agency users because they juggle communication between clients and photographers. We were only able to test with one agency representative, so we recommended testing with more.
By addressing these considerations, Digital Life will improve their platform’s understandability. More users will find this tool helpful, especially when agencies incorporate it into their workflow.
Working on Digital Life required significant attention to detail, and I often made tough decisions to make progress in our limited time frame. I learned to create useful designs in an unfamiliar domain by iterating from new insights. I used these designs to learn about users and grew more confident speaking to our clients about them.
Through this project, I also learned to look for the common denominator among users. We standardized a process that’s different for every photographer, and it was rewarding to create helpful concepts.
Finally, I appreciated the opportunity to work with a client with a developer background. He brought a different perspective to the table each week. I learned to consider both technical and business constraints in my designs, which molded me into a more well-rounded designer.