Read exclusive content from your favorite author

Business goal: Capture in-line reaction data from readers so authors can learn about their audience.

Consumer Benefits: Read more from the authors you love & react with your friends.

Role: I led product design, including prototyping, user testing, and branding.

The book industry is facing a crisis. Most of the economics are going to a handful of authors at the top. In turn, fantastic mid-tier and up and coming authors are not finding the audience that would love to discover them. Meanwhile, top-tier authors are struggling to understand their fanbase and improve their craft. Ampersand’s mission is to fix that. To accomplish our mission we built a reading app that encourages readers to leave reactions right inside the book while they read. This translates into ever important data that authors can use to inform their craft, improve their books, identity audience trends, and engage with their fanbase. For readers, it's a fun way to share their comments and reactions with a group of friends. With a strategic release aligned with BookCon, the year's largest book event, fans of Ampersand authors are now enjoying exclusive content, including reading books before they're published. In turn, by reading on Ampersand, readers are also discovering new authors on the platform. 

Status: Ampersand was launched in 2017 on the app store and play store. The company was acquired by Facebook in 2018, and our app is no longer available.


Here's what we shipped

Discover: Tell users our content offering - quickly.

Ampersand offers readers three types of content: Books-in-progress, books with commentary, and backstories. Because these aren't things most readers see in a book store, the discover screen needed to quickly convey what and why users should read on Ampersand. After user testing a few UI patterns, I landed on a tabbed system that leveraged our branded bold text to set the headline of each section. Additionally, we added an authors tab to support the users who came in looking for a specific author's work. Which is indicative of the early Ampersand user base: typically loyal fans of certain authors. 


Channels: Celebrate Authors & Storytelling

The core Ampersand user loves a specific author. They download our app to connect with that author and consume even more of their work that isn't on the likes of Kindle or iBooks. They come to read deleted scenes and alternate endings of their favorite series or book. They anxiously come to Ampersand to get sneak peaks of their favorite author's next book before it gets published. This groups truly loves and celebrates their author. (We witness this at live book events, expos, and signings across the nation, and it's a glorious thing). We wanted Ampersand to reflect that. We're not a typical reading app - we're something newer. Ampersand is more immersive, more captivating, more joyful. That's why we built 'channels' to reflect that. It's a place in the app where readers can see their all of the content the author has to offer. We chose a layout and visual style that was kindred to the modern world of music. These authors are superheroes - and we believe they deserve a style that shows them off in an impactful way. 


Groups: Forming a new In-Book Community

Ampersand started with a business goal to give valuable reading data back to authors so they could learn more about their audience. The product team and myself were tasked with coming up with a delightful experience to execute this on the consumer side. After experimenting and user testing options ranging from crude input dials, to refined buttons, then all the way to playful interactions - we discovered sharing thoughts and reactions with small groups of friends inspired the most interaction with the book. It was truly a delightful product insight that changed the trajectory of our company. In hindsight, it makes so much sense when considering our own psychology around sharing songs, shows, and books with each other in the real world. We tend to have a trusted group of 5-10 individuals in which we share recommendations and discuss the plot twist of our favorite show, or the build up in chapter 7 of the book we're both reading. Big insight number 2: Having conversations right on the page is key for Ampersand. Unlike forums or fan sites - inline conversations within books are creating a new kind of niche social network. It's such a joy watching our user base adopt this feature. 


We arrived at a color-based system that helps users easily distinguish each other within a group. Ampersand also has collaborative writing software with editor user colors - so this color system jived nicely. It really helped round out the visual system of social interaction in our product suite. 


Reader: Defining an inline social reading experience

The heart of Ampersand: inline conversations with friends, giving responses to authors, and much more. With no comparative products on the market, this project included a healthy dose of leveraging familiar UI patterns and educating the user of our vision. We see a beautiful world of interesting, funny, intellectual, thoughtful, enjoyable conversations with your friends - right inside of a book. We believe reading can be and should be more than a solitary experience. 


Inline Reactions & Comments

This area of the product has gone through the most testing and iteration. It's one of the most important metrics of the company - 'Reactions per 10k words'. That's our benchmark to understand what data we're gathering from readers. The images below reflect our most successful iteration to date. 

The greatest design challenge we faced was balancing authors' desires to receive very structured meaningful feedback. For example, an author wants to know if character 'John Appleseed' is 'unlikeable'. Having this level of insight is a beautiful thing - but we discovered that asking the user to input two variables reduces the volume of reactions they will give by a drastic amount. So we landed on a two tier system. 1. We'll still ask users for '2 part' data in books-in-progress, and it will be framed as information going back to the author. We know that will get a lower volume of data here. 2. For all other content types, we arrived at a simple plus button/highlight ui system that lets users use known media formats to the conversation (emojis, text, etc.)


Quiet Mode: Accommodate the "focused" reader

Ampersand isn't for every reader. We've taken a strong point of view that reading socially is better. With that said, we still heard from a large enough minority that they wanted to read socially, but also wanted to "silence" the group if things got too noisy. This led us to Quiet Mode: a temporary silencing of the group. Then, at the end of each chapter, readers get a summary of the comments they missed. 


Locations: Reimagine the Table of Contents

We needed a table of contents, but we also needed a way for users to make sense of social comments. Initially we thought about things separately, but eventually the concepts converged. They are both Locations in a book. This led me to an intertwined view of both chapters and comments. This happens by sliding left from the right edge of the screen (or tapping the locations icon in the top right). The locations page is sort of like a map of the book. It even includes a mini view of the book that you can scroll through while you look at an indexed view. We discovered that seeing visual "chunks" of familiar color is quite helpful while navigating around. 



Lessons learned & key takeaways

Social reading is real

As we were developing our social reading feature, I maintained a healthy skepticism about its potential market validity.  Asynchronous reading with 3 or 4 friends of a 397 page book isn't something we can test in a 1 or 2 hour user interview. We took a chance, built an MVP, then tested the idea with employees by reading a few books together, then with friends & family. Along the way, we saw the feature come to life. Kinks we're worked out, visuals were refined, and crucial first time experiences were built. Now that it's live - the feature is extremely valuable to our company. Not only are readers enjoying books together, it's now our best user acquisition tool. So far, we're seeing the average user invite at least one friend to our platform. 

Adding friends on the app needs to be dead simple

Sounds obvious - but this was our biggest product lesson post launch. Our first UX forced users to choose a book first, then pick who they want to read with. We learned a good lesson here - that's not how all users think. We needed to make a path for those who had a "friend first" mindset - so we adjusted our group creation flow to add friends before selecting a book. 

Balancing business constraints with user experience

If you read through this design story, you can see it was very user focused as the Ampersand app is obviously a consumer app. But, the Ampersand mission and business is much larger than one reading app. We also exist to serve the needs of authors. They want to gain certain insights that don't always gel with what a reader wants in a reading app. The main challenge of creating the Ampersand app was undoubtedly the balancing act of Author & Reader needs - and I'm sure this will continue in the future. 

Thanks for reading about Ampersand. I hope you enjoyed it!

Ampersand was acquired by Facebook and the app is no longer available