The Making of the Catalog Choice iPhone App

IT’S NOT EVERY DAY that an opportunity presents itself to develop a product for an audience of 1.5 million people. That’s exactly what happened recently at Makalu, as we were engaged to develop the iPhone component of Catalog Choice’s new suite of premium services.

And we can’t wait to tell you about it!

The background

In 2007, Makalu was engaged by The Ecology Center of Berkeley, California to design and build a website that would provide American consumers with an effective tool to combat the growing number of unwanted catalogs they receive in the mail. The website — CatalogChoice.org — was launched, and quickly received the attention of nearly every large media channel in the United States, including a focus spot on “Good Morning America”.

Within one year, the service signed up more than one million members.

When Catalog Choice members receive an unwanted catalog, they login to their account, search for the catalog they received, and register an “opt-out” request. At that point, the Catalog Choice system acts as a powerful agent on behalf of the consumer to get request processed by the sending merchant. In this way, the consumer saves the effort of having to interact with individual companies, and benefits from the effectiveness the influential service has in getting their requests honored.

Through use of Catalog Choice, consumers reduce clutter and simplify their lives. And on the collective scale of millions, the service is helping the environment by considerably reducing the natural resources used in the production of unwanted catalogs.

Re-engaging with our friends

After Catalog Choice’s first year, when it was clear that a market existed for the service, a dedicated non-profit was formed, at which point The Ecology Center and Makalu handed the project over to the team that was established to manage and operate the service moving forward.

Five years later, we’ve re-engaged with our friends at Catalog Choice to:

  1. Redesign the website, harmonizing the contextual changes and features that have evolved over the past half-decade, and to

  2. Design and develop an iPhone app, which is the first in a suite of premium products known as, MailStop.

We’ll first take a look at the website redesign, and then look at the iPhone app.

Catalog Choice website redesign

Over the years, the service has expanded beyond catalogs, allowing consumers to opt-out of all types of unwanted mail — everything from credit card offers, to phone books. In addition, the service has established special relationships with local communities and townships throughout the United States, which are reflected in various ways throughout the site. Accommodating these changes, along with the introduction of a set of premium services, necessitated a fresh look at the overall site architecture and design.

The service is preparing to launch the new design, which so far has addressed the home page, and the purchase workflow related to the new MailStop products. We focused on simplification, higher sign-up conversion, and clearer communication of the service’s message.

We’re thrilled to show you three sneak-peek screenshots of the new look:

We’re really happy about the design, and looking forward to seeing its launch, and extended implementation throughout the site.

The MailStop iPhone App

The MailStop suite was conceived as a set of premium add-on services that both extend the ways in which consumers can be protected, and make using the existed Catalog Choice services even easier.

In that regard, Makalu was engaged to design and develop an iPhone app that saves consumers the effort of even having to login to the website. Having purchased opt-out credits (as an in-app purchase), users of the service can simply capture the relevant information related to their unwanted mail in images, and submit them directly to the service. Catalog Choice takes it from there.

With the MailStop iPhone app, it couldn’t be easier to opt-out of unwanted mail!

The design process

The experience of RaceSplitter and Rebalance (still ongoing) has taught us that it’s far more time consuming and expensive to change app code than design mockups (when, for example, you realized you’ve gone in a wrong direction), and so with the MailStop app, we went much further into the UI design than we have in the past, before starting the development.

The results were good. We found that a reasonable level of discussion and review were, in fact, possible around just a set of mock-ups, as opposed to playing with a working prototype. On the other hand, it wasn’t perfect. Although it was possible to satisfy all the requirements and constraints in abstract design, once the product came to life in the form of a prototype, we realized that no matter how careful you are, you can never completely appreciate the subtle interactions and frictions that make themselves apparent when actually using a product.

For example, during the design process we iterated six times on the workflow in which a user captures “up to” three images to capture three critical pieces of information (the catalog name, mailing label, and merchant data.) How do you efficiently communicate to the user that they can take up to three images, but that one is often sufficient? Given that they are to capture three pieces of information, the risk is that they assume they must take three photos.

As you can see in our screenshots below, our solution feels more described than direct, and that’s an important disctinction. The designed solution works, but it’s not perfect. We’ll take the opportunity in version 2 to design something which feels more direct and intuitive, and better avoids the potential correlation in the user’s mind of the number of photos available, and the number of information pieces we need.

The design and development process, however, was definitely an improvement over the experience we had with RaceSplitter (in which we built prototypes too early). We’re pleased with the results, but we didn’t yet hit the sweet spot; and so there’s process improvements still to be discovered.

A visual tour of the app

And with that, we’d love to show you the app, with this 10-image tour.

Look interesting? Why not give it a try right now? It’s free, and available today on the App Store!

Agree? Disagree? What do you think?