Expert Analysis: OfferUp’s Design Director on In-App Chat & AI Defining the Next Decade

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“We want our user experience to be the same across all platforms, an agnosticism that helps position us for the future,” says OfferUp’s Francie Zant.

In 2017, start-up darling OfferUp, fresh off a $130 million round of funding that set the company’s valuation over $1 billion, was moving into a new 70,000-square-foot office near Seattle to accommodate a rapidly growing employee headcount.

And the company needed some new furniture.

Luckily, it knew just the place to look, eventually outfitting the new digs with items entirely found though the same service the company had been building for the previous six years, an online commerce platform competing with the likes of Craigslist bent towards a friendly, open and transparent experience for people looking to sell new and used items. And in the last four years, OfferUp has continued to grow, in August acquiring competitor letgo, and now serves more than 20 million monthly users looking to buy, sell, or just browse various items around the country.

This success is in no small part due to the company’s focus on connecting people on their platform using chat messaging. In contrast with Craigslist, OfferUp users are able to directly send messages to one another without migrating to third-party services like email or text messages. From its beginning, in-app chat has driven many of OfferUp’s user experience decisions and continues to shape how the company will evolve in the coming years. (The company is on many shortlists to IPO in the near future.)

Recently, Stream caught up with Francie Zant, OfferUp’s director of UX design and research, to discuss how the company has leveraged 1:1 messaging on its platform and the types of resources it takes to build such a dynamic experience. Ms. Zant offers up some thoughts on the future of online commerce and discusses the importance of AI as it relates to the ever-shifting needs of user behavior.

How would you describe what characterizes — and differentiates — OfferUp?

We used to joke that we’re a chat app where people buy and sell things. But there’s truth there: our vision is to empower people and to connect them so that they can prosper and find the things they need.

I think, too, what makes OfferUp different is that we make it possible for people to easily find unique items nationwide by making it easy to use the app and search locally or all across the country. Because, after all, you never know where the person who has the item you may want is, and with our nationwide search capabilities, accompanied by shipping options we deliberately built into our UX, we connect people from everywhere. Elsewhere, we hear from our customers that the use of our app comes from a deep desire to live more environmentally conscious. We help enable the three R’s with re-commerce: reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Your in-app chat appears to be a significant driver of sales all across OfferUp.

From the very beginning, we wanted to give customers the power to instantly send messages to one another on our platform. For one: it’s the fastest way to communicate. And two: it’s safer because people don't need to displace their communication outside of the app and potentially expose sensitive contact information like their email or phone number. We also created an account and identity verification process that builds trust alongside our reviews system.

The trust factor is core to the UX. People have evolved to where we determine trust in others based on the conversations we have, and in-app chat allows for that. Customers can say, ‘oh, I have a good feeling about this person’, and the relationship, however transactional, can proceed from there as both parties begin to feel more comfortable exchanging personal information such as location and price points.

In app-chat also helps humanize the experience. Our customers tell us all the time that they enjoy searching our marketplace for items that, at typical retail value, they couldn’t afford, but through talking with sellers and making that human connection, they’re able to find items and negotiate prices that both parties can be happy with. This has been really critical to our mission and success, providing an experience that goes beyond mere commerce. Yes, it remains a business, but when both sides feel good about the buy-sell outcome beyond just the final price, everyone wins. And that could never happen if we didn’t have a dynamic in-app chat capability.

How do you keep that spirit intact when users can simply submit offers or buy items outright — UX decisions that OfferUp has deliberately made?

We never lose the ability to connect people. Sure, for some items, customers can automatically put forth a bid without having to say hello to one another. But after the sale, more often than not we see people connect and say thank you, rate their experience, or provide shipping details with a note: ‘Hey, I'm gonna send this out right away, I hope you enjoy it,’ type of thing. This happens because we made a conscious decision to provide that communication pathway and make it very apparent that a person on the other end of the line for both parties.

Moreover, the reason we designed the experience that way is for efficiency. For people who sell a lot of items, we want to make it easy for them to negotiate prices or sell at a fixed price. And, really, that is still a form of in-app chat — just because there’s no traditional dialogue doesn’t mean two people aren’t communicating.

How does OfferUp manage its in-app chat?

We’ve had in-app chat since the beginning concept of our app, and we build it all in house. As you know, it seems really simple, but even a peek behind the curtain shows how complex and complicated it can be. But we’re lucky in the sense that it’s been part of what we do from Day 1, so it’s in our DNA, and we know its importance. And what it does is gives us full control, and we can implement chat into customer profiles and dictate exactly as we want it to behave.

Still, creating and managing an in-app chat feature requires a tremendous amount of engineering resources, and if I were building an app today or advising other companies out there, I’d highly recommend partnering with an outside service or vendor to help alleviate what is undeniably complicated development work.

So how does the development team account for different operating systems?

We just recently began building our in-app chat with React Native, which allows us to build for both Android and iOS systems at the same time and create a seamless experience across devices. Because there are significant differences between the two platforms, React Native helps level the playing field.

Streamlining that process saves time from a development and design standpoint, as the latter group is creating just a single UI/UX system rather than several. Still, we’re able to pinpoint specific needs on both and build different interactions that support the best user actions on the two operating systems. It also makes development for our web design more efficient.

Oh, right, websites. How do non-mobile platforms factor into OfferUp’s digital experience?

It’s a different form factor and it’s all about the customer and where they are at that moment. Maybe someone initially searched for something on a mobile device. But later, on a desktop, they want to revisit their search. Then, there, they use the chat feature to inquire about it. Later, back on their mobile device, they finalize the sale.

In sum: we want our user experience to be the same across all platforms, an agnosticism that helps position us for the future.

Surely Artificial Intelligence plays a not-insignificant role?

Right. And as we prepare for the next decade and beyond, data science and personalization, driven in large part by AI, will be critical for online marketplaces. We have to be able to create an experience that is based on personal preferences and interests. There is no one-size-fits-all anymore. Your UX must be customizable and tailored to the individual. And when your customer base grows and becomes more diverse, creating experiences that are familiar and desirable on a case by case basis will become even more important. That’s the challenge for everybody — giving people the tools and options to accomplish everything they need to in an efficient manner, even when those tools and options must satisfy a variety of use cases.

On that note, we’ll close on this: what does the future for OfferUp and online commerce look like? What will be the — or at least a — key to success?

What I know is this: we’ll remain customer-obsessed. Because without our community, none of this exists. So we’ll continue to talk to our customers and evolve our product based on their needs. We listen. And where that takes us, it takes us. But again, from the beginning, our mission has been to connect people through chat and that will remain critical to what we do if not outright define our path — people talking, negotiating, that’s what this is all about, and the better we can make that experience, the better off we’re going to be.

I’ll say this as well: we are not without flaws and our platform isn’t perfect. The world still produces bad actors and there is a certain game of whack-a-mole we play to make sure our experience is positive and successful for the average customer. We’ve invested heavily in customer support and investigation teams, which are supported by sophisticated AI systems, to reduce and eliminate any scams or unwanted communication, with the purpose of removing them off our platform altogether. It is important we invest here because everything ladders back to trust and what we talked about earlier. Our community must trust that what they’re seeing is real, that the people behind their buying and selling experience are real, and that they can expect to find a good experience. So, speaking of and thinking about the future and the type of world we want to build as it pertains to the online marketplace, it starts with creating a system built on trust. Trust between people via in-app chat and an overall trust that products and services are legitimate. It’s not easy, but it’s a challenge we welcome.

Stream's Key Takeaway

As Ms. Zant said, “in-app chat” doesn’t always have to mean conventional dialogue; connecting users in ways that spark exchanges of information can take various forms but at their core share the same principles of communication: consistency, feedback, among others. And as we continue to build and iterate products, this lesson should stick — “chat” can take on a variety of forms and be what we want it to be. What ultimately matters is that all parties feel welcomed and are provided avenues to express individual needs and desires while and showcasing personality and respect for the process and one another.