Trunk Club Conversions Jump 54% With Layer

It’s an age-old question in the e-commerce space: how do you create a high-touch online experience that mimics the personal attention customers receive in a store? Trunk Club, a Nordstrom-owned company where personal stylists handpick boxes of clothing for customers, figured out the secret after some trial and error—eventually increasing conversions by 54% using Layer.

Making Rich Messaging Work for E-Commerce

Layer makes it easy for companies to connect with users. With seven physical locations, 1500 employees and millions of users, Trunk Club coordinates thousands of conversations and transactions at any given moment. On a mission to give consumers confidence in their clothing and make the process as easy as possible, VP of Product Justin Hughes knew that user experience was everything. Yet the team’s initial attempts at building personal relationships failed.

“We went through a dark time,” he said. Users shied away from sales calls, so the team redesigned the website. Customers complained that the experience wasn’t personal enough, and the team tried building messaging themselves, with mixed results. Layer came along, and Trunk Club saw dramatic results: an 87 percent increase in connection rates with customers, and a 54 percent increase in conversions.

In the full 22-minute presentation , Hughes explains how Trunk Club did it. He goes through what worked, what didn’t work and what every e-tailer can learn from the team’s experience. View the entire presentation here.

Learning with teams

Editor’s note: This is a cross-post from Udacity‘s Dhruv Parthasarathy. Dhruv shares how, with the collaboration with Layer, they were able to successfully implement their classroom chatroom feature, Teams.

Despite all the advancements made to date, online education still has one glaring shortcoming — it is lonely. Learning online today is largely done on your own, at your computer, cut off from those around you. In essence, we’ve lost the human element of education that brings so much joy and richness to the experience. Here at Udacity, our goal is to create an educational experience that is better than any other, online or offline, and so long as our experience lacks this human element, we know we will continue to fall short of our goal.

Seeing this, we’ve been focused on bringing real, human relationships to the core of our product. The manifestation of these efforts is Teams: a new experience in Udacity where you join 10 other fellow students from around the world in a small, tight-knit community focused on learning. Students on teams answer each others questions, collaborate on projects, and help each other achieve their goals. Beyond that, they also get to participate in a real community with students who share similar career and learning goals. In order to create such a community, we knew that we would need to provide a simple way for teams to communicate with one another as without communication, there can’t be community! As such, at the very core of Teams are Rooms — persistent, Slack-like, chat rooms where students can communicate with one another. The first iteration of Teams and Rooms shipped in June 2015, a through the rest of this post, we’ll explore the engineering and product decisions we made in creating this product and how we’ve seen it improve the learning experience for students.

Teams — A Technical Perspective

One of the key elements of Teams is the web client where students log in to chat with one another. You can see what it looks like below.

In developing the web client for Team Rooms, we had a few specific engineering goals:

  1. The application had to be reactive. The view had to be able to update itself without a refresh in response to new events that occurred during the session (new messages, changes in status, new members joining etc).
  2. The application had to be simple to work on and extend as there would only be one to two engineers working on it (both frontend and backend).

Regarding our first goal, current practices in an MVC frontend (we use AngularJS), make creating a reactive application difficult. Let’s take a look at why this is the case. In a reactive application, controllers need to have a way of discovering when the model changes so that they can update the view. In the current paradigm, you have two main ways of achieving this:

1. Eventing + Callbacks

The first way you could approach this is by using a combination of eventing and callbacks to send out an event to controllers whenever you update the model and have the controllers run some callback in response. In practice, this is difficult to implement. A fine-grained eventing system requires a different event type for every property. Assuming you remember to emit those events on every change, the number of listeners also increases dramatically. In essence, the number of events and the number of listeners scales linearly with the number of model properties.

2. Watching Models

Alternatively, you could instead have your controllers check your model directly for changes by diffing the new from the old. But in practice, looking through a large nested object for changes is extremely slow and as more controllers attempt to do it, performance degrades significantly. If you have an object with let’s say a constant branching factor of m at each depth, and a depth of n, you will be watching m^n different properties which quickly becomes infeasible.

Our Solution: Store models in Immutable datastructures

Unsatisfied with the options we saw, we looked to solve this in a different way. Our goal was to create a system where controllers would just be able to say “I care about this part of the model only!”, and the model would update the controllers when it changed in a simple, performant manner.

Of course, checking if a standard Javascript object has changed is extremely expensive. But what if the object were immutable? Then, whenever the object changed, it would be trivial to know: you just see if oldObject === newObject and you’re done! In seeing this, we decided to store our state in an Immutable object, and we did so by using Facebook’s wonderful Immutable.js library. Now, we had a simple way of checking when the model changed — we just check the reference to the underlying immutable object! We then needed a way to communicate updates between the model and the controllers. Instead of using an eventing system, we chose to use Netflix’s ReactiveX library for javascript (RxJS). With Rxjs, we treat our model as a stream of states rather than a single, unchanging, state. Whenever we update the chat state model, we added a new value on a stream.
To understand this better, let’s walk through how a controller might subscribe to model changes. Let’s say we’re interested in showing a list of users in the chat room and want that list to update whenever the list of users changes. Let’s also say our users model has the following schema:

       userId: //user object,

Here’s how the controller would do it:

  1. Get a stream of updates to the users model.
  2. // create a stream of user updates
    var userMaterializedView = chatState.createMaterializedView( // this is the main stream of updates the chat state chatState.chatStateUpdateObservable, // this is a function that returns the part of the chat state we care about function (newDB) { return chatState.getUsers(newDB); }
  3. Subscribe to the stream and update the view whenever a new value comes on the stream.
  4. userMaterializedView.subscribe(function (users) { $scope.users = users;

The diagram below visualizes what’s going on behind the scenes to help us create this stream.

The bottom stream of triangles, the ones that are all different from one another, is what the controller in this case gets. In this way, we created a simple API that allowed controllers to subscribe to updates on any transformation of the model they cared about.

The Backend: Powered By Layer

With a small team, we had the luxury to create this architecture on the frontend partly because we didn’t have to worry about the backend — Layer took care of most of that for us. As someone who’s configured and deployed a chat server from scratch before, using Ejabberd (an open source XMPP server), I can confidently say this saved us a lot of time. Managing an Ejabberd deployment on your own is challenging,and clustering the setup is quite difficult due to fairly opaque documentation that hasn’t been updated for a while. Additionally, Ejabberd isn’t particularly user friendly from a client perspective either. Being an XMPP server, it communicates over XML instead of JSON that your client can actually use. Moreover, it doesn’t support Websockets out of the box and you have to instead use the fairly ancient HTTP BOSH technology. As such, standard XMPP servers were not at all a great fit for our use case and came in the way of development.
On the other hand, Layer was a comparative joy. Layer gave us access to a simple Websocket API with extremely well documented json packets. This made communicating with the server very simple (see the documentation here). We didn’t have to worry about deployment, maintenance, or translating packets into something meaningful. What I personally loved most about Layer was that it was clearly designed to get development out of the way and allow you to focus on what’s most important — creating a wonderful experience for the user. My sentiments were shared by my colleagues working on the mobile clients — we were able to create a prototype android and iOS client in a matter of a weeks. I can’t think of another simple setup that would have provided us this kind of productivity. As a result, we were able to focus on our product and continuously iterate the user experience instead of debugging the server.

Improvements Since Launch

Since the basic product launched on July 6th, we’ve been able to improve it at a strong pace thanks to the productivity afforded us by Layer. Here are just a few of the enhancements we’ve made since launching less than two months ago.

Integration with Google Hangouts

While chat is good for communicating asynchronously, we found that nothing beats a live video chat for a realtime meeting. As such, we added in simple support for Google Hangouts which also gives our students the ability to screenshare with each other.

Udacity Guides

One of the most exciting things at Udacity is the growing community of intelligent, passionate alumni we have. We wanted to leverage this alumni network to help current students succeed even further. So we created the concept of guides — paid Udacity alumni who help teams learn, collaborate, and succeed.

We’ve been able to focus on improving the product in these ways largely thanks to the fact that we only had to worry about the client — Layer took care of the rest for us.

The Impact

As a result of this focus, we’ve seen metrics that lead us to believe that Teams are helping our students succeed in meaningful ways. For instance, the percent of students who submitted their first project, one of the key metrics of student engagement, increased by 25% — something we’ve never seen before. Not only this, we’ve seen groups connect, get to know one another, and create real bonds learning online. Layer’s tools and support have been an integral part of making this product happen and we are thrilled with our experience working with them. We are excited by the architecture we have put in place to create a truly reactive application for our students and know that the productivity afforded us by Layer was a key part in making this happen. We’ve still got a long way to go with Teams, but we’re confident that it can help us bring human connection to the forefront of online education.

How Udacity is using Layer to leverage social connections and retain students

Udacity is an online university built for “what people need today.” Through its unique Nanodegree Program, the company teaches people to work in in-demand, specialized roles like web development, mobile development, and data analysis. The credentials its students earn in these disciplines have quickly become respected and endorsed by employers.

As part of its ongoing efforts to improve the online education experience, the company turned to Layer to power seamless web-to-mobile messaging as part of the courses it offers.

Fig 1. Udacity is available for Android, iOS, and the web.

The problem: Attrition in online learning

Udacity initially looked to Layer because one of the biggest challenges to online learning is student drop off. According to the New York Times, attrition rates are an astounding 90% for some larger courses.

Students start with great intentions, but as responsibilities of daily life conflict with school, the more immediate and consequential obligations win, said product manager Courtney Drake, whose responsibility is to understand and optimize the student experience for Udacity.

“In a real-world education scenario students are part of a class, and within those classes tend to form smaller cohorts. A sense of camaraderie is formed. A ‘we’re in this together’ mentality that drives success,” said Drake. “But historically with online learning, each student is on his or her own, trying to fit their online coursework into their day-to-day life. It’s hard, and because it’s hard historically the vast majority of students learning through various platforms haven’t finished the courses they start.”

The solution: Add messaging with Layer to boost student retention

Udacity sees communications as a solution to this problem. The root of the issue with online education, the team hypothesized, is that lack of community and accountability. They’d offered forums as a generic path for students to communicate in an out-in-the-open way, but found people “got lost, that it was too anonymous and general purpose,” said Drake.

Then they turned their attention to messaging, their theory being that if they gave students the ability to chat directly with a small group of other students, and also communicate as a Nanodegree class, they’d be more invested in the course.

Drake and team first conducted an experiment to prove their theory. Early data showed that students found value in working with a small team, but only the teams where an individual student stepped up as an organizer stayed active. This led to the insight that teams may need a built-in facilitator, so Drake and team came up with the idea of matching a student who is farther along in a Nanodegree program with each team to keep them engaged and on track.

After determining that messaging could unlock student commitment and potential, they began integrating Layer, using our open source UI toolkit Atlas to design an experience that fit seamlessly with the larger Udacity experience. That includes seamless web-to-mobile messaging that allows students to stay connected to the course anywhere and everywhere. Now one month in to the integration, the team is seeing “strong, positive early signals” that adding Layer is significantly improving their student’s experience.

“We’re thrilled with Layer and what it enables for our student experience,” said Drake. “Adding a social component with messaging to online learning gives students an extra advantage and, we believe, better steers them toward the ultimate goal of learning a new skillset that can improve their lives.”

How Praber uses Layer-powered messaging to run its mobile marketplace

Praber, an on-demand marketplace app that connects people needing a service to skilled providers who can perform it, is using Layer to power its most crucial function: messaging.

Based in Milan, Italy, and New York City, and with plans to expand throughout Europe in the next year, Praber uses a bidding system to help its end users find the perfect service provider — whether it be a house cleaner, a lawyer, a personal trainer, massage therapist, or anything in between.

Well-communicated logistics + trust = a great mobile marketplace experience

All marketplace apps have at least two primary groups that need to maintain perfect communication in order to function: the service provider and the end user. For Praber, making sure those communications are handled perfectly is product and business critical.

“Messaging is extremely important to our users’ experience,” said Nicolas Nemni, CEO of Praber. He and team feel that it’s through excellent in-app messaging that expectations are properly set and trust is established. The ability for service providers and end users to communicate effectively and reliably before, during and after a job ensures information is properly interpreted, understood, and handled.

“Think about the experience of hiring a lawyer. No one would hire a lawyer before speaking to him or her, or go through the process of having a lawyer represent them without touching base frequently,” he said.

Praber, which is already seeing impressive growth just weeks after its launch, aims to make it easier to hire people, lawyers included, to perform all manner of day-to-day tasks through a mobile device, but the team firmly believes communication lines must be rock solid in order to meet that goal.

Buy vs. Build? Let Layer do the heavy lifting

Once the Praber team established that in-app messaging was mission critical, they explored ways to build the service in house, subscribing to the thinking that if it’s important, they must build it themselves. Instead, they resolved that because of a messaging system’s complexity and the entire app experience’s dependency on its performance, it’s rather too important to build themselves.

“What we learned quickly is that building a fully-featured messaging system was extraordinarily hard,” said Nemni, who along with his team was able to add messaging to Praber with Layer in just one week. “Layer is extremely good at powering messaging, and with Atlas (Layer’s open source UI toolkit), we were able to build something quickly that works great, and looks great, too.”

Spotlight on a Layer user: Photobucket

tl;dr: With 100 million monthly active users, Photobucket sought to enable friends and loved ones to better connect and share on mobile devices. After a thorough buy vs. build vetting process, Photobucket’s Lasso app turned to Layer to power in-app messaging. To learn more about how the team integrated Layer, join our TechTalk with co-founder Chad Podoski on April 29. RSVP here.

Photography is how we document our lives and preserve memories, and Photobucket is one of the largest and widest-reaching photo sharing services in the world. With 100 million monthly active users sharing billions of photos in the same period of time, its services are central to the sharing and enjoyment of memories for people everywhere. Photobucket is a go-to place for uploading photos and sharing them online, and also creating beautiful photo books, calendars, prints and gifts.

As mobile devices and their built-in, always-at-the-ready cameras have become ubiquitous, Photobucket has focused on designing and delivering tools to enable unique sharing experiences from mobile. The company found such a tool in Lasso, a photo-sharing app coincidentally created by the original founder of Photobucket, Alex Welch, and Lasso co-founder Chad Podoski.

Seeking a way to enable intimate sharing among friends and loved ones

To hear it from Welch, the original idea for Photobucket’s Lasso was to give people a way to separate the signal from the noise of mobile photography. Our camera rolls are siloed, black boxes, he said, so if someone has photos that you want on their mobile device, there’s no way to get them. Conversely, there’s downright oversharing of photos through social networks. And to top it off, the photos that are shared by others are rarely the ones you want to see.

“Our vision was always: ‘Get the photos you want from the people you know,’” he said.

Evolution of Lasso’s communications: from acknowledgements to rich messaging

Welch and Podoski designed the first version of Photobucket’s Lasso with an acknowledgement-based communications model. Initially the app let users send a simple gesture back to indicate they’ve received or like a photo. But users quickly voiced their desires for a greater ability to communicate.

“People wanted to actually message each other in the context of a photo,” said Welch. “Very quickly we learned that this is an absolute necessity for the app. A simple reply was not enough. When it’s close friends and loved ones sharing photos with one another, they have a need to express themselves around these shared memories.”

The team determined that rich, in-app communications, giving users the ability to have conversations around the photos shared in Photobucket’s Lasso, was the right direction to proceed.

Buy vs build? Layer as the clear winner

When Welch and and Podoski sat down to evaluate options for incorporating messaging — including more complex functionality such as sharing photos from the Lasso platform directly into the chat, and using conversation metadata to store a background image to the chat — they considered two paths. They’d either partner with a service to integrate communications, or they’d build it themselves.

“What we ultimately decided was building messaging would be too time-consuming and costly, not to mention come at a steep opportunity cost,” said Alex. They began exploring services to partner with, and found that all roads led to Layer.

“Everyone I spoke with in the technology community recommended Layer,” said Alex, who has deeply-rooted industry relationships after founding Photobucket. “And we realized that Layer is the only service that can power the kinds of messaging experiences we envisioned.”

Another reason the team chose Layer to power Photobucket’s Lasso’s in-app messaging was the availability of Atlas, Layer’s open source UI toolkit. The team was able to use Atlas components to kickstart the design process, and ultimately create a distinctive experience that’s unique to Photobucket’s Lasso.

“Layer allowed us to create and integrate a rich messaging experience that scales to millions of users,” said Welch. “With Layer, we were able to build best-in-class communications in our app and bring it to market in half the time it would have taken to build in-house.”

Download Photobucket’s Lasso for iOS and Android today.

Spotlight on a Layer user: Pop

The idea for Pop was born far from its San Francisco headquarters. Founder and CEO Joshua Nguyen was traversing the highlands in Burma with a guide, some 20 miles from a hot guerilla zone. A former product executive at Flickr and Tumblr, he’d come to this place to clear his head and decide on his next professional move.

Josh’s guide proposed they make a stop in his home village for a peek at what a native Palaung tribal community looks like. As Josh made his way into the village and put his pack down, he was swarmed by children excited to have a visitor. He patted his pockets to find something to entertain the kids. All he had was his iPhone.

After trying and failing to pique their interest with various apps and games, he landed on the phone’s front-facing camera. It was a hit. The kids threw their heads back and laughed hysterically as they mugged for the camera and then for each other. They snapped shots and reacted to seeing their faces on screen for the first time. Looking back, this was an inflection point for Josh. Some 8,000 miles from home, he was witnessing a human condition in its rawest form. These kids, who’d grown up together here and were as close as can be, reminded him of the expressive power of our faces to delight, surprise and connect to one another in a most authentic way.

It all gave Josh an idea. He wrote his technical cofounder, Alaric Cole, and the two got to work on Pop.

Social networking fatigue, and creating meaningful connections with video

According to eMarketer, one in every four people around the world uses a social networking service. But despite this figure, Josh argues that the connections we forge through mainstream social networking aren’t meaningful.

“I find that we end up chatting the most with the people who are the most active, the people who are posting the most, commenting on our posts the most,” said Josh. “Not necessarily the people we want to chat and connect with.”

Josh and Alaric took this trend to heart when they designed the Pop experience. Their primary goal: enable people to create authentic, material connections with the people they care about the most. Cut through the noise of mainstream social media and find the signal. After much consideration, the cofounders determined short video chat snippets, or walkie-talkie chat, to be an excellent way to foster this. It’s through video that we’re able to see nuance in expression and connect more authentically, says Josh. So why hasn’t video chat yet seen more widespread adoption?

“The first thing people think when they know they’re going to do a Google Hangout or a video Skype call with someone is, ‘how does my hair, how do I look?’” said Josh. “They want to make sure they’re presentable because as a culture we’ve created this veneer where everything looks perfect online. It’s not like that in real life.”

To address this and alleviate some of that anxiety, says Josh, Pop defaults to a filter over the video that helps people get past the angst of, ‘do I look ok?’

“Think of Pop as an escape valve for the pent up pressure that we face with our online interactions,” said Josh. “We all need that, and it’s where we feel we can take video chat mainstream.”

“The behavior pattern is already there,” he continued. “On our mobile devices, both iOS and Android, only 21 percent of all people have participated in a video chat. 41 percent of us are already watching videos, but not using them to communicate. We’re using video passively, not actively. What if we got that number to 80 percent, the share of people who are texting on their devices?”

Integrating asynchronous video chat with Layer, and freedom to focus on user experience

The Pop team was able to integrate Layer easily and Josh can now reflect on what using Layer has enabled them to accomplish.

“At a really high level, Layer has allowed me to really focus on the human interactions happening in the app,” said Josh. “And allowed Alaric to focus on the technical parts of the app he’s most stoked about — graphics compression, video manipulation. These are the things he loves.”

Josh says using Layer has not only allowed them more space to focus on the user experience, but they’ve also accomplished more than they would have without Layer.

“To do this on our own, we’d have to devote lots of resources, which is in stark conflict with our desire to move fast, “ said Josh. “Layer has our back. Building a system for sending messages reliably is really hard. We built and rebuilt this many times. Being able to send messages to you — and knowing you’ll receive them — is huge for us.”

Download Pop for iOS today and start forming authentic connections through video chat.

Spotlight on a Layer user: imoji

To hear imoji CEO Tom Smith tell it, the idea for the company’s app had immediate legs. From the founding team’s first discussion mid-last year about what was a seemingly simple idea — give people around the world the ability to turn any photo into a sharable emoji — there’s been a sense of urgency.

“My first thought was, ‘I can’t believe this doesn’t already exist. This needs to exist.’ Then my second thought was, ‘let’s get to work.’” That first night Smith and his team stayed up until the wee hours of the morning conceptualizing the app and fleshing out an initial, working prototype.

Imoji is a much lauded app that does something simple but extraordinarily powerful in this modern era of brief, pithy mobile communication: it gives users the ability to turn any photo into an emoji. And with its biggest update yet, made available today, the app has been transformed from a way to bolster and add context to conversations in Apple’s iMessage into a stand-alone messaging app that lets users communicate with one another directly in the app. With the additional communication functionality powered by Layer, the new version of imoji keeps more engagement inside of the app and puts content creation and sharing side by side.

imoji app with Layer

Even in the consumer messaging app space where usage numbers are often staggering, imoji’s growth would impress anyone. In the six months since its debut numbers have climbed continually, with no seasonal lulls or end in sight. Investors took notice, and Smith and team raised $2 million from Goodwater Capital and former Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Joe Lacob.

Emojis and the evolution of how we communicate

Crowned as the top trending word of 2014 and officially added to the Oxford Dictionary, “emoji” describes pictographs or visual representations of emotions now an irreplaceable part of our shared online tongue. They started gaining traction in the mid-1990s, and in 2011 Apple adopted a standardized emoji library and added it to iOS5 — a supreme validation. A 2013 study asked people in different parts of the world if they’ve used emojis, and the response paints a clear picture of their staying power. In China, 83 percent responded “yes.” In Indonesia it was 84 percent and in the United States 74 percent who gave a “yes” response.

“Emojis are the first true international language,” said Smith. “And they’ve evolved our online communication greatly.”

Without the supplement of emojis, he said, so much is lost in online conversations. When you’re communicating with someone else on a mobile device, you’re not privy to context like where the other person is or what they’re doing. Words can be easily misinterpreted.

“Emojis help cut away some of that misleading content in a conversation,” said Smith. “They add humor, evoke emotion and help people connect.”

Creating a visual language with photos

If emojis have evolved the way we communicate and extended our ability to do so effectively, think of imoji as a tool to create and speak your own dialect. Globally we’re taking an unprecedented number of digital photos, a trend directly correlated to the number of mobile devices we use. Every day on Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp alone, 1.5 billion photos are taken. Many of our online conversations are about the very same things we take photos of — what we’re seeing, what we’re doing, who we’re doing it with.

“While emojis are great — they offer up a emotion and tone — they’re generic,” said Smith. Turning a photo into an emoji lets people insert a relevant graphical representation into a conversation. It’s the same familiar language of emojis, only highly contextual since its a graphic of the very specific thing being discussed.

And since imoji is giving people the ability to share the emojis they create with other users, the imoji community is collectively creating a massive, visual language. More personalized, specific and contextual than emojis could ever be. And the implications of such a visual language are big.

“The first iteration of imoji was about creation. Now we have millions of these powerful assets -— emojis created by people around the world,” said Smith. “The second version of imoji (available today) is designed both to let people create them, but also to share them in really unique ways inside the app.”

imoji keyboard

Leveraging Layer as a communications building block to build faster, build better

When the imoji team set a plan to enable people to communicate with one another inside the app, they looked at what they’d have to build to power such functionality.

“We understood very clearly where we wanted to go, and also understood what it would take to build a proprietary messaging system,” said Smith. “Such an endeavor would be extremely demanding and inevitably, we’d have a hard time ever building something as robust and powerful as Layer. It’s not our core competency.”

Also, and perhaps most importantly, Tom said, the team knew that leveraging Layer as a building block for adding messaging natively into their app would save a huge amount of time.

“We think a great deal about how people will use imoji to communicate. Creating a great user experience is where we want to spend the bulk of our time and effort. Layer, being so reliable and giving us so many features to play with as we design the user experience, lets us keep our focus there and add rich messaging to imoji without building it ourselves.”

“Our experience with Layer has been nothing short of excellent,” said Smith. “We see this as a long-term partnership. Photos pull a heartstring. Our goal is to strengthen that heartstring and make it easier to pull. Layer helps us do that.”

Check out imoji today in the App Store and Google Play Store.

How Web Summit super-charged event networking with Layer

Web Summit has been called “the best technology conference on the planet.” It’s certainly one of the largest and most innovative technology-focused conferences in the world. First held in Dublin, Ireland in 2010 and drawing a crowd of 500, by 2013 it saw more than 10,000 attendees. In 2014 that number more than doubled to 22,000.

Attendees span the spectrum. C-level execs from Fortune 500 companies and founders of small startups just launching gather to swap stories and lessons learned annually at this “Davos for geeks.” Even celebrities and rockstars make appearances at the three-day event (Bono was among 2014’s speakers).

Why have an app at a conference?

Anyone who’s attended a conference is familiar with the challenges around identifying, locating and connecting with those other attendees you want to speak with. Attendees come to meet like-minded entrepreneurs and gain insight through common experience. Others seek opportunities to do business together and collaborate.

For its recent event, the team created an app that encourages the kind of serendipity that can only happen at an event like Web Summit. Not only can the app be used to connect with existing contacts, it also employs a sophisticated recommendation engine to match people who should know each other based on common interests and other shared traits.

How Web Summit used Layer

2013 was the first year Web Summit offered an app to its attendees, but communication was not the focus. This year the team turned its attention to messaging and communication, connecting attendees to chat, connect, and schedule get-togethers — all inside the conference app. Even better, attendees didn’t need to share phone numbers or other contact information to connect directly.

A beautiful, easy-to-use recommendation engine suggests possible connections, Tinder style, based on shared interests, common connections, and areas of expertise. Attendee swipe right through curated profiles, and can directly message other attendees to say hello and start a conversation.

If matched attendees decide to meet, meeting details can be coordinated, attendees invited, invitations accepted, and meetings added to the user’s calendar, all in-line with the conversation. Native in-app conversation and meeting invitations trigger push notifications to notify the receiving party of the initiated contact. This in-context scheduling of informal conference get-togethers makes connecting in a conference environment much easier.

Usage patterns & lessons learned

Half of all Web Summit’s 22,000 attendees downloaded the app and connected with other attendees via chat. At the outset, the app delivered an attendee’s top 50 recommended connections, but attendees’ voracious appetite for networking required an increase to 300 top recommendations starting on day two of the Summit.

Ci (the company behind Web Summit) will expand in dramatic fashion this year, launching a new event in Asia called Rise, a new tech conference that will give leaders of enterprise a place to congregate and demonstrate how their companies are changing the way we live. Plans are underway for the U.S. this year as well with year two of an event in Las Vegas in May called Collision. The team plans to deploy conference apps for these events built on the learnings from the launch of chat-enabled networking at Web Summit.

The Web Summit team believes that event-centric chat and networking has legs beyond the in-person conference experience. The app will keep attendees connected and enable ongoing chat well beyond Dublin, Hong Kong, and Las Vegas, with the hope of keeping the spirit and community of the events alive and engaging throughout the year.

How ZOGOtennis is enabling people to play the sport they love with Layer

When ZOGOtennis cofounders David Berman and Eliot Jenkins were undergraduates at the University of Chicago, they met twice a week on the campus tennis courts to play a match. Both avid tennis players, the structure of the tennis community at their school kept them connected to the sport and actively playing. But when they graduated and eventually accepted jobs in New York City it didn’t come as easily.

“It takes longer to set up a game than to actually play it,” said David. Even in one of the most bustling cities in the world, he struggled to find a network of people he could call on to play with regularly. And beyond that, it was nearly impossible to find a time that worked for both players.

“It just didn’t need to be that hard,” he said. So they made a decision. They’d build an app that solves these problems for tennis players, and they set to work creating ZOGOtennis.

Why tennis needs technology

As the men dug in to the problem further to validate the idea, the numbers they uncovered were staggering. According to a Tennis Industry Association poll, there are 13 million people in the U.S. alone who consider themselves tennis players but haven’t played in the past year. And of those 13 million, more than 4 million said they haven’t played for the sole reason that they have no one to play with.

ZOGOtennis removes this hurdle. A mobile app that connects tennis players and facilitates the scheduling of tennis matches, ZOGOtennis frees athletes from the burden of having to manually find a tennis partner. It smartly matches athletes with similarly-skilled partners and handles all of the details around identifying a mutually workable time and calendaring the match. The app even fosters community by letting people associate with a home court.

“If the tens of thousands of people who play in every city across the country could quickly and easily organize games, then tennis players could start worrying more about their backhand instead of worrying about their next partner,” said Eliot. “Simply put, ZOGOtennis enables people to play tennis. And that’s huge for people who love the sport.”

The challenges of building chat, and how they were led to Layer

From the start Eliot and David believed firmly that ZOGOtennis was, at its core, a communications service. It provides a way to connect people around a shared interest. So they designed chat into their earliest version of the app as a core feature. But after beginning development of the app and learning firsthand how difficult it is to build a communications stack and solve all of the complexities required to create a great communications experience for their users, they made the difficult call to leave it out in their first version.

“Of every part of the app’s development, the chat component was by far the most technologically complex and time-intensive,” said Eliot. “The communications piece delayed our development substantially, so despite knowing how important it was, we left it out and explored other options in an effort to ship an MVP. But all the while I had this digging feeling that ZOGOtennis wasn’t complete without chat.”

They tried a few different ways to solve the problem of letting people connect. The first version of ZOGOtennis used phone numbers to connect people. In the onboarding flow the app required users add their phone number as a means of allowing people to connect directly should they need to discuss a tennis match after it was scheduled in the app.

“There are always things that need to be discussed leading up to and after the match,” said Eliot. “I’m running late, I switched courts because the one we were going to use is occupied, I need to cancel, let’s play again, these sorts of things.”

Despite the first version of the app being a success and quickly spreading to thousands of players and enabling lots of matches, the request for phone numbers triggered a dramatic dropoff in signups. The data was clear: people felt trepidation about sharing their phone numbers with strangers.

Next they added a comments section to help people be a bit more descriptive in scheduling a match, but matched partners couldn’t respond to the comment, so they saw discomfort among their users.

“We sort of went back to the drawing board at the point,” said Eliot. “And rather than think about alternate ways to address the need of letting people connect in the context of their games, we thought about the single best way to do it. Building the best in-app chat experience we could became our priority. At this point we had all of the data we needed to see this was the best path forward.”

Native, contextual communications as a core component

The team went to work seeking a service to power its communications. After months of testing, they now had a clear checklist. The service must be powerful out of the box, easy to set up and use and both scalable and reliable. But most important was something only Layer could offer: it must give them native, in-app, IP-based communications that would allow ZOGOtennis users to communicate within the context of a match.

“We looked at everything, and Layer was the only service that would meet our needs,” said Eliot. “Layer gives us chat that’s centered around our content. Tennis and games. Lots of other services give you person-to-person chat, but we knew how much better the experience of ZOGOtennis could be with Layer. You get an invite to play on Saturday in Central Park, and you can start chatting directly in the invite.”

“Communications is Layer’s core competency,” said Eliot. “We went with Layer because there’s nothing else like it and it just works. Layer’s been one of our most important partners.”

Download ZOGOtennis in the iOS App Store now.


How Cloth added rich chat with Layer, and transformed into one of the world’s best sources for street-style search

Seth Porges and his friend Wray Serna sat in her apartment in Brooklyn. Wray was getting ready for a trip to San Francisco and Seth was there to keep her company as she packed. As Wray, a fashion consultant and apparel designer, chose the outfits she’d take with her on the trip, she put each on and photographed herself wearing them. She’d developed her own organizational system for planning out her travel clothing agenda. Having never seen such a process before and curious, Seth started asking questions.

“What I learned was that this process wasn’t unique to her,” said Seth. “Lots of her friends did this, too. And beyond that, people all over the world. But there was no good mobile product that was designed specifically to help people photograph and catalog their wardrobes.”

Seth, a successful technology journalist who’d been pitched myriad tech products throughout his career and learned to critically assess a product’s potential through the eyes of its users, immediately saw an opportunity to productize Wray’s process. The two set to work on Cloth right away.

The original iteration of Cloth, created in 2012, was a photo app designed to allow people to catalog their favorite outfits. As Seth says, “a modest app that did one thing and did it well.” So well, in fact, that in short order the app had hundreds of thousands of users, critical acclaim and a stellar 4.5 average rating in the iTunes store.

“The original Cloth solved a problem for lots of people,” said Seth. “People were already doing what Cloth did. They were already taking photos of their favorite outfits, but those photos got lost in their iTunes camera rolls amid photos of everything else. There was no way to organize them and find them later. Cloth didn’t try to change people’s behavior, it just provided utility.”

Transforming the product, creating utility through communications

When the team set out to reimagine Cloth earlier this year, they honed in on that utility and explored how they could make the app even more useful. Throughout their process, they continued coming back to three things: collaboration, discovery and search. All three areas unlocked in the relaunch of the app by adding just two basic functions with Layer: photo sharing and chat.

“We added these communication features to Cloth with Layer and instantly it was a different product,” said Seth. “It’s now both a way for people to catalog their closets and organize their clothing, but also a chat platform centered around the activity of getting dressed, choosing fashion.”

“We looked at other, popular chat platforms and focused on teasing out contextual value specific to fashion and getting dressed that simply wasn’t possible with other chat apps,” he continued.

The team’s most pleasant surprise since building and rolling out the new Cloth? The app is connecting people globally and allowing people to discover looks from around the world. Users can search for what people are wearing by clothing category, or by city. Seth says it’s poised to fill a massive void in street style search, and this is the natural behavior early users have shown.

According to Seth, in early testing they’ve seen an array of user profiles. On one end of the spectrum is private, where users stay on the sidelines and find Cloth to be strictly an excellent tool to browse for fashion inspiration, much like how people use Pinterest for home decor or entertaining ideas. In the middle of the spectrum are people who want to share photos of outfits with their close friends and get advice. And at the other end of the spectrum are people who enjoy sharing photos of their outfits broadly and publicly.

“People can really use Cloth however they want. You can step into it anywhere on the spectrum,” he said. “There’s utility here for everyone who gets dressed every day.”

As for choosing the service to power the native chat and photo sharing in the app, Seth says they found Layer quickly on a recommendation from an industry friend and looked no further.

“Putting such complex and intricate chat functionality into our first release wouldn’t even have been considered, but because of Layer we were able to build a feature-rich first release that feels like a complete product,” said Seth.

“Getting dressed is a real world behavior. Chat and photo sharing are online behaviors,” said Seth. “Cloth is an app that now bridges the two and builds on how people are already using fashion and mobile together. This app wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for Layer.”

The new Cloth for iOS launched this week. Download it in the App Store here. Also, read about Seth’s experience building with Layer in Forbes.