Well, as the theme song from Star Trek: Enterprise says, it's been a long road getting from there to here. Certainly, a journey with many twists, turns, and unexpected roadblocks.
All right, please forgive the travel puns. But we certainly have a sense of elation today as we're proud to soft-launch our beta version of Streetmix+, the enhanced version of our open-source, free-to-use street design platform. We were grant-funded in late 2020 to adopt the Web Monetization proposal, as we were already looking for models that allowed our users to become financial supporters while excited by the potential of a standard web protocol that allows our users to pay for our service, while we provide additional features and support for them as well.
Now, in January 2022, after numerous experiments, aborted starts and various product tangents, we've finally reached our main goal of providing a complete, but "minimum viable" user flow of becoming a Streetmix+ member via the Coil browser plugin and getting a handful of bonus features to enhance the Streetmix experience.
There's certainly more we want to work on, even beyond the term of the Grant for the Web funding. But before we get into that, let's dig some more into the journey that brought us here.
To be completely transparent, our original objectives were quite ambitious. We wanted to a complete, end-to-end user onboarding pipeline that also included several different payment providers. We considered direct payments with Stripe, and alternatively, integration with other creator payment platforms such as Patreon, Ko-fi, and OpenCollective, alongside the Coil browser plugin. And we wanted to do it all with Streetmix's typical user-friendliness and usual high standards in design, uncommon in many open-source products.
And while it certainly would have been possible in the best circumstances, we were a small team of part-time freelancers, juggling (combined) a global pandemic, family emergencies, political unrest and upheaval, mental health issues and additional clients or day jobs. As we delved into unfamiliar waters, learning into newly-adopted third-party technology, and tried to integrate it with legacy portions of our codebase that had not been previously well-documented, we ran into complications and difficulties.
One of our primary objectives was to create a fully automated integration between payment platforms (Coil and Patreon) and our user accounts. But each platform had different integration paths, and varying levels of support, documentation, and features. (Patreon had even stopped supporting their own developer API, unfortunately!) Further complicating matters, we found that our third-party user authentication platform required a significant amount of integration work for an ideal experience, and we hadn't accounted for any of it in our initial Grant for the Web proposal. Or that wallet providers would put our accounts on hold while we scrambled to put together legal documentation about our organization. While compliance and security requirements should absolutely be taken seriously in today's modern web ecosystem, we've also traded off the ability for small creative teams to concentrate on their core products, and we lost several months to the effort. But that's a subject for another day.
Instead, we've learned not to bite off much more than we can chew. When faced with insurmountable obstacles, it was better to back off, consider new options, and find another route to success, rather than to try and keep pushing through to the original desired outcome -- even when that new outcome will be a little smaller in scope, and therefore easier to implement.
Today, we're still just focusing entirely on the Coil browser plugin. Rather than try to satisfy multiple membership and payment methods, we decided to focus entirely on the user experience of just the one we know we can adopt the easiest. As a result, we're able to focus on other features that matter to our users, like member rewards! Now, Streetmix+ members are able to access features like changing street backgrounds, editing segment names, getting access to new components, and much more.
With this in mind, we're now in a more comfortable position than ever before to add on other payment integrations in the future. We just had to adjust our perception of what success meant for our project.
One of our driving principles is to demystify street design and to make engaging fun and easy to learn, which means making the core experience as widely available as possible. To that end, a freemium business model was a good fit: let the original Streetmix functionality remain open and free to use, but to plan for new features to be available for professionals, activists and other such power users that can help support the platform in return. So even while development was underway, we also needed to really think through some of the product design and architecture for adding tiers of service to a platform that didn't have it before. What kind of features would potential Streetmix+ members want? How do we structure our application to show users that new features exist, without feeling like a bad experience? All of these questions required some careful consideration and we developed many of these features in conjunction with the Web Monetization payment integration itself.
To show just one example of one unexpected user experience case that occurred during development, what if you were a user that had the Coil plugin installed, enabled, and actively sending payments, but weren't logged into your actual Streetmix user account at the time? While we could have allowed users to access the Streetmix+ features without logging in, a core part of the Streetmix user experience is to log in so that we can save your streets to your own account. And we also didn't want to lock ourselves out of developing features for both logged-in and logged-out users. We tried numerous experiments on onboarding users to Streetmix+, but we didn't have a good answer to a situation where a user wasn't logged in but was an active Coil browser plugin user.
In the end, we landed on a non-modal popup on the upper right of the screen that would slide in like an alert, but wouldn't disrupt your interaction with the application. It would remain on screen until users interacted with it or dismissed it, because we really wanted to let people know that even while they were streaming payments to us, they were missing out on features they were entitled to! We think that this is an example of a UI interaction that we could really dial in because we focused specifically on integrating the Coil plugin first, instead of spreading ourselves too thin across multiple integrations.
By the way, our amazing community stepped up in the past to localize Streetmix into Arabic, which also came with improvements to our platform to allow for right-to-left (RTL) layout. As a result, every one of our UI improvements is also tested to make sure it works in RTL as well!
(We usually launch new features without waiting for translations in all the languages we support, since otherwise we'd be stuck forever waiting for translators! We are interested in people who can help translate our new Streetmix+ functionality, so if you'd like to help, please reach out!
Our team's weakest point is certainly in our communications and marketing ability. One of the parallel projects (which was not funded by Grant for the Web but was earmarked from the Streetmix budget) was to create a landing page that Streetmix did not have before. We've found, in talking to professional city planners, that people were often looking for information about Streetmix, but we had optimized our website to take you directly to the interactive app itself.
This also dovetailed nicely with our effort to present Streetmix+ in a way that interfered less with the application UI, as we also wanted to be cognizant of dark UI patterns that got into people's faces and interfered with workflows in an effort to get people to sign up. We wanted people to be able to opt into Streetmix+ when presented with a natural opportunity to upgrade, not by pressuring people. As a result, we worked with the talented team of Piotr Fedorczyk and Joanna Bogusz to design and develop a new marketing website for Streetmix.
In a separate but necessary parallel project, we also overhauled our documentation infrastructure, and that's also where we carved out a section about upgrading to Streetmix+. Taken together, these resources, alongside our social media, Discord community and e-mail newsletter, serves as our marketing and communication channels for becoming a Streetmix+ member.
While our grant-funded period with Grant for the Web has completed, this is by no means the end of our journey. Certainly, the future of Streetmix is dependent on core users that can help financially sustain it, and we remain committed to developing independent and open technology.
With payment and membership structure in place with the Coil browser extension, now is the time to focus primarily on outreach, communication, and user testing. We'll be observing what drives users to sign up for membership, what kind of obstacles they encounter in the process, and what kind of feedback or improvements they might have to offer. We also believe firmly in iterating constantly, weeding out bugs and making the experience rock solid and dependable.
Right now, our initial assumptions about alternative payment options remain on the table: that users might want to attach a provider like Patreon or their Coil account to a user account directly, instead of installing a browser extension. However, instead of jumping ahead to that conclusion, we'll keep our ears open and listen to what our users say, with the hope that direct feedback also informs development in a much more collaborative, iterative fashion.
We also want to hear from the Streetmix+ community on what features they'd like us to prioritize next as membership perks.
Open source, independent platforms are rare in today's digital ecosystem, but that's not to say that they can't be done. It's our hope that we serve as a model for how standards like Web Monetization can potentially serve the community of creative technologists and designers that want to see more of this kind of product reach viable business models. When it comes to things like payment providers, user accounts and authentication, we can all learn more from each others' experiences, and hopefully save each other some pain.
And, if you're the kind of person who loves urban design, cities, public spaces and civic engagement, we'd love to hear from you! Let's all build a better world together.