Twenty20 A visually-focused SaaS tool that helps retail buyers make better decisions...

alphabet wall

Role: UX research and print content lead

This eight-month project sponsored jointly by CMU and LH Ventures started with a research question and ended with a functional prototype of a web app that improves the way retail buyers manage their assortments and plan future ones.

Our client is currently building a SaaS shared platform that connects buyers and vendors who source their products. They are a small start-up in a crowded industry with many large competitors entering the field, so it is extremely important that their product stand out from the competition by offering a limited set of the most important features for buyers. They asked a team of five HCI master’s candidates at Carnegie Mellon University to find out how buyers make their decisions and what they need to know and when they need to know it in order to make the best decisions possible regarding the products they invest in. I had several functions on this team including leading research activities, designing screen and print material, writing content for two publications during the project, and assisting with the coding of the final prototype of our solution in Javascript.

Diving into an unfamiliar domain…

From the beginning we knew we were going to have a difficult time finding research participants to observe and interview for this project, the industry being focused mainly in LA and NYC. Therefore, we started recruitment early by reaching out to friends, family, and faculty who might have connections. After exhausting those resources, we began a coordinated attack on LinkedIn, sending messages to hundreds of merchants for large retailers. Joining online communities of retail buyers showed real promise, but ultimately didn’t really come through for us. LinkedIn and our personal connections did however, and responses started to trickle in, and the trickle became a flood, and by the end of our project we had interviewed over 65 buyers in-person, over the phone, or on Google hangout. LH Ventures was surprised and pleased with our success in this task.


Three phases of our research…

Phase 1:

Armed with the question “what makes buyers successful?” we interviewed 11 people, including buyers, planners, store owners, and DMMs. We asked questions spanning the full scope of their work and identified key themes we wanted to further explore.

Phase 2:

We narrowed to focus on the most common themes that emerged contributing to buyers' success: vendor relationships, customer knowledge and agile buying practices. Through these deeper conversations with 17 buyers and DMMs, we gathered more nuanced data about what makes buyers successful.

Phase 3:

We systematically shared our interview data with the entire team and then used affinity diagramming and flow modeling to synthesize our 28 interviews and understand the major moments in the buying process that needed to improve.

Modeling the buyer's workflow...

This is a visualization of the entire life of a single buy. Retail buyers are constantly juggling several of these buys simultaneously, each at a different stage in the timeline.
three paths
When the products reach the sales floor, three things can happen: the product can sell quicker than expected, as expected, or slower than expected. In each case, the buyer needs different information in order to take the appropriate actions.

Extracting insights from our findings…

We found that there are three activities that great buyers engage in that help them turn a risky gamble into a wise investment:

winter hat
Pull persuasive stories out of sales data
purchase order hand-off
Stack the deck in their favor when negotiating deals
connecting the dots paintings
Reflect on past outcomes to inform future decisions

We used these insights to guide our design process by turning them into challenges —
How might we:

question mark
Help buyers find the compelling stories in their data so they can be more effective at influencing strategy?
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Ensure that tools enable both the proactive and reactive actions that great buyers take, to optimize the success of every buy?
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Help buyers make meaningful connections from their experience that allow them to build more accurate mental models, creating the opportunity for continuous improvement?

Envisioning a better tool…

After presenting the insights from our research above to our clients halfway through the project, it was time to start putting ideas in front of buyers, in order to gauge their reactions and find the solutions that resonated the most. We did this through multiple storyboard speed-dating exercises, as well as some concept videos and screen mock-ups. We were operating on one-week design sprints modeled after Google’s design sprint methodology, and each member of the team led one week’s sprint. Throughout our user tests and interviews, one observation became a common refrain: buying is a visual job and buyers are visual people; the tools they use are not.


Let’s make a visual tool for a visual job!

spreadsheet becomes visual

Narrowing our scope...

With four weeks left in the project, we had generated a couple dozen 'features' that we felt addressed the three challenges we started the summer with. However, it was unlikely that we were going to be able to build a tool that included every one of these features in the time we had remaining. Moreover, we knew that a tool is more likely to be adopted when it does one thing well: we needed an MVP.


With each feature on an index card, we began by ranking them (horizontally) in order of our perceived impact to buyer success. Once this was done, we asked our client to raise or lower each card vertically, correlating its position with expected cost/difficulty of implementation. What resulted was a 2-dimensional matrix of features, with the most valuable and easy to implement in the upper right quadrant. These are the features that we focused on building into our designs for the remainder of the project.

Four key features that help buyers make better decisions:

cutting board

Filter and sort


Set alerts


Save views

cycle diagram
This diagram represents the buying timeline as a cycle, and shows how our tool can be used during each of the three key strategic activities that we identified in the spring.

Handing off our findings and our solution to the client:

spring book cover
summer book cover
These are the covers of our publications that contained our research insights, annotated screen designs and user flows, as well as our research methodologies. These publications were a collaborative effort, and I was happy to contribute these covers to the final versions.

In conclusion...

The first half of our project was focused on answering the research question

“what makes buyers successful?”

In the second half of our project, we designed many low and mid-fidelity prototypes and put them in front of buyers to validate the insights from our research. The most rewarding part of the project was the response that we got from these professionals who finally felt like they were being listened to:
they found our solution surprisingly specific in targeting their most strategic activities.

Our client LH Ventures is currently working on launching their first product, and have expressed keen interest in integrating our product into a future roll-out of their buyer/vendor tool.

Thank you to my teammates:

  • Hannah Rosen
  • Gena Hong
  • Amanda Holt
  • Ju Ho Yun