Popular Pays@2x.png

Popular Pays Case Study


Popular Pays

Popular Pays is the largest, most active, and most reliable marketplace where brands and creators meet to create content worth sharing.


Product Design Lead

2013 - 2015


The kernel of an idea

Back in early 2013 a few of my friends, future co-founders, came to me with an idea for an app. The core of the idea was to use Instagrammers with an audience of at least 500 followers to power grass-roots, authentic advertising for small businesses. As Allan Holmes so eloquently put it: “Everyone on social media has an audience.” This idea came formed into an app called Popular Pays. For influential Instagrammers in the Chicago area all of a sudden they could get goods and services by using their social currency instead of cash.

Why me?

Popular Pays was founded by two smart individuals from the advertising industry and a third who was a professional photographer. While the 3 of them had plenty of creative talent combined, they lacked the experience tackling mobile products.

The four of us really didn’t know how to go about starting an app company from scratch. We naively began sketching and designing visuals very early in the process. As the primary employees they researched and met with local businesses to begin alpha testing the concept while I designed early brand and app visuals. To begin the company they had local businesses agree to give away small items to people who came in and showed they had at least 500 followers on their Instagram profile. This was completely free of any product development, but used as an overall proof of concept. To their delight it worked and they were able to secure basic funds from their friends and family as investors.



Early in the process it was decided that these transactions between influencers and businesses would be called “swaps.” Swaps would go on to inform the entire future of the app.

During the brainstorming process the idea of a digital handshake was established as the closest metaphor for this new concept of social bartering. Through several rounds of sketching we landed on a simple action, the swipe. If an influencer reached out their hand holding their phone, a cashier could swipe the screen to seal the deal. This allowed for a physical connection so often lost in the mobile payments industry. The tactile connection felt much closer to our concept of a digital handshake.


Launch and Learnings

After launch we saw a need to collect emails for a more secure login process and a better handling of dealing with spam users.

As we learned how the majority of Instagram users take pictures it became clear that offering an “open camera” button was no longer a necessity. Many iPhone photographers first use a third party camera app to either take the picture or edit their picture before ever getting it in to Instagram. So we decided to focus on the messaging and less on the camera interaction.

We had no elegant solution for users who didn’t have more than 500 followers, they were just not allowed to log in. To curb this jarring effect we added in a screen to tweet “your city” for promotion and to find cities that had a hungry group of users for expansion.


Transitioning to a new strategy

Late 2014
After around a year growing the business and both with users and merchants it became clear the current business model wouldn’t work. Local businesses couldn’t afford to give away free products and pay us a fee that would allow Popular Pays to be sustainable.

Introducing ‘Paid Gigs’ to save the company. Paid gigs stayed in line with the idea of grass-roots, authentic social advertising, but on a bigger more profitable scale. Gigs are similar to local swaps, but aimed at influencers with upwards of 10,000 followers. National brands like Nike and McDonalds would post a ‘gig’ for influencers to apply for. Influencers bid a dollar amount and receive a product. They post about the product on their feed and Popular Pays collects data for brands about the reach and growth related to their campaign.


Building a dashboard for brands

To support Paid Gigs it became a necessity to provide brands with a method of selection influencers based on their applications. In addition to the application review we wanted to support product choice/shipping details as well as analytics for the campaigns.


From receipts to notifications

Early 2015
After relying on ‘receipts’ for nearly 6 months for Paid Gigs it became clear that the concept was only a holdover from local swaps and not the right solution for Gigs. We transitioned from a non-transparent labeling system on receipts into a more robust timeline/notification process.


Developing a new design language

With all of the new features in the app it became time to evaluate the design patterns used throughout. Due to the changing purpose of the app and it’s task based needs we decided to expose the main navigation as a tab controller instead of hiding it behind a floating button. Beyond this I found the need to create more distinct differentiation between elements so I adopted a more ‘card’ focused UI. This allowed for not only better visual separation but an overall more interactive-looking set of elements.