Competing with quality

Matt at Campaign Monitor

I joined Campaign Monitor when it was a 15ish person company. In three years it’d tripled in size and saw tremendous success and publicity. It could aggressively compete with its much bigger San Franciscan rivals. Every Sydneysider is proud to tell the story of its success. I’m glad to have been a part of it.

How we stood out: quality.

The majority of freelance and small-to-medium businesses preferred CM to bigger competitors. It’s because they preferred a higher-quality product. There are thousands of customer emails stating this claim. The interesting thing is Campaign Monitor didn’t profess this in their marketing; it bled through everything that was produced. The users noticed and that earnt their loyalty.

RSS-to-email campaigns

RSS-to-Email was one of the first big projects I worked on. People could set up campaigns to be sent at regular intervals using content from an RSS feed. They could then see interactive reports comparing campaigns across time.

The cool thing about these projects is you’re part of production of the whole sausage: I wrote logic with the developers, we wrote front-end charting JS, we read through all Edward Tufte books to find the best way to graph concepts. It was thorough.

Matt: Research, wireframing, interaction, visual design and front-end code. Dave: Direction. Jason, Mark & Ken: Back-end code.

iPad app Enlist

Enlist is an iPad app that does one thing well: it’s a damn-simple form a brick-and-mortar shop owner can put at their register to collect email signups.

A lot of work went into whittling down what we could do to what’s necessary to do. Offering every bell and whistle is only great for a feature checklist. To convince regular shop-owners to use and be proud to display this app to their customers, they need to immediately understand the value, and be confident in using it. Instilling confidence means picking only the best features and making sure it’s plain to know how to access and use them.

First idea was: you should be able to customise everything! Everyone likes the power to control their own brand. But here’s the catch: only people with the patience and determination can actually execute on perfect customisation. The perfect UI gives people the illusion that they can customize to their tastes, but every possible choice always looks good.

Matt: Wireframing, interaction. Jesse: Wireframing, interaction, visual design. Dave: Direction.

The Subscribe Button

Trawling through thousands of support emails, we realised that a lot of our users were finding it tough to implement HTML forms. You shouldn’t need to learn to code when you’re on your feet all day trying to make your business get off the ground. The Button was our solution.

A single line of javascript, copy-paste-able into any website, Wordpress blog, Tumblr, or CMS. Wherever a company’s customers were, they could collect their email. It sat on top of any website. It had perfect validation, loading, and error states. It was tremendously received.

Matt: Wireframing, interaction, visual design, front-end code. Buzz Usborne: Visual design, direction. Trips: Front-end code, back-end code.

The Button itself was a technical feat. It needed to insert itself into the user’s page without distorting anything; the modal needed to float ontop of the user’s page. It couldn’t slow down the page. It needed to work in every browser under every possible contingency.

The admin UI for the Button was tricky to get right. When you first saw it, it needed to appear really approachable. But it could expand to complexity when needed. The solution was to offer a sane default that required zero customisation—with the option of opting into complex customisation. But it was optional.

Keeping it human.

CM was a ten-year-old company; it was unavoidable that it would start to show its age. I nudged the ship in a modern direction. Response times, live updating, saving in the background, spriting, modern JS libraries, became prominent discussions in the entirety of the development cycle— amongst designers, developers, testers, and management. After a while, these topics became defacto considerations in every feature.

These discussions are important. If things feel faster, users feel more productive. If you can redesign a flow so there are less steps, it feels more efficient. It’s undermining talking about “feelings” in design, but, the most loyal CM users used CM intensely in their workflow; making them happy needed to be part of the discussion.

Design is psychology in action!

Our faces are incredibly expressive. More than we’re aware of. They reveal a great amount of underlying emotion. I like treating design like psychology experiments. In university, they pummelled it into me: when you have a theory, you prove it with replicable data.

In user testing, participants were encouraged to be vocal about their thoughts and concerns— but most of the useful information could be found by reading their face. A subtle grimace, a hesitation is very clear indication they hit a mental stumbling block. When they clicked that button, you lost them for a moment; they didn’t understand what happened. Design just let them down there. We can fix that.

Design is just a visual way of teaching cause and effect. That’s what “easy” and “simple” interfaces are— a very perceivable, discoverable, obvious understanding of cause and effect.