Designing together better.

Matt & Katie on Red Pen

Red Pen is our solution to getting team feedback on designs. We weren’t happy with what was out there, so we set out to make our own. Matt and Katie co-designed it; and Matt learnt backend code to write it. It launched in August last year to really positive reception.

We wanted an easier way to point and say what you mean.

As a designer, to make sure you’re on the right track, you need everyone to say what they mean— your clients voicing concerns, you workmates discussing compromise. An environment in which everyone is free-flowing with their thoughts makes for a better work. Ignorance, denial, and ego is poison to design work.

Email was too slow. No one is motivated to maintain a discussion in their inbox.

IM & group chat was too ephemeral. Once time passes, all context is lost.

The existing market were big dinosaurs. They offered every feature. They could do everything. And in that goal, they lost the opportunity to do any one thing right.

Testing the idea

We needed to test our hypothesis. v1 was a way of really quickly uploading and sharing a single design to get feedback.

We learnt a tonne. The idea was solid. Our simplification of point-and-click to comment was better than anyone else. Thousands of customers reported their clients give them significantly greater feedback with Red Pen than our competitors.

After several months of supporting thousands of loyal customers, we also learnt that we weren't good enough. That we weren't solving the entire problem well enough. We could do better.

V2: taking on team collaboration.

Designers iterate aggressively until we feel it has perfectly accomplished the goals. Iterations are powered by feedback. You make something, get new perspective, and try again. Again and again.

We killed the spinners. We made everything stream live. When you added a design, everyone knows about it. They can reply to it live. It’s just like being in the same room but without wasting someone else’s time.

The active users feature tells you who’s watching. To encourage a conversation, you need to make presence felt. The feeling of presence encourage free-flowing conversation.

Onboarding: get them to use it.

We wanted to get people using the product as soon as possible. In v1, we pushed them to upload an image from the beginning but found some people didn’t “get” the collaboration stage.

In this version, made a robot—Clive—that simulates the feedback process. It got people to immediately use commenting without the risk of inviting real friends to a site they consider unproven. You'll want to try it yourself before reading on.

The second section simulates the upload process. It primes their behaviour for drag–dropping when they move to try the product.

The last trick up our sleeve was to move the “sign up” form to later in the user journey. Clicking “Try for free” makes an account for you straight away. Only after they type a comment or upload several designs we ask for the boring formality.

Testing these unconventional moves is important. We tracked every behaviour that lead up to engagement and conversion; and A/B tested it to a traditional approach. We found the onboarding work much more effectively (for Red Pen at least; unsure how well this generalises.)

Test, test, test, test.

Design is only good if it works. This sounds obvious but is hardly practiced. We are aggressive testers.

During our beta test rounds, we record clicks of our beta users. This shows real actual users using our product for real (really.) It’s hugely valuable information. It’s better than dulled-down generalisations of percentages and funnels.

We’re persistent in meeting our users, too. Jess Eddie runs a freelance design and ice-cream startup (twist!). Talking to our customers is better than looking at a analytics dashboard. You hear anger, excitement and passion.

Things we’ve learnt from Red Pen

1. To prioritise experience over features

A startup means you have to make hard calls. You have to decide what to cut out to ship on time. We learnt this balance— while still sticking to quality. It worked well because people responded to our difference in quality.

2. To not be precious about an idea.

We’ve gone through so many versions; some of them public. It’s important to not hesitate to kill your babies. We debate amongst each other for the best idea. When we see a good idea, we take it; it's best for the product; it doesn't matter who it came from.

3. To releasing early who are willing to critique the crap out of us

Brutal honest in feedback is important. It became addicting to get feedback— good or bad. We learnt to treat failure as an opportunity, not an ego bruise. In recognising the failure, we know what to improve— otherwise, you’re just drifting in the ether.

4. To appreciate the gaps

We asked people who were experts in their field to give us advice. They helped us fill in the gaps that we had in our skillset. It’s easy to be in denial of the gaps or to “wing it”, but this was a quicker workaround.