Imagine a time long, long ago, when email marketing was at the cutting edge of digital. OK, fine, that was in the early 2000s. I was working in my first “real UX” job, and our biggest mission was to create an easy way for our audience to craft newsletters. Months of research had determined that our target audience consisted mostly of “Small-business Bobs,” not–so-tech-savvy owners of small retail or service businesses. They used email to spread the word about new products and offer promotions, or just because their children had told them they had to in order stay current.
We had a long list of possible features and enhancements to make the best message-creation system ever. We imagined drag-and-drop elements, floating toolbars and a number of other fancy elements, but our users didn’t really want those. Turns out all they wanted was not to lose their work.
Here’s the story of how we found that out and pushed off the creation of all our fanciest features. Although we did eventually implement many of those features and watched as our competitors scrambled to copy us, that’s another story.
Like many UX stories, this one started with a series of usability tests. In an effort to understand the shortcomings of our current system, we contacted several local users and watched them try to recreate a Microsoft Word document in our system. We also asked them to test similar products that had some of the fancy features on our product wish list.
We expected the complaints we always heard about how our WYSIWYG tool messed up things that looked good in Word. We were prepared to hear all about how easy drag-and-drop was to use. We were ready for a wave of praise for the other sexy features.
We didn’t expect to make anyone cry.
You see, our system lacked an automatic save function, which many users expected, and our workflow assumed users would move out of the editor directly into sending. Halfway through a test, one user got pulled away from editing and came back to see that she’d lost about an hour of work. She didn’t bawl, but we all saw a wave of pure misery hit her.
I swear there was a tear welling. She talked at length about how frustrated she was and how much she just wanted to quit email marketing. We knew immediately that our flashy features had just taken a back seat to an autosave function, possibly the least sexy feature imaginable. Luckily, we had video.
She wasn’t the only user who expressed frustration with our lack of autosave, but it was the first time we had captured such a visceral negative reaction. Automatic saving was one of those things the UX team had mulled over but had repeatedly dismissed as something that would not move the sales needle. In truth, we probably couldn’t win any new customers by touting our amazing autosave, but on the other hand, we became certain we would lose customers if we continued without it.
Convincing the product management team to shift plans and prioritize such a “boring” feature was not an easy task. While we were an Agile operation and committed to iterating on features, we had months of estimated stories for other features the business had deemed more important. Ultimately, it was a screenshot of that tearing woman that convinced our business partners to prioritize the feature and changed the priorities that had been set for several months.
Although that was nearly a decade ago, that project has stayed with me as an example of the power of observation and the necessity of companies to understand their users’ context rather than making decisions on assumptions.
It’s easy to take certain things for granted – everyone scrolls, everyone loves the elements we’re proudest of, everyone will love new features. There’s a reason the Golden Rule of UX exists: we’re not our users, and we have to constantly put ourselves in their shoes. It’s better to shed a single tear in pursuit of the right product then launch a flawed product and suffer the consequences.
Amanda Stockwell is Vice President of User Experience at 352 Inc., where she leads the team that provides user research, usability testing, and UX strategy services to a variety of clients. She has been doing user experience research and design since 2008, and has worked with Fortune 100s, startups, and nearly everywhere in between – providing everything from interaction design to market research.
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