Go behind the scenes of ActiveCampaign’s usability process when Director of Education, Chris Davis, interviews Product Designer, Austin Smith. In this episode, Chris and Austin discuss how ActiveCampaign works to address the root need of users, the design process, and preview upcoming features.
Chris Davis: Welcome to another episode of the ActiveCampaign podcast. [00:00:30] I am your host, the director of education here at ActiveCampaign. My name is Chris Davis. The title of today’s episode is Enhancing the User Experience. This is going to be a special treat because we’re going to be going over what we’re doing internally so that you can leverage and use for your business, your web assets, [00:01:00] whatever it is that you have customer-facing, and really enhance that experience.
It’s one of the things that have been our strong suit as an application and a company. I figured it would be nothing but suitable to have the top UI designer in ActiveCampaign. I don’t even think I can say it like that and say your name regularly, Austin. I think I have to put Big [00:01:30] in front of it. Austin Smith. What’s going on, Austin?
Austin Smith: Hey, Chris. Thanks for having me. This is really, really cool.
Chris Davis: Yes, yes. It’s going to be my pleasure because I get to pick your brain, man. All the listeners … I’m spoiled because at any point in time I can turn my chair in a 180 degree fashion and look over the desk of the marketing team [00:02:00] and see exactly what Austin is doing. I get to see all of the planning that goes into our user interface, everything. What I wanted to do was give you all the insight of that today. Austin, what is your official title here?
Austin Smith: My official title at the company is product designer.
Chris Davis: Product designer. Okay. How long have you been here?
Austin Smith: I came on in early July so it’s been about eight months. The company has doubled since I’ve been here which is crazy. Every [00:02:30] week you turn around and there’s a new person behind you.
Chris Davis: Yeah, we’re growing at a very rapid rate. It’s good, though. It’s good. It’s really good. New faces, new talent, and we’re able to move faster. What is the average day like for you here?
Austin Smith: The average day with our product and the way we work, as a product designer we handle all new features as well as revamped old features. When something [00:03:00] needs a touch up, we go in, we examine the process. Like does this work? How should it work? Is it working the way people expect it to? Then we take that and we build a user flow around … Do people, should they go from this step to this step? Can we automate one of these steps for them? Little things like that. It goes as far as that very vague, very soft design to [00:03:30] actual high fidelity, this is what the app looks like, design. Colors, buttons, components, every little thing that we work on.
Chris Davis: Yeah, wow. That’s a lot. By now, if you can’t tell where my excitement came from, you should know. This is huge, man. Essentially, everything that you just named, that experience, that thinking of their path before they go [00:04:00] down the path and how easy that is, can essentially set you apart from being the tool of choice and them going with your competitors, which we’ve seen of course. How long have you been doing it here, Austin?
Austin Smith: At the company?
Chris Davis: Yup.
Austin Smith: Well, I came on as a product designer so it’s been from day one. I think honestly my third day I was working on stuff.
Chris Davis: Nice.
Austin Smith: It was pretty quick. It’s been great, though.
Chris Davis: A little over a year?
Austin Smith: Since July.
Chris Davis: Since July? Oh, okay.
Austin Smith: Yeah, yeah.
Chris Davis: [00:04:30] All right.
Austin Smith: Not a crazy amount of time, especially with a growth stage company like this, it’s a seasonable amount of time.
Chris Davis: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Where were you before this?
Austin Smith: I was in an agency in Chicago. That was more of an agency type thing. That’s what you tend to think of when you hear of graphic designers or design teams, right? They’re at agencies, they get farmed out to different companies, that you’ll work on, invoice them, all that sort of stuff. It was interesting. I got to work on a lot of cool [00:05:00] things really quickly.
What I don’t like about agency structure is that you never got to go deep enough. You come in, usually you help set up this company’s process or you help set up this company’s brand, but then you leave and then it’s up to them to take care of it. What I like being about on a product, on this team, is that it’s our thing. You take the work we do and you just keep going further and further and further and [00:05:30] further until it’s something you’re really, really proud of.
Chris Davis: Yeah, honestly, that’s when mastery is achieved, right? When you’re not shifting focus from one thing to the next. You have one area of expertise, one set that you can just really go deep in, and answer thousands of questions. If you haven’t answered thousands of questions about what you’re doing, you’re not close to achieving mastery and there’s work to do.
All [00:06:00] right, let’s get right into it. Austin, I really wanted to approach this topic delicately because I’ve seen this not just with our tool. I’ve seen it across the board. I’ve worked at and with multiple startups and the whole user experience is often complicated because there’s two components to it that we’ve very rarely, [00:06:30] accurately, take apart and define independently. Those two are UI and UX.
I see it all the time online between marketers or whoever. Design people cringe because somebody will say UI but they’re really talking about UX or they’ll say UX but they’re really talking about UI and you’re like, “They’re different. Stop doing that.” In your estimation, in your experience, what is the difference [00:07:00] between UI and UX?
Austin Smith: Sure. We’ll start with just definitions. UI, user interface, sometimes you can see user interaction in there as well. That’s more of these small detailed things. UX is user experience. We’ll start there. UX kind of encompasses the entire process that your user or your customer or your [00:07:30] client will go through. It doesn’t just need to be for a software application.
It can be for anything. You can be a yoga instructor and you can design their user experience, their customer experience, and that starts the second they find you online, that starts when they walk in your door. Do you have a receptionist that’s going to say like, “Hey, how are you?” Or do you just have a waiting sign? That’s part of the user experience. It’s how you structure and design the way [00:08:00] people interact with you as a company.
Chris Davis: Interesting. Wow. I can admit, even though I knew a difference, I didn’t think of it on that scale. Like the user interface is what they see and can engage with but the experience is beyond just that. It’s what they hear, it’s what they feel about your company. Wow. You have to have it all, man. You have to have it all.
Austin Smith: If it can be designed, it should [00:08:30] be designed. If you can control a certain aspect of their experience you’ve got to because it’s just an opening for you.
Chris Davis: It reminds me of Disney.
Austin Smith: Exactly.
Chris Davis: Everybody talks about the Disney experience. When you go to Disney there is no no. They find creative ways to tell you it’s not possible without essentially saying that but it all ties into the experience and everything is themed for the characters [00:09:00] and everything that you’ve grown up, depending on when you grew up, grew up knowing. That entire experience and then the UI would probably be like the ease of scanning the machine to get in, like things that you actually interact with, the vending machines.
Austin Smith: Disney is a great example of offline UX. There’s so many things. If you fly with an affiliate Disney program you get off the plane and you just go to your hotel and your bags [00:09:30] show up at your house. That’s crazy. That’s nuts. Imagine every other airline’s UX. You go, you wait, you find your bags, yo get a taxi, you got to go somewhere else. There it just works. That’s part of that user experience. It’s been so well designed.
Chris Davis: That’s why I’m glad … With a lot of these topics it’s good to decouple the technology aspect of it. I believe that’s what you’ve [00:10:00] effectively done. We’ve taken the technology out because often you may understand something but the second technology comes into it you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know how to do it now because technology is here.”
It’s all throughout just the marketing technology space. If you can get back to the basics, and then understand the role that technology plays, so like the user experience is not because we have computers. Computers [00:10:30] did not create that. Now that may be why we’re talking about it, right? Because of that experience. It’s not limited to the computer. It’s everywhere. Yeah, Disney is a good one.
Talk us through the process of what … What I would like to provide our listeners is like an inside seat, behind the curtains of, what the process is like designing [00:11:00] our app, creating that UI, and with the experience in mind.
Austin Smith: Sure, yeah. We start with the product side. There’s different stages. In theory, it goes from Jason, it goes from Jason into product, and they do some product analysis type things. Very business heavy work. That moves onto us. We do the UX, the UI, the things you’re interacting with. Then it’ll move onto development and then it’ll go to the web and everyone gets to play with [00:11:30] it.
From the product to UX transition, that first one, you have Tim Jahn, who you interviewed, and John Morrison, who I’m sure you will interview.
Chris Davis: Shortly.
Austin Smith: They’ll basically come to me and they’ll say, “Here’s what we need to do. We need to build a new feature. We need to build better analytics. What do we do?” This is what happened with goals reporting. They say, “We need better goals reporting.” I [00:12:00] think we actually just introduced it for the first time so we need goals reporting at all.
Then we say, “Okay, we’ll sit down.” They come in usually with a list of features. “It needs to be able to do these six things.” They don’t go too deep into how it works or what it’s going to do. We just start at a very base level. It’s got to do this. You have to filter by a list, you have to build a custom segment. Stuff like that.
Then where we take it into is we [00:12:30] start white boarding. Put it on paper, put it on a dry erase board, and we say, “Well, it should probably look like this.” We know it’s going to be reflected across other parts of the analytics. Let’s build a nice structure that we won’t just use the once but we’re going to use it across other parts of the app. You want consistency, you want people to know where they’re coming from and where they’re going. We want to make a nice structure they can do.
Then from there we’ll just design it. It’s very feature-heavy. It’s very [00:13:00] iterative. We’ll have this, “Oh, that doesn’t work. Scrap it. Oh, this does work, use that. Take this over here. Bump it around.” What if we could automate this process for someone? That’s a big one for me is if we know you’re trying to do something, how can we help you? How can we help a little earlier in the process?
We’re releasing the ability to merge contacts now. What you’ll do when you merge contact is you go to the contact, you know their duplicate, you click on merge, and the first [00:13:30] thing you see is, in theory, you’d be presented with a list of contacts and you would find the person you want to merge into and you would merge them. If they merge, we can assume it’s a duplicate, or they already exist in the platform. What we did was we took the name of that contact and we basically pre-searched it for you. When you click merge contact you’re presented with a list of the contacts you’re probably going to merge into. You don’t have to go look for one. We [00:14:00] can intelligently say, “These are the contacts you probably want to look for.”
Chris Davis: Wow.
Austin Smith: Little things like that. Simple.
Chris Davis: Yeah, that is great. It’s like, “If we can think, we should think.”
Austin Smith: Exactly.
Chris Davis: If we can leverage the AI … Uh oh, there’s another one. If we can leverage some intelligence, let’s leverage that. Wow. That’s everything. That’s everything when you think about it because that could be the difference of literally [00:14:30] five seconds and 30 minutes. If we create a feature where we can accurately predict what they’re going to do so we can aid them in that, that could be the difference between them achieving something, or calling us. Or putting in a support ticket.
Austin Smith: Totally.
Chris Davis: That’s huge.
Austin Smith: Finding the right contact might not be a big one but what you want is for them to click merge, click that contact, keep going, and [00:15:00] then maybe later be like, “Wait, how did they know that was the one I wanted to use?” That’s what you want. You want them to naturally go through this process without even realizing that we’ve helped suggest a couple things for you and make things easier for you.
Chris Davis: Yeah, what’s the old adage? You can bring the camel …
Austin Smith: You can lead a horse to water.
Chris Davis: You can’t make them drink it. It’s like them drinking without even realizing it. Like, “Hey, wait a minute. I just drunk. [00:15:30] I just drunk water.” All right.
In that, I feel like you already touched on it a little bit, but what are some key factors, you personally, take as, “All right, this is working. We nailed it on this one.” What are some indicators that you see from your position in the company of, “All right, good job. This is exactly … They’re using it how we anticipated or they’re experiencing it …”
Austin Smith: Yeah, just the lack of support [00:16:00] tickets around that feature is usually a pretty good one. If people aren’t having active problems with it it’s usually a pretty good indicator. Usually you can embed analytics, making sure people aren’t getting hung up at a certain point. Things like that. Just track their experience for the most part.
Also, a lot of that comes before it’s even released. We do a lot of internal testing. We say does this make sense? We’ll put out a feature and we’ll just beat it up. We’ll make sure we’ve covered every possible state it can be in.
[00:16:30] There’s so many states that a user interface can exist in. You’ve got an empty state where let’s say there’s a table. It’s full of beta. That’s not always full of nice data. You have that full state which is complete. Then you go one way and you’ve got partial data. Well, what does it look like if there’s only five things here? We have to make sure that looks okay. What if there’s a thousand things? How do you handle, what we call, the flood state? That’s just flooded with data. How do you handle [00:17:00] that?
Then you go the opposite, you have empty states. Well, there’s three kinds of empty states you could handle. You can handle first experience, which is it’s my first time on this app. I’ve gotten to this page. It is empty. What do I do? Then you’ve got empty state which is an error. You searched for something and it didn’t come up. How do we politely say that’s not a thing? You can’t search for that. Then there’s a third which is user cleared. Think about your email where everyone is trying to go to inbox zero, right? Wouldn’t [00:17:30] it be nice when you get to inbox zero it says, “Congrats. You did it.” That’s called the user cleared empty state. That’s just one little part of how you design a whole interface. You have to cover all these possibilities.
Chris Davis: Oh my God. Austin, I just had a revelation, man. The logical approach that you all take in creating the product experience, I’ll just say it like that, [00:18:00] it’s very likened to, or akin to, to the process that we go through as marketers, business owners, in building out automations.
Austin Smith: Oh, yeah.
Chris Davis: There’s so many states. Did they open and not click? Did they open and click and not buy? The better you are addressing all of those states automatically in an automated fashion, the better your marketing is going to be and [00:18:30] now that I’m listening to you it’s like the better we address all of those states in terms of making it easy to use and understand what’s happening, the better the application will be.
Austin Smith: Yeah, completely.
Chris Davis: Oh, man.
Austin Smith: There’s a lot you can do with the app. What’s interesting about the way we handle feedback and analytic type things … We’re writing an article about this. I’ve been talking about it a lot. [00:19:00] It’s this interesting comparison of the amount of data you’re receiving, we have great feedback, people leave us good feedback all the time, good things and bad things, but it helps us narrow down what we need, but what’s key in examining that data is the ability to actually see the root problem.
I’ll use a software example because I live in the software world and that’s very much what I do but you can help me extrapolate that into a broader case. There’s a principle called the Five [00:19:30] Why’s. The idea is that you have to ask the question, “Why?” five times to find the root of the problem.
Let’s take software. Let’s say you have a gardening app and in this gardening app you can create tasks. Maybe you just planned this app to help people plant, pick, and prune. They’ve been using your tasks feature and you start getting feedback and it says, “It’s too hard to create a recurring task.” You say, “Okay, well, [00:20:00] why?” They go, “I can’t find the thing.” Okay, so why do you want recurring tasks? They go, “Oh, well, I want to water my plants.” You go, okay, and you go, “Why?” A couple ways.
What you end up with is that they want a way to water their plants. Now if you were to work at this, think about UX, UI is the stack. You have the UX at the bottom, you work your way up to UI, to what people actually see. If you were to work from the top down, what you would do is you would create [00:20:30] a new interface to add a recurring task. They would make a new recurring task.
If you work from the bottom, you have a problem that you need to solve for. That problem is that they need to water their plants. Maybe instead of just making a user heavy recurring task system, maybe you build predictive intelligence to tell them your plants need to be watered. All you’d have to do is monitor the soil and the temperature [00:21:00] and you could just predict this plant needs water. That changes the user experience from being heavy burdened on them, which they have to go set up these tasks, to maybe now we just tell them. We say, “Hey, water your plant. Your plant needs watering tomorrow. Go do that.”
Chris Davis: Wow. Oh my goodness. Austin, when you’re saying that I’m just listening. I’m playing the role of a listener as well. What came to mind was how many companies … We’re in a [00:21:30] time where it’s all about the startup, ramp up, get acquired, sell, do it all over again. A lot of companies that create software don’t truly understand the development process and it shows in their application. They don’t really have a true appreciation for it. They don’t take the time to really understand how they should be building this application.
You see a contrast with our company and with someone like yourself [00:22:00] asking those why’s? I can only think of the amount of companies that start their business based on their user feedback and their user feedback guides their business. Like, “Hey, what do you guys want?” They’re like, “We want this, we want that” and it’s that top down approach. You’re just building off the requests of your users and at some point, I think the main indicator is going to be you’re going to hit technical debt or you’re going to come into a point where it’s just like, [00:22:30] “We’ve tagged on all of these features and I can no longer do anything else.” Like, what we really need to do.
Austin Smith: Yeah, it’s product clutter. It’s product clutter.
Chris Davis: It’s just clutter. Whereas, if you start from the bottom you can hear them out and hopefully this gives our users, as well as all software companies, a little bit more of understanding of why you don’t always see, as easy as it may appear to you, just add a button. Why can’t you just make this not this header sticking?
Austin Smith: [00:23:00] Right.
Chris Davis: There’s more to it because you may just see that but we’re asking why? Why? Why? We’re trying to solve the root problem. The root problem, like you said, may not be a recurring task. It may be us telling you, “Hey, it’s time to water it.” It may not be a sticky header that you want somewhere. It may be a pain, like adding a sidebar. You’re like, “Oh, I guess I did just need that.”
Austin Smith: Exactly. Right. The Henry Ford quote [00:23:30] kind of around this which is, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Chris Davis: Right, right.
Austin Smith: He knew. He was like, “That’s not what you need. You need a car.”
Chris Davis: Man, that’s why you need experts. We talked about mastery earlier. You really need a company, especially a sass startup. You need masters of their crafts because if you’re not passionate about this stuff you’re not going to [00:24:00] do that. If you’re just seeking the dollar or seeking to tell people how many users you have, you’re not going to go through that experience to really find the root issue.
Wow, that was good. Austin, that was really good, man. All right. We’re approaching our 20 minute mark. We got to close out here. Austin, what can you share with us that is on the horizons of some updates of ways that we’re going to make it easier to use our application and to enhance that?
Austin Smith: [00:24:30] Well, can I share not nearly enough. We’ve got a lot of cool things in the pipeline but what I kind of want to speak to there is I would like to see this product move is … More of our experience. Not product. More of the way we design this is more of a global integrated type of experience.
I think that with the growth of experience and the speed at which we are reducing new things there [00:25:00] is potential for a fractured experience where you don’t quite know where you came from or where you’re going. There’s no rope guiding you along the entire process of whatever you’re trying to do. What’s hard is we don’t know what you’re trying to do. We can do that for a campaign builder. We know the steps that you need to take. We don’t exactly know when you sign on Tuesday morning what are you trying to do that day? It’s very hard to figure that out. I like to move in more of a guided global process where I think if things feel a little [00:25:30] more at your fingertips wherever you are. If that makes sense.
Chris Davis: Yeah, a guided process. I think that’s perfectly put, man. When you have an application as robust and flexible as ours, literally the world is your oyster. It’s like, “Hey, whatever you want to do.” We want you to feel empowered but at that same time, you can easily feel overwhelmed if you don’t have that guiding hand to walk you through it.
Austin Smith: Exactly.
Chris Davis: All right. Great. Austin, man, this [00:26:00] has been very, very, very entertaining, educational, important, man. Really important. Any parting words you would like to leave our listeners with?
Austin Smith: Oof. Well, I think we touched on a good thing earlier. If it can be designed, you should design it.
Chris Davis: If it can be designed, you should design it. All right. I like that. I’ll leave some parting words piggybacking off your words. When you mentioned [00:26:30] the top down approach, we don’t need to start at the top. We need to start from the bottom. That’s what we did. We started from the bottom. Now we’re here. Just start from the bottom, everybody. Austin, again, thank you so much.
Austin Smith: Thank you, Chris.
Chris Davis: Wow. We’re definitely going to have you back on. I would encourage everybody to leave us some feedback, whether it’s in the comments of this podcast or the support. Any recommendations or anything that you [00:27:00] are finding hard to do. We are a company that values your input. Ideas dot ActiveCampaign dot com is your voice. It does not go into a black hole and we give you some automated answer saying, “Hey, we received your feedback.”
We have literally received your feedback and are looking at it and looking into it. That’s how you help us identify the problems so that we [00:27:30] can start from the bottom, solve them from the bottom, and provide you with an enhanced experience. All right, Austin. We’re going to sign off here, man. Thanks again.
Austin Smith: Yeah, thank you.
Chris Davis: Wow. What a great episode. Everything that we talked about as far as the user experience is so important for your business. I hope that this episode has caused you or has sparked a deeper passion or appreciation [00:28:00] for the user experience beyond just clicking buttons on your website or clicking links in email.
At ActiveCampaign, we internally want to provide you with the best experience and hopefully with our example you will take what we’ve done and implement it in your business and your website and your membership site, your web assets, anything that is customer facing, your customer service, and focus on enhancing not only the UI but the user experience.
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