A conversation with Merci Grace, former Director of Product focused on Growth at Slack, on how user experience impacts conversions and user growth. This may be a concept that makes logical sense but rarely discussed in actionable terms. We wanted to investigate the finer points with someone who has experience with a specific mandate to grow a user base.
[00:07] Welcome to It’s Worth Doing Right. I’m your host, Olivia Hayes: resident creative pragmatist, and the Head of Product Strategy at Accomplice. The topic of user experience is one that’s been discussed at length; so much so that the whole concept itself may seem pretty nebulous at this point. We generally don’t hear specifics around why user experience is such an important aspect of your brand. So today, we’re going to focus on how user experience impacts conversions and user growth. This may be a concept that makes logical sense, but we wanted to investigate the finer points with someone who has experience with the specific mandate to grow a user base.
[00:34] Hi, I’m Merci Grace. I’m the founder of the Women in Product community, and until recently, I ran growth at Slack
[00:43] Thanks so much for joining us today. We wanted to talk to you specifically about this concept of growth because a lot of times when people have a conversation about it, it’s a very nebulous concept. So to start with, do you think there’s a connection between user experience and growth?
[01:03] I absolutely think there’s a connection between user experience and growth. User experience is the emotional and the very real way that people connect with your product or not. I’ve found that applications that don’t have a good user experience frankly are not going to get product/market fit. And if you don’t have product/market fit, there’s no point in ever rolling up a growth team, because you’ll just be wasting time and money.
[01:32] In your experience, what are some of the biggest mistakes that you’ve seen when organizations are thinking about how their user experience impacts growth?
[01:41] Some of the early mistakes people make are, first of all, not instrumenting any sort of tracking early enough. Things in growth will often start happening to you, rather than be something that you necessarily caused. This is often the case in consumer apps, where it’s surprising that something really took off or not. If you don’t have a clear instrumentation across your interface, then you’re not going to be able to ever figure out what it was that you did that really worked. Like a lot of startups, people are going to be doing several things at a time. You’ll have a marketing campaign, and you’ll have an email campaign, and you made a couple of changes to your website all in the same week that an article came out about you – and if something substantially changed about your user base during that time, you want to be able to hunt it down and figure out what that is.
[02:36] But unless you’ve instrumented some sort of an analytics platform or logging on your app, you’re not going to be able to deduce what happened.
[02:45] We see a lot of times in startups that they feel like they don’t quite have time, when they’re initially starting out, to do any real sort of analytics implementation. So they wind up getting to market without anything. What potential UX issues are most important to be mindful of when creating a growth strategy?
[03:11] One of the things that feels small to people (that is actually huge) is frankly the text that you’re using to speak to your users. Specifically, the text that’s in your CTA (or call-to-action) and other buttons throughout your application.
[03:28] Often times, people, want to really earnestly explain something to potential customers or existing users, and there will be huge blocks of text and unclear or buried calls to action. And if people feel unsure about something, they’re not going to press that button – and they’re not going to go through and actually become a customer. We care so deeply about the products that we make. We spend probably 10 to 12 hours a day working on them, if you’re talking about someone who’s working in an early stage startup. And it’s really easy to get into the mindset that everyone else really cares about what it is that you’re building, but that’s almost never the case. Certainly no customer is ever going to care as much as you do. So people don’t read – and they’re not going to read your copy. They’re going to look at the things like the copy that’s in a big button, and if it makes sense to them, and they feel like they know what’s going to happen when they click that button, then they’ll take that action.
[04:31] That’s an amazing point. How do you get people to get a bit of space from their product to understand that they care more about their product than consumers might?
[04:44] I think the best way to get space and emotional distance from your own product is to implement user testing. I wouldn’t suggest usertesting.com or something where people are more or less “professional testers”, and I also don’t encourage people to go to a coffee shop in the Bay Area and go meet people who are just like them – unless what you’re building is a service for a Y Combinator startup, or something similar – but to source people off of Craigslist in the Midwest, set up a Skype call with them, and say, “hey, here’s our app: what do you think?”, take them through a minor usability test. And the results are often shocking for people who haven’t had that experience before, either more junior designers, or engineers who just haven’t worked that closely with design and product. You really see how people skip over stuff super quickly because they are barely paying attention, and how they don’t immediately understand all of this stuff that you thought was so obvious. I’ve had people at Slack at one point suggested that we just put up videos of people going through our product – the ones that we were using for user research – around where we were sitting. Because it’s incredibly illuminating to watch people frankly not get it, not get something that you really thought that they should. One of the things that can be really helpful for your business and for seeing the growth of your product (and the clear light of day) is to have that emotional distance. That’s really something that’s around emotional maturity and emotional flexibility.
[06:30] Certainly when I was starting out, I had my own company around a game that I had designed – and it was the first game that I’d ever designed. So I was very sensitive about negative feedback that I got from people, and took probably five percent of the feedback and advice that I got from really smart people who absolutely knew a lot more than I did. And I should have taken 105 percent of that feedback. But it’s really easy to deny negative feedback when you really care about something, and when you thought that you did a pretty good job building it. It can be really hard to accept that it doesn’t matter if you think that it’s good. What matters is if other people understand it, and they think it’s good.
[07:13] For a while, there was a conversation – and a very buzzy phrase – happening around growth hacking. How can organizations approach growth strategically, and how does UX factor into that?
[07:29] That’s a good question around the strategy of growth versus something like growth hacking, because I think it has fallen out of favor as people realize that things that are “hacky” may do things like drive people from your ad that has a woman in a red dress that’s very low cut to your Facebook game. But once you are a little bit more mature as an organization and start to do things that are more strategic, like making sure that you have a lifetime value that actually makes sense for how much you’re spending, and that you’re targeting the right type of person.
[08:10] Then, I think you start to see that things that are truly “hacky” and not in line with any sort of a well thought out plan can actually either waste time, or hurt you or from which you’ll be learning the wrong thing.
[08:24] While the concept of “growth hacking” gained a lot of popularity a few years ago, for a growth oriented product, you have to be strategic – even with your hacking. So why is the strategy for growth product so unique?
[08:34] The user experience of growth product is unique in that it absolutely has to be really clear. You have to have a clear idea, as a person working on growth, what you ultimately want. So to use Slack as an example, we give people credits for the paid product early on, and have very high limits for the use of the free product. And you can continue to use it: many people do run communities and really vibrant Slacks that are totally free. That was a strategic decision because there are a lot of psychological factors like loss aversion. And if what the value of something like slack, which is a longterm repository of things that you can then go back and later search and find, “oh yeah, what was that decision that we made four months ago?” You can go and find that and see, “oh, yeah, is that what I thought?” And “where was that graph?”, and to go refresh yourself on these things – that has an incredible amount of value. You have to know your own product, and you have to know whether or not the outcome that you want is for someone to have that moment for months later – where, because they’ve continued to use it, they understand suddenly, “oh my gosh, this has an enormous amount of value to me, and I will go ahead and pay for it” – or not.
[10:03] Things that are hacky can be valuable for you to do. If you and the user get the mutual benefit of your product within a short period of time, then that can be okay to drive a lot of people through your funnel. But you have to know what kind of growth you want, and if you want something that’s more long term or not.
[10:24] User experience plays a clear role in growth, but user experience can encompass so many different parts of your organization or product – even ones that might surprise you. One that will definitely not surprise you is brand, which plays a clear and strong role in your holistic user experience.
[10:38] I think brand has a lot to do with the emotional perception of your product, as well as the quality of the user experience. So if something is usable and you have an understanding as a person what it’s for, what you might do with it, you’re going to spend longer using the process of elimination to try to figure out a user experience that maybe you don’t understand right off the bat. But it looks like “enough like Photoshop”, for example, that you spend the extra five minutes exploring Sketch or Figma when you wouldn’t have necessarily done that if you were someone who had never used Photoshop before.
[11:19] Using common UI patterns so that people feel comfortable and feel like they’re in something that they are familiar with is really important. User experience is so tied for me with whether something into usable or not. One of the things about usability is that it often can feel like an almost clinical boolean; something is either usable (check) or not usable (no check). I don’t think it’s really like that: I think whether something is useable really means that people are taking in a huge number of queues from the application itself, including the branding, the voice, how performant it is. Something that often goes unsaid is that the performance is probably one of the most important features of a product, and will absolutely hold that growth. If your app is loading slowly, then you’re not going to even get the data about whether people clicked on something or not – which can leave you totally in the dark.
[12:28] In past episodes, we’ve talked about engagement and how it can be a nebulous term that means different things for different companies. When it comes to engagement as a specific metric, are there any industry standards or benchmarks for measuring engagement?
[12:41] I think there are a couple of industry standards we use to quantify engagement. One that has been popular since really the early days of Facebook’s platform is the ratio of your monthly active users, or MAU, to your daily active users. At the time that I was building Facebook games, a hoped-for DAU-MAU ratio would be that 25 percent of your monthly active users are using your app on a daily basis.
[13:13] Other things that people in the industry continually refer to are things like either your 4D7 or 5D7, which means that the percentage of users who are using it four out of every seven days or five out of every seven days – which is a really high bar for engagement. Those are your really loyal, super valuable customers that you that you want to retain, and those are the people who really show you what your product/market fit is like.
[13:40] If we think of converting a customer as a journey from awareness to purchase, your user experience can have an impact on each phase in that journey. It’s important to be aware of how your UX can affect each phase, and also which part of the process might be most impacted – either positively or negatively – by the state of your user experience.
[13:58] I think a phase that’s really impacted Facebook conversion driven by user experience is the perception of whether your product has value. It’s something that is an intangible but really important thing. So your brand, if you’re a workout, for instance, should feel professional; at least, professional enough that whoever is your target demographic will feel comfortable spending money on it. It should be responsive, it should be polished. Your air should be good. Something that isn’t really a part of the user experience in the way that we often mean it, but is incredibly important for conversion, is the quality of your customer service organization. How they speak to people, whether they are respectful and kind, whether they are responsive, and how long it takes to get a call back from them. If you’re evaluating an enterprise product, for instance, and the site looks good and professional, and it seems like something that you want to take on, there’s social risk – which is a real factor of asking your boss for the company credit card to pay money for this work tool.
[15:18] You’re really putting your work reputation on the line by asking the organization that you work for, for money. And if you can’t get some basic privacy or compliance questions answered because no one is responding to your request, you’re probably not going to pay money for that application. And so really, all of those things come together. It’s funny because on the Internet, it’s not like someone walks into the brick and mortar store and can control the music, and whether someone comes up to them, and hopefully how long the line is and all of those other factors. On the Internet, it’s coming from all sides. And you really have to have a lot of your systems firing simultaneously in order to uphold the perception of a quality place of business that people should spend their hard earned money on.
[16:16] That’s interesting, because customer service in “real life” is something that companies focus a lot on. But to your point, customer service being overlooked for a digital product is an interesting oversight.
[16:28] Yeah. I think it’s something that will be changing as there’s more and more competition. If you could go to one coffee shop or the other and they’re both equal walking distance from your apartment or place of work, but in one place they’re really kind and responsive, and then the other place less so, then it’s no question which coffee shop you’re going to go back to. I think that it will start to be the same because now we’re building out, as an industry, a lot of things that are competitive with each other. Consumers have a lot more choice, and a lot more of these products are ordered on a self-serve basis as well. So it’s middle managers and sometimes individual contributors who are just expensing their personal credit card because they really love Trello, or Asana, or Slack, and they want to pay for it. One of the competitive advantages that Slack has always had is the very high quality of its customer service organization. And I do think that was intentional.
[17:32] So on Twitter recently, I’ve been getting these ads that say “Good product? Bad UX?”, and they made me laugh. Is there ever a case in which you feel like the UX of your product isn’t a priority?
[17:52] I don’t think so. I also saw those same ads that you’re referring to, and thought it to be very, very hilarious as well. I consider the UX to be the totality of the user experience. The interactions and the interplay between tone and brand and marketing, and really how usable or responsive your product is. I just don’t think that you can have a “good product” that doesn’t have a high quality user experience.
[18:21] When I think of things on the Internet that are kind of just a utility – I think of Wikipedia for instance, as being sort of an internet utility – I would say that the user experience probably isn’t their biggest priority, but it’s also not unusable.
[18:36] You know, there’s polish – which often times, people think of as a big header image, and parallax scrolling, and things that can sometimes actually be negatively affecting the actual performance of your website, especially on mobile. Or things that don’t actually add anything to the user experience. But I don’t think that Wikipedia – Craigslist is another great example – are products that have poor user experience at all, because they are what they are. And craigslist brand is being, you know, like everyone’s first webpage that they ever made when the Internet was just html. It’s almost endearingly stripped down, but incredibly usable. That’s really what matters.
[19:27] Most companies understand the value of a good user experience, but when trying to craft a strategy, especially for growth oriented products, your user experience has to be broken down into parts and pieces that you can quantify and measure. You need to understand what impact those parts have on your consumers in order to understand how they can affect growth. And user experience needs to mean something more to your organization than just getting a nice feeling when you look at your website. Organizations can reframe user experience strategically to leverage more meaningful growth – not flashy growth or “hacky” growth, but a true maturity of sustainable growth and happy customers.
[20:03] Thanks for joining us on today’s episode. If you’d like to learn more about our family of agencies or give us feedback, visit us at itsworthdoingright.com, or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And remember: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.