As they say, being a change agent is not always easy. Poorly managed change is typically a recipe for disaster, even if it’s welcomed and wanted change. So when I was hired as AWeber’s first dedicated UX specialist in November of 2012, I wanted to introduce UX into the process as smoothly as possible.
The culture and people at AWeber are wonderful. Many of them knew I was coming on board and welcomed my expertise, but others had very little knowledge of UX and were unaware of the breadth of UX (for example, some people assumed I would just be usability testing). Because I was bringing many new principles to the table, I came on board with an open and collaborative approach.
The last thing I wanted to do was disappear into my own little silo, do some UX design and research, and throw the results at my colleagues. It would hit them like a ton of bricks and they’d be suspicious of the process as well as the results. I’ve learned throughout my career from experience (as well as from reading lots of blogs and books) that people often resist change if they’re not involved in that change. By inviting my colleagues into my process, I was able not only to educate them about the value of UX, but to instill the core value of empathy, demonstrating that an understanding of audience needs is invaluable for effective and productive design.
What is AWeber?
AWeber is a successful and profitable email service provider located in the Philadelphia area. To provide further context, MailChimp and Constant Contact are two of our prominent competitors. Our target audience, whom we refer to as our customer, creates an account with us and logs into a Web application to send and manage email campaigns. It’s also a pretty rad place to work. Here’s a video of us doing the Harlem Shake.
The AWeber Team
The AWeber team consists of hybrid designers/front end developers, a wealth of engineers (DBA’s and backend developers), an Education Team that handles marketing, business development, and website content, and Customer Solutions (CS), which provides phone, email, and chat support for our customers. It was important to me that folks from all these areas be involved in the UX process.
Where and How Would I Get Started?
Every new hire at AWeber is required to go through two weeks of Customer Solutions (CS) training. We’re a very customer-centric culture, which is awesome, and this training helps you not only learn the internal and customer facing tools, but it provides a window into the customer’s needs and pain points. I was fascinated by everything I learned in the training, and I asked countless questions, such as “why is this functionality presented this way?”
After my training, I was teeming with ideas for how to get started. But how would I do it? Where would I start? I was only one person, and I could only do so much at once.
Asking the CS Team
Tapping into the CS team for insight seemed like a no brainer to me. I decided to send them a survey (via SurveyGizmo) asking for the top five usability issues they heard from our customers. I knew this wouldn’t help me identify every usability issue on the site, but since the CS team talks to customers all day long, I knew it would be very beneficial. As an aside, I would have loved to interview each team member, or at least a handful of team members, but in the interest of time, I decided to use a survey.
Not surprisingly, the results of the survey were informative. Many team members reported similar or identical usability issues throughout the site, which told me what issues were likely more severe than others. Several of the CS team members thanked me for seeking their input proactively when I was first hired. They appreciated having another team member that they could voice concerns to.
Fixing Low Hanging Fruit
I took the survey results and organized them into a spreadsheet. I then worked with the creative director, a few designers, and a developer to triage the issues. We collaboratively marked the severity, feasibility, and development time needed to address each issue. Throughout this process we realized that some severe issues were relatively easy to address. We are currently working on an updated prototype that addresses some of these issues, and I look forward to usability testing and refining the changes before releasing to production.
Who is Our Customer? Enter User Research
I asked many colleagues this very question: Who is our customer? And for the most part, everyone seemed to agree that we were targeting small business owners. However, I then asked questions like: What type of business owner? How does AWeber fit into their business? That’s when I noticed that not everyone was in agreement about who our customer was and what that customer needed. Naturally, a user research study was in order, and the simple goal was to gain a solid understanding of our customers’ needs.
Customer Solutions (CS) Perspective
You might be thinking, why not ask the CS team about the audience? The answer is, I did ask them, but I suspected their perspective was not representative of core customer needs. Our CS team talks to customers all day, so they’re a great asset of mine. I ask them all the time about what’s working well as well as customer pain points. However, because they’re our customer service team, they’re almost always dealing with customers who have an issue. It could be a usability issue or something entirely unrelated, such as a billing problem. They are only dealing with customers who take the time to contact us for help. So I felt that their perspective of our customers was valid, but not necessarily representative of our broader audience.
Inviting Colleagues into the User Research Process
I made it a point to invite anyone and everyone into my user research process. I asked for feedback on the study plan and script before beginning any tests. I publicized the study and briefed interested folks on why we conduct user research and how it works. Every morning at our daily stand up meeting, I announced what time we would be conducting sessions and reminded everyone they were welcome to sit in. I invited specific individuals that I knew were busy, but would benefit from observing. By the time the study was completed, about two dozen people from various departments observed the interviews. Many of them were fascinated by the process and learned a few things about our customers’ needs that they didn’t know prior to the study.
User Research Findings
We conducted user interviews with 23 participants located around the world. What we discovered in those interviews surprised me and many of my colleagues, even colleagues who had been with AWeber for years.
Praise for Our Customer Solutions (CS) Team
Almost all participants who called our CS team had positive things to say. Some notable quotes include:
- “I feel like I’m dealing with a small business that cares about my business when I call in.”
- “Customer support is always very nice.” (Her emphasis, not mine.)
- “They know the product inside out and upside down… they will walk you through anything… they sound like they’re always smiling.”
Needless to say, this was great to hear. We shared these findings with the CS team and they were very happy to hear how that their work was making such a huge impact on our customers. We also realized throughout the interviews that our CS team is a selling point among those who refer our service by word of mouth. We even talked to a few small business coaches/online marketing consultants who tell their clients to use AWeber, in part because our CS team is always helpful.
Word of Mouth Referral
Speaking of word of mouth referrals, of the 23 participants we interviewed, only one discovered AWeber through a Google search on email marketing. This means 22 out of 23 participants were referred to us by word of mouth. This finding surprised many of us at AWeber (myself included) and even surprised a few folks on our marketing team. AWeber has known for years that many customers come to us via word of mouth, but the significance of this finding (22 out of 23) was very compelling.
We discovered in our research that AWeber is well known among many email marketers. There are online marketing specialists who write blog posts about why their readers should use AWeber. There are also small business coaches that recommend AWeber to their clients over our competitors.
This was an exciting discovery. Some businesses would kill for this level of word of mouth referral. So we’re now asking ourselves, how can we tap into our evangelizers? What can we learn from them about how they sell our product to their audiences? Perhaps we should take a page from their book and sell ourselves in the same way.
UX Impact Thus Far
So far, the introduction of a formalized UX practice at AWeber has been a success. Because I’ve involved so many of my colleagues, they feel that they’ve been a part of the process. They ask me all the time if we can conduct user research or testing on various projects they’re working on. They come to me for advice. They refer to the research findings I shared with them when it comes to making design and engineering decisions. And most importantly, they’re empathizing more and more with our customer base.
I asked my colleagues what they learned, if anything, from observing user research. One person, an engineer, had this to say:
“The lady I observed is a really smart and savvy business owner who’s very good at what she does. I used to think that a user should have to take the time to learn an interface. But now I see it differently. When a user doesn’t know how to do something, it is not incompetence; it’s just not clear. The tool should get out of the way and provide value as easily as possible.”
I couldn’t have been happier to hear that.