Are you prioritizing quick sign-ups with new users, or are you thinking about building long-term relationships? In this episode, Michael Shane, Postlight’s Head of Digital Strategy, joins Chris LoSacco to talk about the mistakes people often make when attracting new users. Michael and Chris give tips on building a seamless, welcoming first-time user experience and bring us back to the ultimate question you should be asking: What is the best way to get to the core value of your product?
Chris LoSacco I don’t know if that was better or worse.
Michael Shane You want to do one more?
[Intro music fades in, plays 10 seconds, ramps up.]
CL Hello and welcome to the Postlight podcast. I am Chris LoSacco, the president of Postlight, and we are a digital strategy, design, engineering firm that builds great software experiences. We do it for enterprises large and small. We do it for direct-to-consumer offerings. We do it for big in-house software platforms, and we love talking about how to make great software. And joining me today on the show is Michael Shane, head of digital strategy at Postlight. Hello, Michael, how are you?
MS Hey, Chris, I’m pretty good. It’s great to be back.
CL I asked you to come on the show today because I want to talk about this statement: quality is defined not just by the users you have, but by the users you don’t have yet.
MS Oh yeah. That’s pretty good.
CL It’s a big one.
MS It’s true. That is quite the ball of wax there. Yeah, absolutely.
CL It’s so funny to me because I see—we’re a consulting company. So we have the benefit of seeing inside of a lot of different kinds of organizations and getting the chance to kind of take a pulse about what people are seeing and recognizing in the software space. And what we’ve noticed is that more and more companies realize the importance of design. We get asked about design and design systems a lot more now than we did even just a couple of years ago. But what’s interesting is there’s still a gap and there’s a gap when it comes to investing in how you attract and bring on new customers. And I’m not sure exactly why that gap exists. Companies very often are like I have my platform and I get it, and I know that I need to improve, but they’re not thinking about that beginning part, right? That sort of weird valley between what is considered marketing—I’m doing scare quotes—marketing, and product, and never the two shall meet. Except the reality is that when you’re a user that is a seamless, or should be a seamless, jump from I’m browsing the website to using the platform or using the app or whatever.
MS Well, and there’s also, so you mentioned two sort of constituencies there, there’s marketing and there’s product. And then there’s a third that you mentioned, which is the actual users, but there’s really kind of a fourth. And that’s the challenge of all the rest of the business that finds its way into a piece of software. Legal, compliance, marketing is obviously part of that. Right? And so I want to lead us off with sort of an old adage that I think, I hope, would maybe set the tone for this conversation, which is that most companies, when they ship a piece of software, what ends up in users’ hands, what they ship is their org chart. And the same is true of design systems. I’m actually going to paraphrase a quote from someone named Melvin Conway. And he said that design systems that organizations deliver are often really copies of communication structures of those organizations.
MS So as we’re thinking about how do you bridge the gap from marketing to conversion, first-time user experience and hopefully retention, are we really as creators of software, thinking about the people, the human beings that are going to use this software, or is the thing we put out into the world really a reflection of our ability to navigate bureaucracy inside of our organizations? And I would submit to the jury that those two pursuits, really caring for your customers and navigating the bureaucracy at your organization, rarely do they align in terms of outcomes. And hopefully today during this conversation, I came armed with some substantive, examples and data that I hope will be convincing and I look forward to sharing them. But to me, that’s at the crux of the matter here is who are we doing this for? And what other voices are involved? How should they be involved? And how can we navigate the realities of operating in the modern world and shipping software while making sure that the thing that we create actually places the right people at the center?
CL Beautifully said. I almost want to stop the show right now. [Both laugh.] And I want to pause for a second and say to our listeners, if you look at the top nav, the top navigation on your website and you see your org chart, instead of what’s going to make sense to people who are going to buy your product or sign up to your platform, stop listening right now.
MS You goofed.
CL You goofed. And send this to your chief marketing officer or your chief digital officer, or whoever needs to see it and say, I want you to listen to this podcast and we need to reset. What we need to do now is recenter around the user, recenter around the customer, because that’s the name of the game. Like you gotta start there. And so many organizations get it wrong. I’m sorry to say it. But that’s the reality is that they don’t, they let the internal politics bleed out into the real world. This is not theoretical. It has an actual business impact. It makes it harder for your users to navigate around your offerings and to understand what it is that you’re bringing to the world and how I, as a customer, can get value from it. We’ve talked about content strategy on the show before. And I think a lot of people, understandably, don’t really get what content strategy is. This is a key real world impact of good content strategy is thinking about how you rework what you’re putting out into the world. So that it’s not about your internal org chart. It is about your customers.
MS That’s right because good content strategy forces you to constantly evaluate who am I targeting with this message or this experience. And if the answer is the person in legal who has to approve this user flow for some reason, and not the person that downloaded your piece of software, then you’re going to have a problem. Or if it’s the person who’s defined your KPIs or OKRs or whatever alphabet soup you’re using to pretend like you know what you’re doing, then you’re going to have a problem, right? So it’s not just about bureaucracy. It’s also about: you are what you measure. I’m going to give you my first example. So I’m going to try to share some useful data during our conversation today and up front, I want to say that for today’s conversation, almost all of the examples and data I’m going to share are from Luke W. I think it’s Luke Wroblewski. I hope that’s how you pronounce it. If not, I’m really sorry, Luke. Luke is an old-school internet person. He’s worked at Google for a very long time, and he has done a lot of really great detailed quantitative substantive talks specifically with a focus on mobile. Anyway, they’re out there on the internet. You should go watch them. They’re really fantastic, but let me hit you with some impact in the theme of you are what you measure. So for example, when we’re looking at the world of eCommerce, one of the things that’s very interesting to me and probably is intuitive to most of us is that authentication is one of the biggest reasons that people abandon websites and never return. Hold on to that for a second.
CL Let’s back up. Let’s back up. Can you define what you mean by authentication?
MS What I mean is that if I’m trying to buy something from you and instead of shipping the thing to me, you try to force me to sign up for something or create an account. If you try to force me to identify myself to you and generate some first-party data that’s going to make some PM at your company look good, 54% of the time I’m going to quit. And I’m just going to stop what I was doing. And the journey is over. 92% of people—and this data is a couple of years old, but I think, I’m sure, it’s directionally still very useful. 92% of people give up if they don’t remember a password or a username. Now there are lots of really creative technical solutions to this. Now, the password is slowly marching towards being extinct, but nonetheless, it makes perfect sense why your company would want to capture some first-party data if somebody is about to buy something from you. But if they’ve never bought something from you before, if it’s their first time as a user transacting with you, why are you in such a rush? It’s the first date, right? We know from the data that you’re going to push them away. So this is a perfect example of maybe your success is based on account creation in addition to revenue, whatever it might be. So thinking about what you’re measuring is really important because you can measure short-term transactional progress, or you can measure your long-term relationships with your users or your audiences or your community, whatever the right framework is. But small or medium-sized product decisions like when do we focus on account creation or identification or authentication can have a huge impact on revenue on the bottom line, full stop in the short term, and in the long term, obviously that’ll impact your relationships with people. What you measure is hugely important. And what you measure is also usually a reflection of your org chart
CL A hundred percent. And you can clearly see how someone from the marketing group or the business intelligence group or something like that is demanding to the product team: Hey, we need to make sure that we get accounts on every single purchase when they’re not thinking about what is the overall user journey and how do we make this seamless and frictionless at every step of the way and make sure that it feels really normal and natural to the people who are actually buying stuff from us.
MS I’m going to give you another great example. This is also from Luke. And I’ve thought about this example so many times over the years. Hotel Tonight, many of our listeners may be familiar with this, for those who aren’t, Hotel Tonight is an app that basically makes last-minute sort of expiring hotel inventory available to anybody at any time. And it allows hotels to fill rooms that otherwise would go unfilled. And the people using the app get a deal on the hotel rooms, right? Win-win for everybody, a beautiful glistening arbitrage out there in the universe. When Hotel Tonight in their checkout flow, removed the screen that required people to sign in or create an account before booking the room, they saw a 15% increase in conversions. But just think about that for a second. I mean, that’s not 1%, that’s 15%. That is a massive move for any business. It was also a very user-centric decision. That decision came from, if I, as a user, want to book a hotel room, what do I want? Give me the hotel room. Yeah, that’s it. And you’re going to build a much longer-term relationship with someone as a user by making it easier to accomplish the things they want to accomplish. So that’s just one example.
CL Yeah. I mean, it’s a great example. I would go one step further and say, when you decide you’re going to ask someone to sign up to something. So number one, you need to be really thoughtful about, you know, where that sits in the flow. And then number two, you need to make the process itself as easy and understandable and clear as possible. And I think so many startups today, so many apps today, get this wrong because they ask for too much too soon. And it turns people off.
MS I think the question we should ask ourselves as people making software, anytime there’s a new user experience, is how quickly can we get to core value?
MS (What is the core value of this experience? I want to watch movies. I want to book a hotel room. I want to buy groceries. Whatever the core value is, we should try to make the journey from first installation to core value, as short as possible while limiting the risk for things like confusion or error. There’s like a butter zone, a Goldilocks zone right there that we all have to find. And it’s different for different apps and sectors and industries or whatever, but almost always less is more. Here’s my next example: Vivo, which is a platform that many of our listeners might know about, they had in the past a relatively extended multi-screen swipeable onboarding experience when they just deleted three of those screens and got much closer to starting the app experience, they found that there was a 10% increase in successful logins and a 6% increase in completed signups simply by removing some storytelling that ultimately appeared unnecessary.
CL Isn’t storytelling good though? Isn’t onboarding good? Why did they see that increase?
MS I mean, yes. Onboarding is good, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. But this is why testing is so important. I’m sure that it’s not like they took a swing and hoped for the best. I don’t know for a fact, but I assume that this was tested with a subset of users and then rolled out widely. That’s the most important thing. Anybody who says they know exactly how a change in a piece of software is going to impact the way that users behave is lying. Nobody knows for sure, like directionally, best practices are called best practices for a reason, but what is best is temporary. It’s not permanent forever.
CL This question about onboarding is so interesting to me and the idea that the first-time user experience—gosh, we need to take an aside. We had a client who called the first-time user experience the FTUE.
MS Oh, hell yeah. The FTUE.
MS That’s what I call it, man. Yeah. FTUE is the way to go. I’m on team FTUE.
CL I’m not an acronym fan, but FTUE is just so fun to say.
MS I would love listeners. I want you to email us and tell us, are you team FTUE?
CL Pro FTUE?
MS Pro FTUE or are you something else? And if you’re not pro FTUE—you’re wrong just for the record—we would love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CL We want to hear from everybody, Michael. Yeah. email@example.com the thing with the first-time user experience and what it is for onboarding, it’s fascinating to me because you can have too much of a good thing. You can have an onboarding experience that is meant to be comprehensive and helpful. And we’ve all gone through those 12-step coach marks where it’s like, look up here, here’s your global nav and look to the right. Here’s where you get to your settings. And it’s supposed to be helpful. It sort of on the surface feels like it’s helpful. But in practice, I think it very often doesn’t work. And it’s a shortcut to onboarding that doesn’t actually think about what is this first-time user going through and how do we make sure that we are putting the things in front of them that are going to be truly helpful as opposed to just throwing a user manual in their face and saying, here’s how to use this app.
MS This is the key, right? When I download a piece of software and I go through a FTUE and it’s bad, what that signals to me is that the people who made this software don’t actually understand why I want to use their software.
MS A hundred percent. I love the intention. We should have an onboarding. We should have a first-time user experience. Wow. That’s so generous of you. I really appreciate the support. But if you don’t understand why someone has chosen to download your piece of software, which is a huge achievement to get a single download whatsoever in the world today, if you don’t understand why someone has made that decision, your onboarding is going to suck. So it’s really important to constantly interrogate: why are people using this platform? What is the core value? And you have to be super honest with yourself about what the core value is. And then when you’re working on an onboarding experience or a first-time user experience, you have to ask yourself, okay, what is the best way to get to core value as fast as possible? What’s the right way to do that? There’s lots of different approaches. We’ve all experienced them ourselves, whether it’s a game or a foreign-language learning app, the context matters. But the most important thing is get me to the core value of this thing ASAP.
CL I want to build on what you’re saying. I have two thoughts. The first one is you said before that demonstrating or getting the core value is the thing that is very often blocked by these other priorities coming in. Right? And so one of the ways to demonstrate core value is to have alignment internally so that you can push it earlier in the chain, right? Before you’ve even downloaded the app. Or before you’ve even signed up to the site. How do you introduce the core value of the platform in a way that gets people interested and excited? And it feels like there is a natural transition to then actually using the thing for whatever you want to use it for. A weird example is coming to mind. You know, we designed a developer platform for MailChimp. And one of the things that we did was we created quick-start guides that show how to do common things on the developer platform. Now, this is a very niche use case. This is a programmatic interface that is targeted at a very specific set of users who want to do particular things. But I think it applies because the same point you’re making about core value here, right? It doesn’t just apply to shopping carts. It also applies to a wide variety of softwares and service platforms where there is a thing you want to do. And how do I get you to that thing in the fastest way possible?
MS And you have to be consistent, right? Another way that shipping your org chart gets involved in the mix is that if different parts of the organization are in control of different parts of the experience, and they define core value differently because of like frankly, how they’re compensated or some ridiculous misalignment like that, you’re going to end up with a very disjointed experience across your ecosystem for lack of a better term. So internal alignment around core value is essential and you have to be pretty rigorous about it and intense. You have to also constantly reevaluate it and adjust. But if everybody’s not aligned, if you ship your org chart, you’re going to end up with a really disjointed experience where the marketing is telling one story, the onboarding is telling another story. The core use cases of the app are aligned around a different set of metrics or motivations and users feel that. They may not be able to articulate it like weirdos like us do, but they feel it in their bones when they’re using the piece of software. And they feel like the interests of the various parties involved in this experience are not aligned. Because people are really smart and they’re very intuitive. You know, they’ll know if you’re not all aligned at work.
CL The other point that I would make around why this alignment and why this core value is important is that everything we’re talking about, the idea that you need to reduce friction from casual user to sign-up, the first-time user experience, the whole onboarding flow. This also all applies to the enterprise to high-use platforms that are meant for business-to-business consumption. Even though your buyer is sometimes different and is not always the mapped one-to-one to the user base, this same friction can bubble up and cause problems as you onboard new customers and look to expand within your business, your customer base. I think so often what we see is that product leads who are building and selling business-to-business software think that they don’t have to care about this stuff because it’s just going to get rolled out anyway,
MS Right. Their users, their end users might, are often just forced to use these platforms anyway.
CL Exactly. But what happens is that the end user experience really does matter. And if you’ve got people who don’t care, or who are not invested in what they’re doing, it’s going to bubble back up and you’re going to lose a customer. You’re going to lose a big installation because you’ve got a ground swell of confusion and a lack of clarity as you get people onboarded onto your platform. So it’s something every organization really needs to be thinking about. You know, the example that comes to mind for me is ADP. So ADP is a big payroll provider. We use their software and there are some good things about it. And there’s also a massive amount of friction that is involved in their platform. And let me tell you something, our people operations team is very connected to what our employee experience is on ADP. And it’s going to inform whether or not we continue to use that platform in the future.
MS This is a great example. And I want to go back to an idea that Luke W has in one of his presentations, which is there’s what a thing is, and there’s why it exists. And he uses some really super simple line drawings to illustrate this, right? And like, one of them is a person riding a scooter and what it is points to the scooter and why it exists points to the person. And like their leg is sticking out. And even though it’s like a line drawing, you can tell that the person is really happy and they’re having a great time. So if we go back to ADP what it is, well, it’s a series of tubes that connects payroll and benefits and makes sure that taxes get taken out and that everybody is compliant with the law. That’s what it is. Why does it exist in the context of a business like ours? Why does ADP exist? ADP exists to get people paid and to make sure that they can do the things they need to do to have a stable life and to eliminate worry around things like finances, access to benefit, support, and other things of that nature that they might need. That’s why it exists. So anything about that experience for the end user and the end user is not Postlight the business, the end user is Michael or Chris or Gina or Jack or Jill the employee. The end user is a person, a human being who has these very real concerns. And they’re often emotional concerns, mindsets, jobs to be done. Pick the framework that you feel like makes you look like the smartest. But the point is you have to decide who the end user is. What is the core value? Why does it exist? And yes, ADP is a perfect example because I think if the question why does ADP exist was looked at slightly differently, the end user experience would be quite different in many cases. The series of tubes, the middleware, all the stuff between the end user experience and ADP’s data center that may be totally unchanged. That architecture might be fine as is. But when we think about what a thing is, why it exists, what is core value and who is defining core value, that’s what can really change the experience. And to your point, when it comes time, every couple of years or whatever, to look at these big foundational systems inside of an enterprise business, businesses that are good places to work, the first place they often go is to their employees. And they say, what do you think about this? How’s this going? So what it is and why it exists are two very different things. And understanding that distinction is essential to making good software. So a tip of the hat to Luke W for such a simple way of looking at that, but I think it’s really, really effective and something like a payroll platform, amazing example,
CL Let me build on this for a second and we can keep using ADP because I think there’s an interesting trend that I’ve noticed. And I’m curious to see if you feel the same. When you compare the web, the desktop web experience with the mobile experience, some of these platforms, it is often wildly different. And what I see is that companies and large enterprises are investing more in their mobile platforms and getting them to a level of polish and quality that just does not exist on the desktop web. Even if most of your usage is going to happen. I mean it’s more and more usage is happening on the phone. So I completely get it. But for some of these experiences, you know, 90 to 95% of how your users are using it are going to be in a browser on their laptop.
MS I love this point. This is something that we have seen time and time again, doing a lot of work in the financial services space. I’ve seen it at Postlight, in prior experience in financial services, personal banking, things of that nature, mobile-first. Woo! Right? Okay, great. You’re mobile-first pat on the back. Good for you. But again, what’s core value? What’s the mindset of someone using your platform? If the thing they need to accomplish requires tabular data, trust your user enough to know that they’re going to prefer to open their laptop. Right? And so things like looking at my tax withholdings over the past year at my employer, near the end of the year, Common activity, I’m never going to do that on a phone, right? If I am a financial professional who trades stocks, right? I work in that world, I work in the wall street world, for example, yes, if I’m on the go, I’m going to need access to market data. And I may even need to make decisions. But the way that data is displayed should be totally different on desktop and mobile, because there are some things I’m only going to do on a desktop. Same thing’s true if I’m doing personal banking. As a user, there are personal banking tasks I do on my phone. And there is a subset of things I’m only ever going to do on a larger screen, right? Because the core value of those things requires more screen real estate. And there are companies who I think actually have made really good progress in this. I think Chase comes to mind as a company that has continually iteratively, incrementally worked on their mobile app experience over the years, but they haven’t abandoned the desktop either. This is really important. It’s important to recognize why your users choose the platform they do when you’re a multi-platform provider, for lack of a better term.
CL It’s funny you mentioned Chase because I agree with you that Chase has had incremental improvement over the years. Chase is not a Postlight client, for the record. But I was just trying to administer users in Chase literally this week and it was a disaster, and the whole user admin interface was—
MS Desktop or mobile?
CL Desktop. Was nearly incomprehensible. The whole screen was filled with check boxes. And I mean, I probably should have tried the mobile app, frankly. This is the weird thing.There are some instances—health insurance websites is a pet peeve of mine, almost universally, I feel like when I’m trying to interact with my health insurance provider, it’s not good if I’m doing it on my computer. There are some instances where I will go to my phone because I know that the mobile app is going to be easier and more reliable, even if it’s going to be awkward to do it on my phone. Which is completely backwards. I think that there are several reasons for it. I think designers embrace the constraints of the phone a little easier than they embrace the constraints of designing for desktop and truly having good, responsive web design where the size of the window is dictating what you see. And we’ve had that in the industry now for several years. And yet it still feels like designers struggle with it sometimes, at least that’s what it appears to be. I also think—I’m not as familiar with Android, but certainly with iOS—there’s an app review process and Apple has best practices that they put in front of people and they enforce them and they say things like: don’t require a user to sign up up front, which is something you were talking about at the beginning, Michael. Let users experience the value of the app before you sign up. That is one of the—it’s in Apple’s human interface guidelines when they’re thinking about iOS apps. Another thing is when you’re asking for permissions for something in the hardware, prompt the user to tell them why you’re asking for these permissions so that they understand here’s why I need camera access, or here’s why I need whatever. And that’s gotten a lot better because Apple has enforced, you need to be transparent with what’s happening here. But those paradigms don’t exist on desktop. They’re not nearly as clear or straightforward, maybe a little bit because it’s the wild west. Maybe because designers just haven’t internalized that they need to think about—I mean the same principles, hold. They’re still good when you’re designing for, you know, a desktop web or a desktop native app experience on a laptop. But man, it is like night and day sometimes, especially with these bigger companies, these big enterprise platforms that, you know, I go to the app first because it’s just taken care of in a way that the desktop app isn’t.
MS That makes a lot of sense to me. I think when you have the increased real estate of a larger screen size more is not more.
CL More is not more. That’s right.
MS Just because you can fit it on the screen doesn’t mean that you should. And you know, that can be scary in some contexts, but this is why also we should be testing constantly, you know, and learning. I mean, if your organization doesn’t have a test and learn capability that is sufficiently funded, you’re going to get off track. You absolutely are. Or, you’re going to have to rely on being—some people say they’d rather be lucky than good, but luck runs out the universe, rebalances itself. Testing and learning is how you ensure that you are going to be good instead of just lucky.
CL And let that testing and learning apply to the entire user journey. Start from the very beginning. Start from when a user is coming to your site for the very first time, or maybe they got a link from a friend or they saw you post somewhere and walk them through it in a very clear, straightforward, respectful way. And don’t, I mean more is not more, that should maybe be the quote that people take away the most from this conversation because I think it applies to so many things. It applies to rushing a signup process. It applies to overwhelming people with an onboarding flow. It applies to how you’re using the pixels that are on the screen or how you’re designing a navigation. When you are thinking about putting something in front of someone you want to emphasize clarity over comprehensiveness, almost all situations.
MS When it comes to software and success, however you define that, it is a zero-sum game. There is only so much room in people’s lives for software and applications and the things they have to learn in order to succeed as users of your platform. As we near the end of our time together, I’m going to hit you with some sobering data about native mobile app usage. This data is a couple years old, but I’m sure it’s only gotten more sobering since then. Here’s the reality: three days after installation, more than 75% of active daily users are gone for most mobile apps.
CL Three quarters of the users disappear?
MS Yes. By the time you get to 90 days after installation, that number is 95%. And again, caveat, this data is not from 2022 to be clear. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s pretty much the same. If anybody has the latest authoritative data on things like this, I’d love to know about it, but just directionally speaking, the stakes are incredibly high when it comes especially with native mobile apps. But anytime you’re asking someone to add a platform as an individual, right? We’re not talking about the enterprise in this specific moment, but as an individual, the stakes are incredibly high. And even if they can’t articulate what their standards are, their standards are incredibly high. And if you are not relentlessly focused on what is the core value, why does our thing exist? How do we get people to that core value faster? Not faster than we should, but in the fastest amount of time possible that will also set them up for success. If we’re not relentlessly focused on how we get to that core value and then deliver it, deliver on our promise, it’s game over. And if you’re in the enterprise, the questions are similar. Why does this thing exist? Who are the actual end users? Not who is the person who’s signing off on the purchase order. But who are the actual end users of this enterprise software that represents a massive commitment? And what are they going to care about when it’s time for contract renewal and our customer, this faceless business, ask their human being employees who have faces, what they think of the platform? What is it? Why does it exist? What is the core value? How do you bring core value to people in the right way? That’s the ballgame, I think.
CL I think we can end it there.
[Outro music fades in, ramps up.]
CL I do want to say to everyone listening, if you need help defining your core value, if you want help getting to the why, not just the what of your platform Postlight can help. We love having these kinds of conversations. We’ve run workshops and sprints with groups who are having trouble getting this right and defining their customers and defining their personas before they actually get into design and development of their next big thing. We love to have that conversation with organizations. So please reach out. Hello@postlight.com is our email address. We actually read the emails that come to it and we would love to talk to you. Or if you know someone who could be doing this better and you want to pass along this show and say, Hey, these Postlight guys, they might be able to help, send that along to them too. And we would love to hear from them. If you’re listening to this and you got this show sent to you, please reach out.
MS Yeah, let us know if you’re team FTUE. We want to hear from people.
CL Team FTUE or team first-time user experience.
MS Yeah, something else.
CL Thanks for listening. We love talking about this stuff and we would love to hear from you. Reach out to me and Michael and the whole Postlight team at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
MS Thanks everybody.