7 Tough Lessons I Learned Running Inbound’s UX Design

This article first appeared on Inbound.org

I first saw inbound.org in May 2015. A guy named Dharmesh sent me a link and said he was looking for an awesome designer. I took a look at the website: it wasn’t impressive. The product looked old, bloated, and complicated. But then Dharmesh told me the story behind inbound.org and how he and Rand started it. He also shared his bold vision and future plans. This was a challenge worth taking!

We started to work together. During the next six months we tried a lot of ideas and strategies. Some of them worked, some of them failed. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. UX = USER experience

User Experience is a funny thing. It’s technical but also profoundly human. It’s intuitive but it also relies on data. It’s about the people yet it’s done on machines. It’s creative but it’s also conventional. There are a lot of contradictions that go into this practice. That’s why you’ll find a lot of weird people working in this field. It’s not easy to be passionate about Freud, Picasso, Tim Berners Lee, and Justin Bieber at the same time.

With all this different things to care about, it’s easy to forget the core thing: the actual users. Yeah, USER Experience is actually about the USERS. All the tools, techniques and frameworks represent the road, not the destination.

In the first month we got so involved in the projects, daily communication, and management that we neglected the users. Well, that’s only one part of the story. I was also scared of doing user interviews and questionnaires. I suspected that we’d find out a lot of stuff we didn’t want to hear. My assumption was right, my decision was wrong. Inside my heart I knew I dropped the ball on this one.

A couple of months later we got back on track with user research. We did interviews, surveys, and tracked the NPS. Did the users have all the answers? Hell, no. There were a lot of grey areas. The team had to make a lot of decisions based on our gut feeling.

Especially when we launched new features or killed old ones in the search for product/market fit. That’s the startup world. There will always be risk, uncertainty, and fear. That’s also the reason why it’s exciting and magic.

When you do UX work, try to remember the only person who doesn’t have a seat at your meetings: The User.

Giraffes User Experience Comic

2. If you want the biggest leverage, start with the elephant in the room

We started small, designing new features and updating old ones. It didn’t take long before I realized that we have thousands of features and a design team of one: me.Also, things were changing every day, like in any startup. Slack was firing up hundreds of messages and everybody had a cool new idea to chase. What to do?

I had a thought: what if I start with the big stuff first? I was kind of scared to tackle huge projects in my first months. What if they fail? What if Dharmesh or Sam, our manager, think I’m not good enough? I’m in for the long run, right? Start small and take on bigger challenges little by little whispered a familiar voice. Yet, that voice didn’t get me anywhere worth going. I was scared but I decided to start big anyway. I worked on the homepage, notifications, and a couple of other key features. Everybody was excited. But then I took a look at the development backlog and froze. It would take months to release this stuff. Andrei and Mike (the devs) were working like crazy but something was not working with this strategy…

The second thing we tried was to create a UI Kit. The plan was to code it and use it to update the key areas fast. The idea pivoted in a full redesign we did a couple of months later, in early November. People were excited about the new design. inbound.org finally looked like a 2016 startup. We had a sense of accomplishment. We felt good about ourselves. Hell, we were feeling like superheroes. Yet, I couldn’t help to ask myself: was it a good move from a business point of view?

In reality, our metrics didn’t change much after the redesign. We were growing super fast but we churned a lot of users too. We still had a bloated product and a lot of legacy features. Launching something took forever. We didn’t know exactly what was the impact of the work we did. We needed to get in line with the metrics. I decided to advocate the need for an updated set of metrics, one we can all agree on. This wasn’t in my job description but we were a small, commando like team so I took a shot.

At that moment my decisions looked bold and risky. Looking back I realize it took me five months to start chasing the most important things: metrics and mindset. This wasn’t about skills, knowledge, or anything. It was all about courage. It’s easy to get caught up in daily execution and miss the end goal.

Good UX requires bold moves.

3. Team alignment is not just motivational bullshit #metrics

People are different. They care about different things and view the world in a different way. And that’s a great thing! It’s also one of the biggest challenges a team needs to overcome.

How can each member keep a different perspective while working towards a common goal? I had the chance to work and party with some amazingly talented people: Dharmesh, Sam, Andrei, Mary, Lauren, Brian, Ed, Harry, Ionut, George, Nina, Keri. We had mad skills. We were also working in slightly different directions. Everyone had a different perspective about what inbound.org was and should be.

Setting bold goals, doing awesome meetings and wearing cool startup swag may pump you up. Yet if you don’t have all the people aligned in the same direction it’s hard to get consistent results. And yeah, from time to time, even startups need results 🙂 . One way to get the people on the same page is to have a common vision. Dharmesh did a great job on this one, laying down the general direction. Another thing that helps is setting a common set of metrics. And being able to measure those metrics.

Data analysis was something we were struggling with. Making the transition to a data mindset was a long and grueling process, at least in startup terms. It took us about three months. Part of it was the understaffed dev team, different viewpoints, and our team structure. Switching more towards data implied that the culture needed to change. And changing a culture is HARD.

In our case, data wasn’t about data. Data was about people. Data was about us. After a lot of emails, discussions, pitches, chance events, and serendipity, we admitted something obvious. We were amazing at acquisition and we sucked at retaining and engaging users. We were still looking for the product/market fit grail. That realization hit us hard, to the core. We all knew we were entering a new era.

After that moment, inbound.org had a new core metric: Weekly Active Users (WAU). I didn’t know it at the time but that decision would change everything. Including my role: in less than two months, I would be leaving the team.

4. Life is short. Get your priorities straight

We never have enough time. Still, we can achieve more than we can hope for, when we focus on the right things. For example, my design side loves to spend countless hours crafting small, beautiful details. On the other hand, my business side knows that’s a stupid thing to do if we haven’t achieved product/market fit. It’s like you’re investing in a special paint for your car when you don’t have enough cash to buy the wheels.

But where do you find the biggest leverage? From my perspective you can find it at the intersection of vision, user research, data, gut feeling, and team dynamics. Sometimes the priorities are obvious. Sometimes things become clearer in the process. It was our case with CRO. We invested in optimization too early, when we weren’t ready for it. We also didn’t have anyone really passionate about this topic on the team so we decided to kill it altogether. Full disclosure: CRO was my idea. I pitched it at our first get together in Boston. Most of us were convinced that it was something we needed to do. But it wasn’t right for us, so we decided to drop it. It was a hit to my ego and a win to the team.

Being busy is easy. You just brainstorm, get 100 ideas and add them all to the backlog. It also feeds your insecurities. It’s easy to think: I must do something right? It’s like dynamite fishing. Except it doesn’t work. It didn’t work for inbound.org either. We were chasing too many projects with too little resources behind them. Saying yes wholeheartedly to a few great things requires to say no to a thousand good enough things. It hurts in the moment but it’s also liberating.

Getting shit done is not enough. From time to time it helps to get the right shit done.

5. Spending time with your users is pure gold

In September last year I had the chance to attend the annual INBOUND event in Boston. It was marketing heaven: around 14,000 marketers, hundreds of world-renowned speakers, and an electric atmosphere. The inbound.org team had a cool booth right by one of the main entrances to the keynote hall. Ed did an amazing job preparing our strategy and tactics for the event. Everyone on the team spoke directly with our users and with potential users. We soon realized that the potential users didn’t understand what inbound.org is all about.

We had a carefully crafted sales pitch and some cool swag but we couldn’t get their interest. We could tell they don’t care. Most of our assumptions, cool ideas, strategies, and schemes were smacked to the ground in the first day.

Andrei, our CTO, coined the phrase of the week: “we are not our users”. Those interactions had such a profound impact that all of us changed our mindset in just a couple of days. It helps to look at some numbers or reports about “the users”. It’s a different thing altogether to connect with another person over a meaningful conversation. The energy is so powerful. If you ever need to get someone on the same page with the users just throw them in a room with 10 of them. Let the users speak, and politely ask your colleague to just listen for 30 minutes. Something magic will happen in that room. This strategy also works with C-Level people and founders.

Whenever you can spend time live with your users please take it. It’s one of the best investments you can make. Some things are waaaaaaay better done in the old school, offline mode.

Inbound Conference Team Picture

A part of the inbound.org team at the annual INBOUND event in Boston. I’m the guy with the weird red jacket.

6. Welcome to UX, we have politics and sales

In the same way it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to do good UX. The final experience is a collaboration between designers, developers, marketers, managers, users, and other stakeholders. It’s childish to presume that the UX is solely the product of UX designers. Yet, we (the UX people) still like to get invested in this fantasy.

UX is a collaborative effort. But shouldn’t the designers control the process? The truth is that no single person can control the process. There are just too many parts of the story. The final user experience is the average of every person on the team. Instead of fighting people who don’t understand UX, we can help them to make better decisions. We can share information about the users and design. We can show insights in a compelling way and come up with solid arguments on the proposals. We can let our ego aside for a moment. The team will be happier. The users will be happier. And as a result, we’ll be happier.

Here’s a story about the inbound.org redesign. After some external events, the team decided to go full throttle with this project. The dev team was super determined. They lead the way. Me and my colleagues Ionut worked about three weeks on creating a new design style. In just one weekend, Mike, one of our developers took it and changed it. A lot. Was it a bad move? No. But it wasn’t “our design” anymore.

At the same time I saw that Mike transferred a lot of his enthusiasm to the team. They were excited as well. The team was aligned behind Mike’s design. I took a breath, let my ego feel like crap and said: great job Mike! When are you guys implementing it? He and Andrei did the full redesign, a monster job, in less than a week.

Being an UX “expert” is important. So is having a heart.

7. Users don’t care about UX, Users care about themselves

So do we, the marketing and tech people. For example, we don’t care about the amazing design of an ice cream stand if the ice cream sucks. Maybe the owner will feel hurt. So what? We don’t think about that. We’re just like our users. Human.

People want to get things done. If they can do it fast and easy, they’re happy. If not, they don’t care about how many hours, weeks or months you spent on the features. It doesn’t matter.

During my stay at inbound.org we did a lot of cool projects we loved as a team. A lot of that stuff didn’t move the needle. The users were merciless. They always are. We also did a lot of amazing, structural stuff that set the stage for the next level of inbound.org. For example, the main metric for the product switched from Growth to Weekly Active Users. Personally, I was happy with that change. I felt that users have a proper seat at the table. They finally have a voice. In a way, inbound.org had gone full circle, to its roots.

I feel that I used too many words to express some simple truths.

In a way, UX is simple: the X always follows the U. The Experience follows the User. That’s all.

PS: In January 2016, after seven months, I left the inbound.org team. Looking back it feels like I’ve spent five years on this project. Leaving the team hurt for a while, then life found its course. I don’t miss a lot of things. But I do miss the people and our crazy chemistry and enthusiasm when we rallied around a common goal. I also miss those PBRs in shitty dive bars and the nice, fancy dinners with funny, weird conversations. Thank you all for the ride!

PS2: After Sam left inbound.org to lead a fresh initiative at HubSpot, I was offered a cool, full time position. It was hard, but I decided to turn it down so I could chase a soul project (writing a book) that was long due. I also do UX consulting. My focus now is to optimize the design of SaaS products to help them grow faster. I hope inbound.org will continue to grow like crazy and inspire a new generation of marketers.

Enough with my story, I’d love to hear your stories and challenges around User Experience. Let’s start a conversation here.

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