I joined SendGrid in July 2013 as the company’s first Product Management (PM) leader. At that point, the company was four years old, with 150 employees and an impressive revenue growth rate. Installing and optimizing PM at a rapidly scaling company is hard, so I’d like to share some of our learnings as we tackled various challenges, in hopes that it benefits the broader PM and technology community. This post is the second in a series (the first discusses growing your team) and addresses the topic of how to prioritize and improve product usability.

Why Prioritize Usability?

SendGrid has tens of thousands of paying customers, and hundreds of thousands of individual users. Most of those customers buy, implement, and use SendGrid with little to no training or assistance from SendGrid. While we are a B2B product, at that kind of scale and self-service, we need a B2C level of focus on usability in order to deliver product experiences that our customers will love and value. I believe that all products would benefit from explicit focus on usability, but some require it more than others. How much focus on usability does your product require?

Persona Development

You can’t deliver usability if you don’t have a strong feel for the persona(s) using your product. At SendGrid we developed one-page persona descriptions that include name, photo, job description, experiences, goals, motivators, and demotivators. The persona descriptions also indicate whether they are buyers, users, or both.

Whenever developing a new feature or product, we strive to target one (and only one) user persona. By limiting your scope to a single persona, you have much higher odds of delivering something with high usability (at least to your intended target). Marty Cagan’s, Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love and Alan Cooper’s, The Inmates are Running the Asylum are great reads on this general topic.

Staffing up the Design Function

In my last post, I covered the process we went through to build out the SendGrid Product and Design Teams. We now have a 6-person Design Team led by our fantastic Director of UI/UX, Katrina Lindholm. Our PM-to-designer ratios are 1:1 on UI heavy areas of the product. Having healthy design staffing is essential to driving usability, as designers have a special set of skills that PMs and engineers frequently do not have.

Process Improvements to Drive Usability

We have also implemented improvements to our product development process to focus more intentionally on design and product usability.

  • Sprint alignment. The Design Team moved to a sprint planning cadence that aligns directly with the development teams, and are typically at least one sprint ahead so that engineering always has final designs in hand before coding starts.
  • Design consistency. The Design Team built a new style guide to ensure UI consistency across multiple scrum teams.
  • Usability testing. We implemented a usability testing process where we put design prototypes (using InVision) and/or products in development in front of customers. We ask customers to complete user scenarios with no training or instruction. We then record the session (using Lookback when we run the test ourselves, and Usertesting.com when a 3rd party testing panel is acceptable) and use the test results to identify where users are getting stuck or frustrated. These findings have been instrumental in identifying and fixing usability issues before launching our new Customer Portal and Marketing Campaigns offerings. Read Steve Krug’s, Rocket Surgery Made Easy for a quick primer on how to conduct lightweight usability testing.
  • Iterative improvements. After a major launch of a design-intensive feature or product, we typically allocate 20% of development time in following sprints for “iterative improvements” so we can react to feedback from customers. Arriving at optimal usability takes time and iteration.

Hold the Line on Usability Quality

It can be tempting to rush out a release and skimp on usability. If you know you have a usability issue, do not give in to the temptation to rush it out the door. First impressions matter. A lot. Product adoption, user satisfaction, and financial results will be far better over the longer term if each release meets usability expectations for your target persona.

Our PM Director and Director of UI/UX actually made the gutsy call to delay GA of our Marketing Campaigns product launch in order to afford us time to resolve some critical usability issues we found through user testing, and I’m convinced that decision contributed heavily to early market success for Marketing Campaigns. In the first three months of general availability, we drove over 7,000 total users and over 2,000 paid users of Marketing Campaigns, while generating relatively few support tickets (less than 5% of total tickets filed). This indicates that most customers were able to find Marketing Campaigns and start using it with a minimum of friction.

Conclusion

It takes an intentional investment of focus, time, and design expertise to improve your product’s usability. You need to decide what your quality bar is for usability, develop personas to help you target your design work, establish processes that foster usability, and then hold the line on usability quality.

We are still early in our journey to consistently deliver world class usability, but we are excited about our recent progress on this front. We hope our customers have also felt the impact of this work so far in the form of a higher quality user experience. If you would like to participate in future usability testing sessions, please reach out to usabilitytesting@sendgrid.com.

I hope you took something away from the post, and best of luck improving your product’s usability! Stay tuned for Part 3, which will cover the topic of Maturing the Product Planning Process.



Scott Williamson
As VP of Product Management, Scott leads SendGrid's 16-person Product Management team. Scott and his team are responsible for driving SendGrid's product strategy and new product development, with the mission of delivering products that customers love and value.