MailChimp – a company founded on UX research

I’m sure many of you are familiar with MailChimpe-mail marketing software that allow you to design, send out, analyse your campaigns or do anything you want concerning this marketing chanel. What some of you may not know is that MailChimp has been built from scratch and self-funded by Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius. Right now the company hires over over 200 employees spread around different floors of two building and it prides itself on having over 5 milion users. But how to master such amount of user data and share it within the company? The problem emerged to Aaron Walter, the founder of the famous MailChimp UX team, when he was trying to find internal information about certain feature of the software. He was forced to talk to various co-workers, who searched for and shared with him what turned to be thousands of notes and feedback messages from users. He realized that the company was way over the stage of being a 15-person team, when in order to get a certain piece of data you just had to come over to your colleague, get the information, process it and forget it. Something had to change – 200 people was in dire need of a collective culture of data sharing and the tools to do it properly.

Everybody is a researcher

MailChimp has a strong and very effective UX team (recently nominated for The Net Awards). The team was responsible for sharing user insights with the whole company. During the big change it was the Uxers who were designated to start building the data-sharing culture.

User research—no matter how methodologically sound (…) is essentially worthless if it’s not used to influence improvements to our products or services. One of the most important parts of a researcher’s job is making sure findings get to the people who need them to make decisions. Laurissa Wolfram-Hvass, UX Researcher

Thus, the research team members are Research Evangelists– one of their unwritten responsibilities is just „being around” and promoting research any time possible. They frequently work in project teams, therefore it’s easy for them to realise how the results of someone’s work can influence others’. Of course they were only a (or is it „so much of”) spark of the information revolution that has taken place in MailChimp. As it turned out, everyone had valuable data right in front of their eyes – customer service, engineers, analysts, database guys, social media guys or the e-mail delivery team. The data started to be stored in one place and shared for the whole organization. The ownership of the data pool shifted from the UX team to the entire company. Aaron Walter stated that:

When people are given the opportunity and the platform to share their data or do something new with existing data, they feel pride knowing their work is valuable to others.

According to him, the tools you use when building such culture doesn’t really matter, as far as you stick to the rules:

  • Any hindrance, no matter how small, preventing anyone from contributing or browsing data will kill the process.
  • By making your data accessible across multiple devices you make the information flow continuous – we all know the best ideas strike us when we expect it the least.
  • Give everyone in your company access to the data and diligently invite contributions.

There is no “perfect” communication method.

Sharing data and encouraging to do so doesn’t happen via single channel or tools. Laurissa Wolfram-Hvass from the UX MailChimp research team says that each of the channels we [MailChimp] use serves a different purpose – a certain mattery that works best for particular people or situations.

Personas’ posters

I’m sure many of you wondered what are these interesting graphics from this post’s cover photo . Let me introduce to you persona posters of MailChimp users, created by a collabo of the UX reaserch team and the Design Lab (creative team). Research those personas have been based on had 5 stages:

  1. Interviewing the internal stakeholders.
  2. Ranking the industries people selected when they signed up for MailChimp .
  3. Identify subjects from popular industries and performing tons of in-person interviews.
  4. Analysis of the gata gathered in the research (transcripting the interview records, tagging conversation topics).
MailChimp poster on an office wall // source: MailChimp.com

MailChimp poster on an office wall // source: MailChimp.com

Having the research results, the researchers headed to the Design Lab and that’s where the magic happened. But why all this fuss? Well, each of the posters is decorated with descriptive phrases, which allow everyone simply comprehend the type of customer the company deals with every day – e.g. self-reliant, resourceful czy busy. If you’re perceptive enough, you’ve noticed the lack of step 5 of the process above. It was nothing else but sharing the personas with the rest of the company – the posters have been hung in the most crowded places in the office. Of course the most important part of the office is the coffee machine, so the posters proudly decorate the wall behind it. Seeing those faces every day and reading (both consciously and subconsciously) the phrases on them the employees can get the hang of who do they really work for. They come to know Ada, a self-reliant receptionist who is on her own most of the time and who might need a simple e-mail marketing tool via which she can generate reports for her colleagues. This type of consciousness can help realise the whole company has particular goals – if they manage to virtually satisfy couple of these archetypical customers, the rest of them will do just fine. And that is how you can build the persistence in chasing goals in a company, not forgetting that everything must be supported by research – there’s no place for guessing and presuming.

Coffee Hour

MailChimp Coffee Hour

MailChimp Coffee Hour // source – Alistapart.com

Every Friday MailChimp employees gather for a so-called Coffee Hour – it is sort of an internal conference, which promotes sharing information in an unformal and unconstrained way. Often it’s just an occasion for the UX research team to reveal some interesting insights with the rest of the company. However most of the time (because at MailChimp they „hate repetition”) external speakers are being invited – persons, who can ecourage to work, gain new perspective or just share their knowledge on fields loosely connected with the company. How ‘loosely’? Coffee Hours have welcomed designers, developers, writers, a hacker, a comedian or even a pool champion, who came in to inspire them and show a couple of trickshots. Whatever works, whatever can dynamically stimulate the atmosphere of creativity and positive thnking. After the talks there’s usually time for conversations – the interchange of thoughts, impressions and, what is the most important in the matter of this article, user insights. Enter the UX team, which tries to be the spark for those conversations.

Shared reports

Apart from the dynamics of coffee hours and the insight insufficiency in persona posters, the company needed a deeper, more detailed understanding of their users. This could be provided by more or less formalised reports and other documents shared by analysts, researchers and basically anybody who wanted to contribute. There’s no need for dedicated sophisticated software – Google Drive i Evernote are the storage, where the employees can search data by tags or explore the folders, get notifications when something new comes up or just contribute anytime they want, even using a mobile phone. These tools enable users to comment, so the discussion about a certain topic can be conducted asynchronously by different employees. The information is sorted, you can access it anytime and it can be really interesting – well prepared Google Analytics reports, important Tweets and comments, key MailChimp usage metrics or the result of a recent usability study.

Mini-documentaries

The guy who usually is creating video tutorials for the users, Josh Rosenbaum has also contributed to building the culture of sharing user insights. He was responsible of making short documentaries about the way MailChimp clients manage their own work/business and use their software. As we all know, video is a very comprehensive medium, so the depiction of the user shared via video can be easily understood and rapidly ‘digested’. The movies were send around the company and I must say, they’re quite an innovation and a sign of courage (the manhours are still a cost). You can see an example of such a documentary here: blog.mailchimp.com/customer-story-time/

Interal newsletters

It’s a channel similar to shared reports, although slightly simpler. The research team gathers the most important data to share and send the newsletter regularly (try and guess which email software they use). Other teams also have the opportunity to share their data and are strongly encouraged to create their own newsletters.

Multi-channeling is the key to success

These diverse method of sharing user data enable employees to have it all in the back of their minds when they create user solutions. The commonness of the phenomenon has built an organisational culture of sharing important information, what is definitely paying off. MailChimp is one of the biggest email software providers and at the same time its teams work together and collaborate in the name of a common goal. And the goal is making the user happy. I’m delighted when using MailChimp. Are you?