All Posts in Product Design

November 17, 2015 - No Comments!

Behind the Mail Pilot Branding

maritime pilot helps ship captains maneuver through difficult or congested waters. Mail Pilot helps you maneuver through the difficult and congested waters of your inbox.

As a captain, when you need a maritime pilot on board, you raise a “Signal G” flag. Once the pilot is on board, you raise a “Signal H” flag, which is half red, half white.

And so you have the Mail Pilot branding, red sails on a white field.

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We didn’t originally create the Mail Pilot brand with this metaphor; we applied it later.

Initially, I was word mapping, and went down this path: “Burn down your inbox” > “burn” > “fire” > “light”> “pilot light” > “pilot” > “copilot” > “aviator”. Initially, I used “Aviator” as the name. After a while, I used “Copilot Mail” but eventually landed on “Mail Pilot” which really seemed to stick.

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After our Kickstarter, we wanted to appeal to the productivity-ists and early adopters in tech. We thought the imagery of space exploration would evoke that sense, so the first icon was an astronaut’s pin.

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After a fantastic public launch, we got a call from Apple, who worked with us quite a bit more than we expected. Wondering if the impending iOS launch would be featured, we contemplated the need for Mail Pilot’s branding to appeal to a wider audience. When I was sketching a few random new directions out, the sails formed, and I really liked them; they’re more approachable, simpler, and evoke a sense of calm. It also, coincidentally, had a stronger metaphor to the name.

With that new metaphor, we got to leverage new nautical themes, like “#SetSail” on Twitter, and “Anchors Aweigh” on the launch button in the app’s onboarding. Finally, we’ve also put together thematic posters for the office.

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November 12, 2015 - No Comments!

When “Someone’s Already Done It”

You come up with a brilliant idea, you obsess over it, you Google some info, and on your screen lies your idea, being done by someone else, for the last two years. You’re all too familiar with that sinking feeling in your stomache that follows. You adandon the idea almost immedaitely after all that excitement and ideation.

Two things. First, existing solutions prove your idea — their existence proves that you’re trying to solve a real problem that people might pay to have solved. And it proves that you’re heading in a direction that makes sense in the market.

Second, and this is the biggie: The moment you see someone else’s solution, you mar and limit your ideas. It suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to think outside the box because before, you were exploring totally new territory, but now, you’ve seen someone else’s path. It becomes much harder to be freely creative.

Next time you come up with that great idea, don’t Google it for a week. Let your mind fester on the idea, allow it to grow like many branches from a trunk. Jot down all of the tangentially realted but equally exciting ideas that inevitably follow. Allow your mind to take the idea far into new places. No, you won’t build 90% of them, but give yourself the time to enjoy exploring the idea totally.

When I do this, once I do Google for existing solutions, I usually find that all the other things I came up with are far better than the existing solutions — I have more innovative ideas for where it could go next; I have a unique value proposition that the other guys haven’t figured out yet. But had I searched for them first, I never would have come up with those better ideas.

Finally, if you see your idea has already been done and no longer care about it, then it wasn’t something you were passionate enough about in the first place. Consider it a blessing that you found it.

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November 6, 2015 - No Comments!

What Attracted Me to Software Design

As a kid, I became obsessed with this idea that the world is not simply as you receive it, but that it can be what you make it. That what is shown to me as “official” was designed by people just like me. And that I could take something that I thought could be designed better; something that could function better, or be clearer, and I could build that better, clearer thing, and then give that to the world. And software is the most inexpensive way to do this: I could come up with a better solution and build it in a day or a few days, and then have it to use.

A perfect example of this is Hungry Hokie. When I started at Virginia Tech, I loved the dining halls, but couldn’t keep track of the seemingly random hours for all 16 or so halls, particularly at nights, or on weekends and breaks. The hours calendar online was atrocious — requiring north of 40 clicks just to find out what dining centers were open at any given moment (serious).

I think that’s 45 clicks. I know what you’re thinking, “just use the left and right arrows, Alex!” You would think that. But those go forward and back by days on the same dining hall. When would you ever need that?

I think that’s 45 clicks. I know what you’re thinking, “just use the left and right arrows, Alex!” You would think that. But those go forward and back by days on the same dining hall. When would you ever need that?

I figured there should be an app that showed just the dining halls that are open right now. I built exactly that in two days, and it went on to be used thousands of times a day, and even got coverage from the New York Timesand the Washington Post — for some little app! But its impact was big: It was a better tool to allow us to live our lives more easily.

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I’m obsessed with improving things and solving problems. Software is the most maximized path to do that: it’s the least expensive on resources of time and money, and its impact can be multipled nearly infinitely — any one action can provide a huge result.

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July 23, 2015 - No Comments!

How We Process Feature Requests

One day, I noticed a message on Facebook to Mail Pilot. Usually, these are handled by our support team, but this one caught my eye. I had to know more.

A potential customer asked if it was possible in Mail Pilot to have all sent messages copied to the inbox, instead of the sent folder. My mind was blown, I couldn’t fathom how that would be a good thing. Why would you want every sent message also cluttering up your inbox?

So I returned a nice message back explaining that while it was possible, I was curious to know, “why?”. In his response, the potential customer explained that they share a single email account among a team, and that in order to keep track of what emails have been replied to by other members of the team, they keep all sent messages in the inbox.

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When someone requests a feature, we always ask “why?”. I think this is one of the most important things for maintaining well-designed software as it continues to grow once it’s in the hands of its users.

If we tacked every feature request onto our software as requested, we’d end up with a frankenstein; it would be a jack of all trades, master of none. I’m sure you’ve used software that has suffered this fate.

When we ask “why?”, we learn what the real problem is. The feature requested is the quickest solution a user thought of for a problem they’re having. In the case of the shared email address, copying all sent messages to the inbox is a horrible, but immediately obvious solution to an unstated problem.

We want to know the underlying problem. Once we do, we can almost always figure out a better solution; one that fits into the software’s intentions, context, workflows, and interface. Instead of 100 one-off feature requests, after asking “why?”, we end up with 10 higher-level problems that users want solved. Then we can solve those 10 problems in really elegant, compelling ways that help improve the application overall, without bogging it down.


In the case of copying sent messages to the inbox, I did let our follower know that with Mail Pilot’s threads, when you open any message in the inbox, you will also see any replies sent to it — a much more elegant solution that provides tons of other usability benefits. Further, I pointed him in the direction of Front App, a tool built specifically for teams that share email addresses.

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July 22, 2015 - No Comments!

How we found our biggest leak and reduced it by more than 50% in one week

With Throttle, we want to make sure you get as much value out of the product as possible. For us, that means you understand the product, you understand how to work it, and you use it. And with Throttle, using it = generating addresses.

In pursuit of that goal, we set up a stats page to track how users make it through onboarding and into Throttle. It looks like this:

Numbers represent the number of users stuck at that step. Though, the first bar shows the total number of people let out of the queue so far (helps keep perspective).

Numbers represent the number of users stuck at that step. Though, the first bar shows the total number of people let out of the queue so far (helps keep perspective).

You see a bar for different steps we’ve identified that a user goes through from receiving access to Throttle, all the way through onboarding, to generating addresses. Each bar represents the number of users that stopped at that step; that did not proceed to any further steps.

Our goal is simple: find the leaks — the tallest bars — try to fix those leaks, and we should see the numbers slowly start to slide further to the right (the last column being the end of the funnel; they’ve made it).

We’ve been doing this for a few iterations now with interesting results, but one iteration in particular I want to show you was the one where we redesigned our previously untouched onboarding process. The results were huge.

Originally, our onboarding went like this:

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It was straightforward to us. Install the extension, test it out, pick what time you want to receive your digest, and you’re done. But what we found in our funnel told us we weren’t hitting the mark:

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As you can see, we’ve got leaks on the first step (install the extension) and after onboarding — people would finish onboarding but go on to generate no addresses. But why?

We put together some hypotheses, and brainstormed potential fixes.

For losing people at the extension step, we hypothesized that people probably forgot what Throttle was (most signed up in May) and don’t want to install the extension when they don’t know what it is. Our action items to fix: Add a refresher step to the beginning of onboarding with the video, Put the extension step later in the process to engage user to get comfortable before the “big ask” of installing an extension, and Add information on the extension step as to what the extension does (right now, it’s anyone’s guess).

For people completing onboarding, and generating no addresses, we hypothesized that many users may not hit subscribe forms every week, let alone every day. So if we just let nature take its course, it may have been too long since they set up Throttle, and they forget the benefit. So we brainstormed and thought we could change the last step of onboarding to include links to common services’ update email pages, and add a big discovery catalog of curated newsletters below the reading list.

When I went to make those changes, it was clear to me that the entire thing should be redesigned with our newly gathered data in mind. Here’s what I came up with:

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Once it was built, we launched it and waited. After three days, we compared the data.

See the final graph, below the original for comparison.

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We saw a reduction of more than 50% of people lost on the extension step, and, because it was different, a reduction of more than 50% of people lost on the first step. In closing the second-biggest leak, we succeeded.

We also saw a 46% increase of people that generated one or more addresses after onboarding. In closing the biggest leak, we made a big, big difference, but it’s not totally there yet. The progress was good though: Only 37% of people that finished the old onboarding went on to generate any addresses, but 54% of people that finished the new onboarding went on to generate one or more addresses. For the first time, more people had gotten all the way through our funnel than were stuck at any prior step, which wasn’t true until the redesigned onboarding.

The big downside: because we added 2 extra steps to onboarding, the percentage of people that got stuck during onboarding went up from 29% to 38%. This is what we need to figure out next. It’s all iterative.

Our two biggest leaks are now much further right; they’re the last two steps. Before, our two biggest leaks were the first and last. But now, all the other steps before the last two are below a 10% loss.

So you can see exactly what we were looking for: moving those numbers to the right. This iteration was a great success. But we still have plenty of work to do. The spam won’t stop itself.

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July 7, 2015 - No Comments!

How we named our new product, Throttle

We had only 6 hours to come up with a name.

Originally, we were going to call it Periscope. The idea was that you could see them (marketers) but they couldn’t see you. But when Twitter bought this little thing called Periscope, that put the kibosh on our name.

We struggled for weeks to come up with something that was memorable, sounded good, had a decent .com available, and that made sense.

A month before unveiling, a writer at the Virginia Business Magazine, Veronica, was working on a piece about Throttle, and she needed the new name by the end of the week, as her story had to be submitted for the magazine to go to print. I promised her I would have it to her by the end of the day on Friday.

Friday morning rolled around, and we still had nothing that felt right. But I realized we were doing it all wrong:

We were trying to come up with a name that metaphorically described how the system technically works, but the user doesn’t care about that — they care about the benefit to them. The users, or at least those that we interviewed about the product to that point, all cared about “control”. The word kept coming up. People loved that they had newfound control over their inboxes that they didn’t before.

I wanted something that evoked a sense of control. That’s what people loved about it, so that’s what they should be reminded of when they hear the name. Ford’s SUVs are called the “Explorer” and “Expedition”. They have this emotional connotation associated with what the user is looking for — in life — not the technical underpinnings of the product. My Subaru isn’t called “The Boxer” because of its boxer-style engine, it’s called “Legacy”.

I went to our whiteboard and wrote the word “control” in the middle. I explored a word map around it, asking “what words are associated with ‘control’?” then “what words are associated with those words?” When I got stuck, I pulled out our office thesaurus.

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Working a word map around the word that early previewers of our idea kept saying to us: Control.

There were a handful of interesting words on the board, but I kept coming back to Throttle. When Jeb & Josh looked at the word map, they zeroed in on it, too.

We had a beer to celebrate, and I sent Veronica our new name at 5:15 PM.

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