May 8, 2009

Inside the MailChimp Interface Design Process

sketches of interface ideas

sketches of interface ideas

We’re a bit fanatical about user experience and interface design here at MailChimp because we know that no matter how many fancy new features we dream up, they’re no good if they aren’t easy to use and relevant to the needs of our users. Our philosophy is that a great user experience is a feature itself. It’s kind of the secret sauce that makes MailChimp stand out from the crowd.

How We Work

When we start planning for a new feature, we first try to identify user goals, and the tasks that have to be completed to reach those goals. For example, we recently added Autoresponders to the app, which required some research into how people want to use them in their email marketing workflow. Across the board people said they just wanted some basic automation to save time, and they wanted to stay in touch with their audience while making messages more customized and timely to a situation.

We identified the most common situations in which users would want to send automatic messages (on birthdays, anniversaries, after signup, etc.), pinned that to the wall, then proceeded to break down each subtask required to create an autoresponder with the least amount of effort.

Prototyping

autoresponders prototype

autoresponders prototype

There’s actually a lot of complexity involved in setting up an autoresponser. If you pick certain options the interface has to react to the new context. For example if you want to send an email to new subscribers upon sign up, the interface shouldn’t let you send before that time because that doesn’t make a lot of sense (we can’t predict future sign ups you know – yet). In order to sort out all of the different contingencies in the interface, wireframes and sketches just weren’t going to cut the mustard. We had to build a quick prototype so we could play with it and really wrap our heads around how it would behave in different use cases.

We build our prototypes using HTML, Bluprint (a CSS framework), our own custom CSS framework, and jQuery (a JavaScript framework) to simulate fancy animated interactions. Frameworks help us build really fast and generate interfaces that act very much like the real application would.

When a new prototype is built, we usually pile into my office and kick the tires, discussing all use cases and how to refine the interface so users can accomplish their goals as quickly as possible. This is useful for our engineering team too, as they can tell us what sorts of challenges they’ll face when building it. This is usually where I say, "it should work this way, can we do that?". Then Chad, our lead engineer, almost always says, "Yah, we can do that", which is music to the ears of any user experience designer.

Wireframes

A wireframe that didn't make the cut.

A wireframe in OmniGraffle - this concept didn't make the cut.

We create wireframes to concept simpler interfaces that might only require static forms and some well written copy. Wireframes are simple drawings of an interface that are entirely focused on the inventory and organization of elements in an interface. They don’t illustrate color, typography, grid layout, or other visual design bits. They help you focus in on solving user tasks, and because they are so simple, they can be quickly created to flesh out ideas, then iterated upon to refine an interface. We do a lot of wireframes just with pencil and paper first, then get a bit more detailed using OmniGraffle – a popular wireframing tool with interaction designers.

Launch, Get Feedback, Refine Some More

After we launch new features, we work very closely with our Customer Service team to identify where users are struggling so we can solve usability problems quickly. Customer Service and User Experience teams really must have a tight relationship, because they help one another solve their respective problems. Customer Service identifies patterns in support tickets, which might indicate a usability shortcoming in the app. They then pass that over to the User Experience team who identify the underlying problem, refine the interface, update the app, then stay in touch with Customer Service to see if the problem has been resolved. It’s fun to watch the results of interface refinements, because if the problem was really solved, the flood of support requests coming in will shut off like a faucet, and Customer Service can take an Xbox break.

When time does not permit a detailed usability study for each tiny new feature, collaboration with Customer Service is essential to ironing out the kinks fast. We’re always refining the application interface to remove what’s unnecessary, make language and labels intuitive, and ensure that each task can be completed with the least amount of effort. We want your experience with MailChimp to be fast, easy, and fun.

Have some ideas of your own on how we can improve the interface? Please get in touch!