When Your Work Gets Publicly Reviewed

Earlier this week I came back from lunch and saw this link posted and unfurled in my job family's private Slack group:

How FullStory sends onboarding email – Aloha — Welcome Emails – Medium

My stomach turned over—and it wasn't because I'd just scarfed down a gloriously grilled Bell Street burrito.

See, it's my responsibility to make sure that new FullStory users get to their first 'aha!' moments quickly, and with love.

And, that means that I spend a lot of time thinking about our onboarding experience—both how users get started in the app and the emails we send to new users.

And, because I spend a lot of time thinking about our onboarding experience, I spend most of my time thinking about how we could make it better.

And, when I do have an idea of something I want to make better, sometimes I can make the changes myself but more often I have to rely on other people to help me turn my wishes into realities. And, I feel responsible for the results of our collaborative work together.

Customer experience work (or user experience work) is critical work. It's easy to obsess over the edge cases: the templates that aren't rendering right, the triggers that aren't timed perfectly, or the glaring plot holes in the story we're telling to our customers.

Because I walk around carrying a laundry list of "things to fix" in the back of my mind, I opened the article in my browser fully expecting to get torn a new one for everything that isn't impeccable.

Instead, what I found was a kind, insightful, and accurate review of our onboarding experience.

Queer Eye Reaction Gif
My emotions when I realized my company wasn't getting dragged.

It was nice! I was relieved for myself and for my co-workers, too. I'm grateful that our work was reviewed in a fair and thoughtful way.

It was also super valuable.

Learning from Breakdowns

Here are two super valuable things I learned from having someone outside of my company review our onboarding emails:

1. From a new user's perspective, the onboarding experience includes more than what you may internally consider to be "onboarding."

Right now, we send relatively few emails during the onboarding experience compared to what's standard at other SaaS companies. But, we do send a Weekly Digest to new users and we also have a Newsletter that goes out every two weeks. Those emails are emails that I don't typically work on directly (other really smart, thoughtful people at FullStory put those together!) but they are clearly part of the experience that I'm working to optimize. It's hugely valuable to know that those emails feel like part of the onboarding experience to new users.

For example, let's say that I have an idea that I want to encourage new users to invite teammates to FullStory (because FullStory is more valuable when you can share your Notes with friends!) But, if I'm only looking at the emails that I "own" as my own work, then I may forget that the Weekly Digest includes a call-to-action to invite new teammates. Do we really need yet another email with that same CTA? Maybe. Maybe not.

When designing an onboarding experience, it's important to be able to see the big picture and not have your blinders on. Focus on the whole, not just the part of the process that you personally control.

2. New users notice when you ask for information and don't use it.

One of my favorite insights from the breakdown review was this observation about the "What's your name?" and "What kind of work do you do?" questions that the app asks during the onboarding flow:

"I didn’t notice any unique elements within the emails themselves, so perhaps they use the data internally to build personas or they’re saving the data for a rainy day."

Writing an onboarding flow is a little bit like writing a play. If you bring a gun onto the stage, the audience is going to spend the rest of the scene waiting for someone to draw the gun. This Chekhov's gun principle applies in software flows, too. Users expect that every piece of data you collect will be used in a meaningful way. If you introduce a piece of data and then don't clearly use that data to provide value to the user, they will feel that something hasn't been fulfilled.

As a designer of an onboarding flow, you may think "It would be nice to collect this data, and most new users will probably feel fine supplying it because other software tools ask for similar things" but if you're not using that data to provide value to your customer, you've dropped the ball.

Only collect what you need to collect. And, if you're collecting data with the intention of personalization, be sure to fulfill your promise.

Bring On the Breakdowns (and the Teardowns, Too)

Lately I've noticed a lot of UX and email campaign teardowns circulating among practitioners in marketing and UX. And, I'll admit, I love them.

I just recently discovered Val Geisler's onboarding email teardowns (they're gold) and I've been aware of UserOnboard.com for a hot minute (so much good stuff there).

As someone who regularly consumes these types of teardowns and as someone who has written something reminiscent of a teardown in the past, I recognize that critical evaluation from a third-party can be so, so helpful. As a reader, I can pick up new tactics or get a feel for how my work stacks up in the space; as a subject, I receive priceless information about context and reactions that's tough to infer from analytics alone; as a writer, I can experience both expression and learning through the practice of evaluating and articulating thoughts about my own experiences.

Criticism is a gift that can only help us get better.

However, after seeing my work reviewed publicly, I know that I'll bring more empathy for creators into my future critiques.

When we have high standards for our work, there's always a perceivable gap between the golden vision of the perfect experience we want to deliver for our customers and what we're able to execute right now with the resources we have at hand.

Our job is to work in constant pursuit of closing that gap.

But if I feel that gap, then I know that others must feel it in their work, too.

Let's choose to believe that everyone who's dropping the ball desperately wants to make it better, and let's celebrate all of the examples where people get it right as proof that it can be done.