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Great Design Doesn’t Eliminate the Need for In-App Messaging

Todd Olson // February 12, 2015

Not a week goes by without me hearing from someone that their product shouldn’t need in-application messages.  It doesn’t seem to matter what the message would say.  Some folks say that they believe their product should be intuitive enough to not require such messages.  To these folks, they see these messages as a cheat or hack — not an elegant solution to educate folks.

Now, I was fortunate early in my career to be exposed to user experience.  As an alumnus of Carnegie Mellon University and founder of a Pittsburgh-based startup, I had the opportunity to work with several graduates of the Human Computer Interaction program.  This experience changed the way I look at product development at an early age, and since then I’ve always invested in and prioritized for design and usability.

So I get the objection from these dissenters.  I want my product to be intuitive as well.  And I don’t think any product should absolutely require messages to use it, but I do think they can be used to provide a superior experience to users.

The Ever-Shrinking Attention Span

It’s not hard to imagine that with our smartphones and social media that our attention spans are diminishing.

So given the state of our users’ attention spans, how does that inform product design and rollout?  The fact is that users today have more going on then ever before.  Intuitive with an 8 second attention span likely isn’t the same as intuitive with a 12-30 second attention span.   Given this change, here are some quick cases when messages make a ton of sense.

Helping New Users

There’s a learning curve with doing anything for the first time.  Each product has a unique terminology and way to get things done.  Even the iPhone comes with a tiny pamphlet explaining how to use it.  Recent versions of iOS just started shipping with a new app called Tips to help users understand the richness of the software.  Now the difference between good and bad software is that good software can quickly and easily be explained.

There is where in-application messages are very valuable.   They can be used to quickly give a tour of the application to the new user.  Assuming the software is intuitive, a simple tour is all that would be needed to get the user on the right foot.

Helping with Change

Change is necessary in product development.  A product that doesn’t change doesn’t improve.  Yet, change is hard for people and organizations.  There are many business books on helping people deal with change.  And while, it is useful for a person to be handle change at work and in their life, handling change in the products they use and pay for can be exhausting.

So you can spend months interviewing users, designing a brand new interface, testing it with beta users, and you can announce it over email and social media. But the odds are that a majority of your users will be surprised by this change. It may be awesome, but it’s different.  They were used to getting into your products, doing their thing and leaving.  It may be very intuitive but your users are programmed to do things a certain way and “re-programming” them will take some time.

In this case, in-application messages can be hugely beneficial.  Sure you emailed your users, but as highlighted earlier, 43% of people abandon long emails. Showing a quick in-application message introducing your new user interface and highlighting some of the key changes could be the difference between a happy user and an unhappy user.

Helping with Discoverability

As products get more and more features, it gets harder for your users to “discover” them.  How would your users know to even look for something that’s brand new?  I recall when Gmail added the ability to Attach Money to an email.  I wasn’t looking for this nor had any expectation that they should add money transfer to my email application.   When they launched this feature, they had a quick tooltip visible to introduce the feature.  Nice.
It’s tough for a product team to spend time building a great feature that never gets used.  It is even tougher to have an existing customer (or trial) not purchase or renew because you didn’t have a feature that you actually DID have — but they just couldn’t find it.

Accept Reality

We all want perfectly intuitive products where users can get in, get value, and get out.  Even the best software benefits from some guidance.   Enterprise software companies often provide that guidance with training or services, but this is costly and doesn’t scale well.  In-application messages provide a scalable and light-weight solution to helping users get on board and get value from your product faster.  However, they are not a panacea or replacement for building intuitive user interfaces.

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