The importance of user feedback and community support before launching a new product is huge. Users are full of surprises, it’s long been established that developers make many assumptions about how a user will approach, use, or interpret their application. Many of which will be wrong!
What follows is the story of our first app built completely in the open from start to finish — an attempt on our part to help with this problem.
Let us begin by setting the scene…
Chapter 1 — Idea
‘Twas the month before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was is stirring, not even a… Okay, so not quite, but what was actually happening was Black Friday.
Yes, Black Friday, that slightly repulsive holiday focussed on sucking as much money out of consumers as possible by offering countless deals and pretties.
One can’t browse the web at all without being inundated with last chances. No I don’t want 40% off everything at Cacti-R-Us, free shipping on a couch, or a half-price jalapeño burger THANK YOU! Actually maybe the last one I could go for. But not because of your dumb deals!
But this isn’t just another Black Friday bashing article (even though some places went to “Cyber Tuesday” this year! Come on, that’s pushing it).
No, what caught our attention on this most illustrious of days was the emails! So many marketing emails! Most of which I have no memory of signing up for, and certainly no intention of buying from again.
I understand that this is a great medium to capture consumers attention, but after 24 hours I felt like my attention had been blasted out of my ears.
Even opting out or unsubscribing from these emails is a drain on my energy. It’s annoying to hunt for the opt out link, especially because that usually means I have to read your stupid marketing garbage. And if you were naïve enough to simply move them to the trash, then you’ll quickly realise that this doesn’t solve anything, the following week your inbox is swamped again.
As it turns out there is a solution to this problem. However, in return for using services that unsubscribe to these things for you, you have to agree to let them sell all your data for marketing purposes. Call me suspicious, but aren’t I trying to get away from marketing purposes?
So what can we do about this?
Chapter 2 — Validation
Well we’ve discovered a problem, let’s see if it’s something that bothers other people. So we picked a name and threw together a 10 minute landing page and started sharing it around on social media.
The response was overwhelmingly positive! Leave Me Alone was to become an ethical and privacy first email unsubscription service. Within a few hours we had 50 potential beta users, and a load of ideas and feature requests. All this before we’d written a single line of code.
We decided that going forward we would get community feedback on every decision we made. This included features, design, colours, domain names, and even bits of copy.
So I guess the next step was to actually build something?
Chapter 3 — Coding
Coding itself is the piece of the product puzzle that we are most familiar with, and as we’re beginning to understand, it’s also arguably the least important part.
Nonetheless it had to be done. We whipped together our ideas and in a few days had a working prototype. Leave Me Alone scanned a users Gmail inbox for marketing emails, and allowed them to unsubscribe from them with a single click.
We’re pleased to say that we managed this without exposing a single piece of email content on our servers. Thus achieving the privacy aspect that was essential to us. We still store a little meta data from any emails that are unsubscribed (so that we know they have already been actioned if we see them again), but this information is encrypted and so we think this is a small concession.
(Though if anyone can think of a way for us to have the same functionality without storing even this little bit of data then let us know!)
Anyway, with something now working it was time to let our beta testers run free!
Chapter 4 — Closed beta
Beta testing is a scary prospect, letting users into your app before it’s quite ready? What if things break?
Well it turns out that things do break, and sometimes they break hard. But beta users aren’t expecting a finished product, and they are surprisingly forgiving! In our case we swapped free use of our beta product in return to listening intently to absolutely everything they had to say about the app.
As a result we found and fixed a LOT of bugs, tweaked the UI, and came up with some new features that we hadn’t thought of that are now essential to the app.
We’re of the opinion now that without letting users loose as soon as possible, Leave Me Alone wouldn’t be half as effective as it is now.
Chapter 5— Open Beta
Since the beta was so successful, we are now opening Leave Me Alone up to anyone. A soft launch if you like. This will help us to spread the word, as happy users make for the best salespeople!
We approached making Leave Me Alone a lot differently from our previous apps. We wanted to build in the open and share our progress with other makers and potential customers. We shared our progress on Twitter, logged our tasks on Makerlog, and asked for feedback in Slack and Telegram communities that we’re active in.
This turned out to be an excellent decision for two reasons;
- We were hostage to accountability. We were openly responsible for building and delivering an idea that we had committed to make. Immediately, enquires started about promised features, progress updates, and the launch date. This helped by validating that the product was needed, and gave us motivation to keep developing.
- Having a community of users that want to see our product succeed was invaluable. We discovered isolated bugs that would have been insanely difficult to track down without being able to work one-on-one with dedicated users. For instance one user has a single malformed email that caused the entire app to crash if it was seen. One other had the biggest inbox of spam I have ever seen, which quickly smashed our email streamer 😂. Overall, we had a busy 72 hours handling bug reports, pouring through logs, and pushing fixes. Without this process we would never have known about any of these problems and we would have launched a very broken product.
We want to say a tremendously huge 🎉 THANK YOU 🎉 to all of our beta testers for their help. Leave Me Alone is now ready to be released into the wild. We’ll continue to develop and improve the service. You can see our public roadmap here — let us know which features you’d like us to work on next.
Enjoy your clean inbox!