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EPISODE 0089

An Email Account is Born

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To show off the features of HEY, Basecamp’s new email service, we needed a fully featured and realistic demo account. That meant writing dozens of fictional emails—a task that fell to Merissa of Basecamp’s customer support team. She comes on Rework to talk about her epistolary opus.


The Full Transcript:

Shaun: [00:00:00] In a world, one woman, Julie Young, must finish her kitchen.

Wailin: [00:00:08] Must book a vacation home.

[00:00:12] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:00:13] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:00:20] And I’m Shaun Hildner. We’re doing an ongoing series about Hey, Basecamp’s new email service, and today’s episode is about a project that was indispensable but not super flashy. The kind of thing that would be easy to overlook.

Wailin: [00:00:32] If you got to Hey.com and look at the screenshots we use to show what the service looks like and how it works, you’ll see correspondence like a note from a child’s classroom teacher, or a request to electronically sign a document. Somebody had to write all those emails and put them into a fully-featured demo account that people at Basecamp could use for marketing, customer support, and a whole host of situations where you can’t just be showing off real emails.

Shaun: [00:00:56] We call this project Seed Data, and you know what? I actually was the one who had to put this together for Basecamp 3.

Wailin: [00:01:03] You had to write 100 to-dos and fake messages and comments and stuff?

Shaun: [00:01:08] Pages and pages of chat transcripts so you could scroll back. Files have to be shared in a realistic way. It is so much work. Creating seed data for Hey was similar to what I was doing in Basecamp 3, but with email, it’s a little bit different. Every email had to be completely plausible and had to be in a variety of different scenarios, and that task, this time around, fell to our colleague Merissa, who lives in Austin, Texas. And she works in customer support, which, if you haven’t heard the show before, it’s a team that we call Team OMG. So here is Wailin’s conversation with Merissa about how she created this fictional email world.

[00:01:47] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Merissa: [00:01:57] My name’s Merissa. I am a principle support member on Team OMG at Basecamp.

Wailin: [00:02:04] Do you remember your first email account?

Merissa: [00:02:06] It was my parents’ and they had a main account and then my sister and I had accounts under that. So that would be the first one. Yes, I do. My email address was merissa@jps.net. I think maybe Netscape ended up buying that company, so I don’t know.

Wailin: [00:02:19] How did you get involved in the seed data project? Can you just start at the beginning and talk about how you were asked to do this?

Merissa: [00:02:26] It was actually mentioned to me first by Kristin, who’s our head of support. She had mentioned that Jason wanted to get somebody on the seed data project and she threw my name out there and then I just talked with Jason about it at that time, about what he was looking for.

Wailin: [00:02:46] How did Jason explain the project to you?

Merissa: [00:02:47] So, Jason was getting, I don’t know if tired is the right word, or maybe just didn’t. He doesn’t want to show his personal data for giving his own demos to people, which is totally understandable. I mean, emails can be quite personal, so when you’re wanting to give demos to people, you might not want to show your personal emails. So he explained to me and to Flora who was on the programming side at that time that he was wanting to create some sort of automatic demo where he could log in and automatically have a whole email account populated that looked like it was from a normal person that he could show off specific scenarios of Hey.

Wailin: [00:03:27] So, was this something you had experience with before? I know that on the support team, everyone has a lot of different demo and test Basecamp accounts because you’re constantly needing to try stuff and see how work flows are for different customers when they write in with questions. Is that related? Did it feel kind of like an extension of some of the things you’re already doing in customer support?

Merissa: [00:03:47] Not really, to be honest. We definitely do have a bunch of demo accounts for Basecamp which is a lot different than Hey. And I was definitely very involved in the beginning of Basecamp classes and setting up personal demos for customers of Basecamp, but Hey is kind of quite different and we never have really had an actual demo account.

Wailin: [00:04:09] So then, how did you start organizing the work? It seems so daunting to have to set up what looks like a fully up and running, normal person’s email account.

Merissa: [00:04:21] Honestly, it was a little daunting at first because I didn’t know quite where I wanted to start. Mainly, I took a peak at the scenarios that I was given and looked through my own personal email box, bugged my family about certain emails that they might have in their box and then just started writing a few of the scenarios. And then, magically, I don’t know how it happened, really, it just all kind of started flowing and it became just kind of second nature for me to just start writing these emails back and forth and imagining what type of scenario somebody might have. I just started going through the scenarios that were requested, and then it was like, bam. It took me about two weeks, probably, to create all of the content. But I’d say there’s probably a hundred emails in there.

Wailin: [00:05:08] Wow.

Merissa: [00:05:08] Yeah, it was really important for it to look like a full account and not just something we threw a few emails in to show off examples. We really wanted it to look real and to make it look real, we needed a lot of email in there because that’s what it is.

Wailin: [00:05:22] And what were the scenarios that Jason gave you?

Merissa: [00:05:25] How do you merge emails in Hey? Showing off how we can use the Note feature in certain scenarios. Showing off Clips. Being able to have five or six emails to show off the reply and focus feature along with the Set Aside features. Uploading a bunch of emails that would have files so there’s a fully fleshed out file section. Showing how the Screener works, so creating a specific type of emails that you might see for the very first time and decide to allow to screen into Hey or to screen out.

Wailin: [00:05:59] What were some of the scenarios that you created? Like, specific scenarios. Can you share any of your favorites?

Merissa: [00:06:04] Well, it was very easy to create any that had to deal with my dog. My dog is Benny, so if you see references to Benny, those are actual emails. Grooming appointments, vet appointment, invoices for him. Photos from his groomer of what he looks likes in the bath getting groomed. I also was able to create a thread that’s called a Rancho Poquito thread, which is an actual property in Austin that I was looking to rent out at one time for my birthday party where I had questions going back and forth with the woman that owned the property. It’s a really neat little ranch property so that was fun.

[00:06:40] I tried to take some sort of sort of real life scenarios and then some that I had that I knew nothing about. Another one that I knew nothing about was one for a roof leak at a vacation property that you might own. And that was used for a scenario to kind of show that that’s important and you need to keep track of this thread so you’d like to receive push notifications. Another fun little example was a Lucky Strike contract for our support team to go bowling at one point. But it was a great example of when you have a Docusign thread and you need to complete the contract and a few hours later you receive another email. It’s like, hey, you completed it! You can merge those together.

[00:07:19] So there were all kinds of really fun things that were half personal, half made up.

Wailin: [00:07:23] Did you get some interesting contributions from friends and family, too, when you brought in your net and asked for incoming emails or forwards or tried to build it out via your network?

Merissa: [00:07:34] Yeah, I was actually really lucky. My sister had recently purchased a house in Austin and had done a bunch of work on it. So contract work that you see in the account, making a new kitchen bench or requesting information on painting or putting new floors in. Those ideas all kind of came from her because she had recent quotes from contractors. And of course, all kinds of names and things have been changed and things have been rewritten, but all of those kinds of examples came from her.

[00:08:03] My mom’s a realtor in the area so she often had emails that would look sort of spammish, so those were good examples to add into spam. I mean, everything in the actual Hey seed demo is real, and it looks like it you can reply to it and everything works as it should. I got really great examples from my family, actually.

Wailin: [00:08:24] So what is the name on the account? Who is this person who is getting their kitchen redone and trying to book a space for a birthday party and has a cute dog named Benny? Who is this person?

Merissa: [00:08:36] Her name is Julie Young. Whenever I would need to give out a fake name for anything, I would always use Julie. Like, Julie is just a name that I like. I’ve always liked it and Julie Young is actually my mom’s mom’s name who passed away kind of when I was little. So Julie Young is my grandmother’s name. Russell Young who was also a contact in the account is my grandfather’s name, so I used both of their names as kind of the main people in the account.

Wailin: [00:09:01] Did you have some fun with coming up with other names and stuff like that?

Merissa: [00:09:05] I did. There are a couple things. I don’t know if people will ever notice in there, but one of the contacts is Fitzgerald Grant and that comes from Scandal, for any Scandal fans that are out there, I love Fitz. That’s where that came from. There’s also a contact named Bradley Maine. That’s a combination of Bradley Cooper and Jackson Maine from A Star Is Born, there. So a little shout out there.

A Star is Born clip: [00:09:29] Hey.

What?

I just wanted to take another look at you.

Merissa: [00:09:35] And then the other names are made up. Occasionally I would just add in our Team OMG Campfire, like, hey, give me a cool first name and give me a cool last name, and then I would just kind of merge those together. One of them is a friend’s name. Jasmine is my friend. Yeah, they’re just kind of random on there, but the first two that I mentioned are the ones that are kind of like cameos.

Wailin: [00:09:55] Did you start to imagine a whole life for Julie Young that even existed outside of these emails you were crafting?

Merissa: [00:10:03] Oh yeah, absolutely. She has two kids, Cooper and Stella. There’s references to their golf lessons and their swim lessons and all of those things. And she lives in Austin and they have a second home in South Padre, which is the gulf coast here. So yeah, I absolutely did. And they absolutely were doing kitchen renovations and they have all of these friends. They recently took a trip to Hawaii. They’re doing pool construction. They’re having a nice pool with a cabana area set up.

Wailin: [00:10:34] That does sound nice.

Merissa: [00:10:36] Oh yeah, right?

Wailin: [00:10:39] They’re thriving.

Merissa: [00:10:41] All those things I wanted in my quarantine life.

Wailin: [00:10:46] How old are their kids?

Merissa: [00:10:48] Their kids are kind of modeled around the same age as one of my niece and nephews, which is like ten and eight, eleven and nine, somewhere around there. Some of the pictures and the files that are in the account are actual pictures that I took. There’s one picture of them in there where you can’t see their faces or anything like that, but a special picture from a trip. My sister’s kids are very active kids so that was another thing that was easy for me to create an account. Things that kids would be doing, like different types of lessons. Maybe golf lessons. Letters from their teachers. They do quite a bit of homeschooling, so I could get cool little attachments of work that they might need to do or things like that.

Wailin: [00:11:28] And then for the Screener, what are the kinds of scenarios you came up with for folks sending Julie emails that she might want to screen out.

Merissa: [00:11:36] So Jason was kind of specific on those. He wanted to look for, I think there’s a total of five emails in there and three of them that he would say no to and two of them that he would keep. So the three of them that he wanted to say no to needed to be maybe kind of businessy but not spammish all the way. So the ones that I created from there were a company who was emailing her about perhaps having an interest in a timeshare opportunity. Another one is an email that’s coming from a salon that Julie could go to, mentioning what products they’re now offering.

[00:12:17] The two that he keeps, one of them is actually from a teacher who is talking about getting together for a parent-teacher conference. He keeps that one. And then the other one is actually a good example of an evite. I actually went ahead and created a fake invitation to somebody’s birthday party. So it’s from a contact that Julie knows but the email itself comes in from evite. Says something like, Robin invites you to Jack’s 8th birthday party, or something like that. So he keeps that one so that he’ll know about the party.

Wailin: [00:12:50] So then you were writing, and then you would pass off the emails you created to Flora and was it JZ, a designer at Basecamp who would then be in charge of wiring it all up?

Merissa: [00:13:01] So JZ was originally on the project, but then I think he got called on to do something else, so it was really just Flora and myself who were working on it. So at the beginning, I started creating a bunch of content in just another fake account. Also so that I could see, similarly to Jason, how things would kind of lay out and what an email would look like and things of that sort.

[00:13:24] Flora and David actually built a really cool demo account that resets itself as often as you wish. And by resetting, it basically incinerates all of the information inside of the account and then reloads it all. It’s really nifty and that’s exactly how Jason wanted it to work so that every time he would log in and give a demo, all the dates look fresh, all the emails look fresh. They worked a lot of magic behind the scenes to create an account that looks like it starts over basically any time you press the reset button.

[00:13:57] And that totally works, so if you want to reply to an email, you reply to an email. If you want to create a new Clip, you can do that. If you want to create a new label, you can do that. All of it kind of works from place of magic. That’s all I would tell Flora. Oh, this is magic. It just happens, I don’t. I did learn at the end how to use Github to upload some files and to place the order of the emails that they’ll come in at. So it’s great now that myself or the support team maybe down the road will be able to create more demo accounts like this for Hey. Maybe specific industry related types. Basically the way that David and Flora built it is that I can actually just go right into Github, upload files, add information that I need there and then David sort of reviews it and then gets it right into the demo account. So, it’s nice that it’s hands on, now, too.

Wailin: [00:14:49] And it sounds like this is going to be such an important tool for support as you start answering questions from Hey customers, right? You, personally, are so intimately familiar with the product now, but you also know that you have the ability to go in and create some scenarios if you need to do that.

Merissa: [00:15:05] Yeah, the support team is really excited because we haven’t really had one demo account that we mainly all use, as well for Basecamp, let’s say. We kind of all go to our own test accounts, like you mentioned early on and maybe send screenshots or videos to people. But now we all have access to this special Hey demo account and then it’s going to be much better for us to show a customer things in there instead of perhaps showing our own emails where we might have personal information that we might not want to share.

Wailin: [00:15:37] Now that this is more or less wrapped up, kind of the bulk of it, do you find yourself still thinking about Julie Young?

Merissa: [00:15:44] Oh, I totally do. I totally do. There have been a couple of times where I’ve thought, oh, I should have added this sort of an example, too. Or, I wonder did she get her kitchen bench put in? Is that completed yet and did Russell and Julie make it to their AirBnB in Miami? I mean, I don’t know.

[00:16:05] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:16:07] And if she ends up needing to sue the kitchen bench maker for breach of contract, that’s like a whole other chain of emails.

Merissa: [00:16:12] Yeah, that might be a different account, I don’t know

Shaun: [00:16:16] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art.

Wailin: [00:16:24] You can find show notes and transcripts for our episodes at Rework.fm. And to learn more about Hey, go to Hey.com.