Better Product with Adam Stoddard
Better Product is a podcast by Innovatemap, a digital product agency. We are playing their episode featuring Basecamp’s marketing designer, Adam Stoddard, who joins them to talk about Basecamp’s design philosophy and the thought process behind the look of HEY.com.
- Adam Stoddard on Twitter - 1:04
- Basecamp co-founder and CTO David Heinemeier Hansson discussed Superhuman in a previous Rework episode - 12:20
- "Superhuman is Spying on You" by Mike Davidson - 13:23
- HEY's pixel tracker blocking feature - 13:33
The Full Transcript:
[00:00:00] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:00:01] Welcome to Rework, the podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.
Shaun: [00:00:07] And I’m Shaun Hildner. We’re doing something a little bit different this week. Basecamp’s marketing designer Adam Stoddard was recently interviewed on the Better Product podcast. It’s a show about product design that focuses on real actionable details.
Wailin: [00:00:21] So this week, we’re going to play that whole episode for you. If you like what you hear, go check them out at BetterProduct.community/podcasts.
Adam: [00:00:39] The best brand is the brand that you can reliably produce, and achieve. A really lofty goal that you can actually reliably hit, that doesn’t work.
[00:00:54] Better Product podcast theme song plays.
Christian: [00:00:57] This is a Better Product original series on product brand. I’m Christian.
Anna: [00:01:00] And I’m Anna.
[00:01:03] Adam Stoddard, designer at Basecamp, joins us for our series on product brand. As a brand design team of one, Adam is responsible for the entire design of the Basecamp website, as well as the design of the new HEY app, an app reinventing email.
[00:01:17] One thing to keep in mind, as you listen to Adam, is that he is responsible for both the design and the development for Basecamp. Now, Basecamp is a unique company with a distinct brand. But what was it that compelled Adam to join?
Adam: [00:01:29] So I think the thing that resonated to me, and I think is still kind of a hallmark of how they approach things, is just they approach everything with this kind of, it’s like an essentialism. It’s like cutting through all this kind of layers of BS and stuff you don’t need and just kind of cutting right to the meat of something. And how that translates into products is these very clear, simple, straightforward products. It’s always trying to strip back to the most essential version of something.
Christian: [00:02:03] As Anna shared, Adam is leading the charge with the HEY app developed by Basecamp. As a designer, what’s the approach taken when developing a new product brand?
Adam: [00:02:10] We tend to approach brand development, I think from a little bit of a different perspective, in that we mostly start with tone and messaging and not visuals. And also part of that is because, formerly 37signals and now Basecamp, they have such an established brand, regardless of whatever particular look and feel might be attached to that. That is going to come through in some way. And you see that with HEY, where if you look at Basecamp.com and HEY.com. They’re aesthetically very different. But they share a lot of similar hallmarks in that they’re very message driven, very copy driven, and also fairly pared back visually.
Christian: [00:02:56] When it comes to brand, I think most people think of the look or the visuals associated with it. So why did they first start with messaging and copy?
Adam: [00:03:03] For us, it’s a little more about carving out what makes a product different and unique and special. And if we don’t have anything there, the rest kind of doesn’t matter. So it really was spend a lot of time focusing on really building up this story that we want people to come away with.
Christian: [00:03:28] Adam shares his appreciation for the essentialism or simplicity approach to how Basecamp developed. And as a solo designer, being able to leverage standards and design systems that are repeatable makes Adam’s job easier. Yet, listen as he shares the type of things to look for when designing with efficiency for a product in mind, efficiency that helps the product team as a whole.
[00:03:48] Better Product music plays.
Adam: [00:03:52] So, and this goes for the Basecamp brand as well, but it’s things like if we’re making a new landing page, how easy is it going to be to create the assets that I need for this? Am I going to have to tap in a contractor to produce something? Is it something that we can do in house? And then there’s the the whole other side of, because I’m also the developer of all these websites. So there’s also like, how does this translate to something that’s efficient for the web, because the websites we produce are very lean. And if you if you put HEY through the Google lighthouse scores, you’ll see nothing but hundreds. And that’s a very intentional thing.
[00:04:30] And again, like with these kind of blobby, simple primitives, those translate really well to SVGs. So they’re small, they’re light, I don’t have to produce five different variations at various densities and sizes. And it just, again, streamlines this entire thing.
[00:04:45] I think that’s one of the benefits of kind of how we approach design from this kind of holistic perspective. That you can kind of lose when you have specialists in these little silos, where typically a brand designer isn’t necessarily going to be thinking about how something they’re producing might translate to an efficient web page further down the chain. Because that’s so far removed from their area of expertise, that it’s just not even a thought.
Anna: [00:05:14] Are there places where you find yourself kind of struggling with web optimization? Or the ability to use a certain design element? Or how do you kind of have those conversations or have those kind of disagreements with yourself?
Adam: [00:05:28] I’m a very big fan of self imposed constraints in general, which is part of the reason why I approach web development from the way we do. And that’s kind of why I enjoy not just designing websites, but actually building them. My background is in more traditional graphic design. And I still enjoy that work. But it doesn’t have the same satisfaction to me as doing web work, because there just aren’t that many constraints in print work. You can kind of do whatever you want to do. But like hitting that mark of having something that’s both really aesthetically pleasing, and very efficient and very usable, that is ultimately very, very satisfying to me. And yeah, that does tend to mean that you’re making some kind of concessions over what you might be able to do in print.
[00:06:26] But I guess I’m of the belief that the web is a fundamentally different medium than print. And I don’t actually think that mimicking print is the ultimate goal. Web is beautifully responsive, in that it can adapt to this enormous array of devices that print just can’t do. So yeah, I find that very, very satisfying to kind of navigate that line between having something that feels really good, but also is a very good web citizen at the same time,
Christian: [00:07:02] You’re doing both sides, the design and the development. And it seems like you have a very good grasp on how to manage that. Now, if you step out and think about that from for other products, would you advocate for what you do? Meaning like, somebody else is starting up a product and a product team, and you’re the advisor of that team? Are you advising something like this? Or do you think that there’s just something unique about what you do and that for most people, it’s better to have that? Or do you think that there are more positives to the way that you’re sort of handling both sides, where you think the product is better because of that?
Adam: [00:07:38] I think, especially for companies in their earlier stages, or companies that just want to stay small, the kind of approach that we take is extremely valuable. In that you can produce design faster with fewer people. And also you end up not spinning your wheels on things that aren’t making a huge difference at the end of the day.
[00:08:04] So what I’m about to say is anecdotal, so this is this is not a hard and fast rule. But we’ve done plenty of A/B testing around various home pages on basecamp.com, with very richly illustrated versions that we spend like weeks like oh, this is this is the perfect illustration. And they didn’t do anything, or in some cases performed worse. And as a very early company, or a very young company who really, they don’t have time to spare, it’s really easy to go off on these little tangents that you think might have value, but really aren’t helping you in any real way.
So I think there’s, the more kind of intentional and rigorous you can be in an early phase, the better off you are. And then there’s also purely, from a personnel standpoint, the smaller and the more nimble, and the more cost efficient, you can run your business in those early days, you’re going to be better off.
[00:09:03] To date, Basecamp, we still don’t have anything that really is middle management. So there’s these huge efficiencies that come with with working this way.
Christian: [00:09:14] It almost sounds like you’re able to leverage the knowledge that you’ve gained, not just maybe some of the standards that were set with the way that you all speak as 37signals and Basecamp. But it sounds like you’re almost able to leverage some of the data that you’ve gained from those approaches to almost shortcut the experimentation on HEY. Do you feel like that’s true now? Or are you also running a lot of experiments on HEY?
Adam: [00:09:37] No, we actually haven’t done any experimentation on HEY. You know, one of the great things about Basecamp.com is we get a lot of traffic. And so anytime we’d run an A/B test, we are always trying to measure actual conversion to paid, not just signups. And that’s a really critical thing because on multiple tests, if we had just measured signups, we would have fielded a winner that was actually not a winner at all. Where, like, we were basically just injecting a lot of noise into the funnel because we weren’t properly qualifying people who are coming into that funnel. So they would sign up more, but then ultimately, fewer people would end up converting to paid.
[00:10:23] And to test for paid requires just a significantly higher number of people going into that A/B test to be able to do that. And so we can, with Basecamp.com, we can reliably do that in a timeframe that is worth doing it in. Maybe a couple weeks. HEY, because it is such a… it’s a new product, and we’re getting good traffic, but it’s not to the level that Basecamp is. So it’s just harder for us to do that. And we’re also, because it is new, we’re still dealing with the ramifications of this big influx of people. We’re not at the point where we’re like, let’s squeeze every drop out of this so we can get even more people into the funnel. We will get there. But we’re not trying to trying to go warp speed at this exact moment in time. So the performance that we have now is just fine.
Christian: [00:11:21] Yeah, I would imagine, too, it’s like you’re still in that grand opening phase, you’re probably getting PR, you’re getting people still sharing it and you don’t know… It’s like, you open a restaurant, you’re gonna get a lot of people that just want to try the new restaurant, but you don’t know if they’re the people you’re going to be serving long term. And so there’s that influx. Seems like some of your decisions need to wait until it’s gotten more regular to figure out, okay, who are the people that are really coming in? Why are they finding out about us?
Adam: [00:11:46] Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of value to just letting the dust settle a little bit before we start making a lot of decisions around those kind of things and really start trying to tinker with those dials. Because right now because things aren’t… we haven’t hit that steady state yet. And so until we can get there, it’s a lot harder to to see what’s noise and what isn’t.
Christian: [00:12:14] Are you familiar? I don’t wanna make assumptions. But are you familiar with Superhuman?
Adam: [00:12:16] Oh, yeah, yeah, sure.
Christian: [00:12:17] Okay, I would imagine it must have come up as you’re discussing. But what struck me even when learning about HEY, contrasting it with Superhuman, there’s such a difference in the way you’re both trying to completely change email. And then everybody who uses either one of them says it’s life changing. But I’m looking at Superhuman now versus HEY, and it’s reminding me how Superhuman is is very heavily focused on you as a person and speeding through your day and efficiency. Whereas HEY, and in the sort of letter that’s on the on the homepage is very much treating email with value. And the focus is on email as a thing.
[00:12:57] So I’d love to hear a little bit more if this came up in these discussions of how do you actually position what it is that you’re doing, because you could focus on the person, their speed, their day, making them Superhuman, or focus on email. So I’d love to just learn a little bit more about some of those discussions on how that decision got made and the position you were taking.
Adam: [00:13:16] Yes, so Superhuman was and well, more specifically, I think, Mike Isaac’s article about pixel tracking in Superhuman, had a direct influence on the development of HEY and specifically the spy pixel blocker that we baked in. That was kind of a direct reaction to not just Superhuman, but products like that. I mean, email marketing software has done that for years. But there’s this distinct difference between a single human looking at what you are doing with email, and just you as one of 10s of thousands of people opening a newsletter. And it feels so much more invasive, because it is so much more invasive.
[00:14:01] And that kind of backs out to like a bigger philosophy of HEY. And I think you can… it’s pretty apparent on both sides, too, where you can kind of see the the philosophy of both products. Where Superhuman, and, I don’t know, this might be a slightly uncharitable interpretation, but it’s more about making a faster horse. It’s not changing what email is, it’s simply making the current thing faster, and doing some other things for people who are more in like sales positions, like including read receipts and things like that.
[00:14:35] HEY comes from a completely different perspective of putting you back in control of email on multiple fronts. And that was like from the beginning, one of the central themes that most of the features were kind of developed off of. So that’s manifested in, like, with email today, or pre-HEY, maybe I should say. Anyone can email you, lands in your inbox. And now that’s a thing that you have to deal with. So we built the screener. So you can be like, nope, sorry, and you never hear from them again.
[00:15:13] People can see what you do with your emails, we built a spy pixel blocker to address that. You’re constantly getting notifications for emails, whether they’re an important email or not an important email, you just get a notification no matter what. It doesn’t notify you about anything unless it’s important.
[00:15:31] So it’s, at all these various points, it’s all about giving you control again of this thing that is largely out of control. And fundamentally, that’s what makes the email experience just terrible. Because it is literally a thing you just have to deal with. And so through through all of these different measures, and including the various boxes that we have, where like your main inbox, is really only email that you actually want to read, which is a far cry from the normal thing where it’s just this laundry list of promotions and stuff.
[00:16:11] And so yeah, that was a very conscious effort from a very early point in the product’s development. And yeah, it just informed absolutely everything. And that’s what, in my opinion, that’s what makes for good products is having a concrete perspective that can guide where the product is going. And not just an amalgamation of features. I think that’s really what distinguishes mediocre and good products from great products.
Christian: [00:16:44] There’s almost like a respect for email. I mean, you see it right in the thing that you used to get emails you like and all that. But that really comes through in the product you’re making. You’re almost treating email with a respect rather than just saying, this is just something… I mean, there’s emails you don’t want, you mentioned all that, filtering those things out. But it almost seems like you’re goal oriented. You’re filtering out these things to help someone get to the things they care about, rather than just be like, let’s just get you to stop having to use email because everybody hates it, and it sucks. And let’s just get you out of here. You’re like, there’s actually some good stuff in here, we’re going to help you get to that.
Adam: [00:17:17] Exactly. For the past several years, where you see people kind of en masse moving to products like Slack as a reaction to like, oh, email is terrible, let’s jump ship. But now you’re kind of hearing the opposite of like, oh, god, I’m just in Slack all day long. It’s just this constant noise that’s coming at me. And Basecamp has always been a huge proponent of asynchronous communication. And email is the original asynchronous communication tool. And it’s fantastic at it, aside from all this other stuff, because with synchronous tools, you feel this pressure to engage and respond in that moment. Whereas with asynchronous communication, you have the opportunity to kind of take a step back, formulate your thoughts, write an articulate response, and then send it when you have time. It’s a completely different vehicle.
[00:18:12] And that’s why most of our communication, like when we’re pitching something, we don’t have a meeting about it, we write up a long form message in Basecamp about it. And so asynchronous communication is kind of fundamental to Basecamp as an organization. [00:18:30] So yeah, to your point, yes, we think there is something in email that is absolutely worth saving.
Anna: [00:18:37] So you mentioned starting the HEY brand, with the tone and messaging, not the visuals. So talk to me a little bit about why you go about that process like that.
Adam: [00:18:44] That one’s tough. And since I started, kind of an ongoing conversation, because there hasn’t been as much… Historically, I should say, there hasn’t been as much emphasis on the visual side of branding at Basecamp. And with HEY, we wanted to do something a little different. And that was a great thing, because I think it it kind of came out in the reaction.
[00:19:09] In my experience, you you kind of can tell when a brand hits in the reaction that people have and the level of enthusiasm. So there can be a good product people are like oh, cool, that’s a cool product, I’m gonna buy it. But when the brand really resonates, you get more into that, “Shut up and take my money” territory. Where there are just, yes, I want it now. I need it now. Give it to me. And that’s a lot of the reaction we had with HEY. And I cannot point to you to a metric that says that’s related to the brand. We’re way too small to spend time to quantify that in any way. But yeah, in my opinion, that is definitely something that’s resonated. And I think, importantly, within the company, we’ve just kind of all recognized that and was like, yeah, we should keep doing this kind of thing.
Christian: [00:20:04] Yeah, it’s hard to come up with super quantifiable stats. But I know from from personal experience, I hear about it. And the conversations going on on Twitter, and then in the design sphere. And then, there’s a bunch of great products that come out all the time, but it takes one that’s got a good brand that actually gets people engaged with it. So I think from that perspective, while you may not be able to measure it, the conversations happening about it are a really good indicator that there’s something else aside from just the great product that’s resonating.
Adam: [00:20:29] Right, exactly.
Christian: [00:20:31] Awesome. Thanks a lot, Adam.
Anna: [00:20:32] We appreciate your time.
[00:20:34] Better Product music plays.
Anna: [00:20:37] Christian, tell me your first big takeaway.
Christian: [00:20:41] First big takeaway was something we talked about towards the end, which was to kind of focus on the product itself and the respect for what it did. I just, it’s a subtle thing, and really, as he was talking about his process, talking about Basecamp. And then I’m looking at the site again, I was sort of seeing it through fresh eyes, and really it just became clear to me that it’s not just the authenticity that comes through. He mentioned the essentialism as sort of facet of everything. There’s just such a, not just cleanliness, but a focus on what’s good.
[00:21:11] And I’m rereading the letter on there that talks about email, there’s, you’re missing good emails. And I guess I just resonated with that. And you can kind of think of that and hear his interview and think about the fact that it’s not all about building products to streamline and make things efficient, or get rid of inconveniences. There’s actually really good things that are out there that have just gotten screwed up over time. And there’s ways to sort of get you back to doing those good things. I think that’s what really stuck out to me.
Anna: [00:21:40] Yeah, really tied to that, I loved his his approach of the brand efficiency and how they’re thinking about brand, but they’re highly, highly balancing. He is a brand team of one and he is the person who has to… You know, not only does he have to design it, but he has to build it and create all the assets and everything. And so I don’t know that that’s something we’ve ever really heard in regards to brand, this idea of like, we want to make sure the visual assets are super lean and that it’s a really efficient website to load. Which, I don’t know that a lot of brand people would talk about it like that. But I think it’s just a really different perspective. It’s something that I think we understand, having design backgrounds, that it takes a lot of work to make something very, very simple. It’s probably more work to get that brand down to its bare essentials.
Christian: [00:22:28] Yeah, and I think, too, if you’re a single designer working on something that was maybe triple the visuals that they have on, HEY, you really put yourself in a position where you’re either going to be working like 12 hour days to keep up with that. And especially if you’re also coding it like he is on there landing page. But you start realizing you’re setting yourself up for all that work. So it’s not just enough to say that, oh, just being your own designer and developer will naturally do that. It’s also a decision that you have to make on keeping it efficient so you can do it well. He has a very keen sense for what his capabilities are, what the maintenance is going to be around that and then how it fits with the overall company.
[00:23:07] So I think if you’re listening to this podcast wondering, how do I translate that to my own product? It’s not just about saying, oh, everybody should go lean, like this. But it really is just like having an awareness for who your company is, what your voice is, and matching it through the visuals that you bring out there. And, I think even he said it in the beginning. The messaging and the speech that they have, is really where they start. They started with that before the visuals.
Anna: [00:23:33] And I also like that it’s a very essential, very minimalist brand, but at the same time, it is a great brand and that’s what he said. Kind of the business ROI on a great brand is that your product is next level and people will talk about your product like it’s next level because it feels next level and it looks next level. And I just love that his quote, a brand can take a good product to shut up and take my money. Which I know is not his quote, but he put it all together and tied it to brand and product.
Christian: [00:24:01] He did, and he said it on here.
Anna: [00:24:02] I liked that.
Christian: [00:24:02] He’s the only person who said that on this podcast, so…
Anna: [00:24:05] That’s true.
Christian: [00:24:06] And we don’t know anything outside here. I suppose that there’s a trend to come out from this it would be cool. It would almost be nice to see some copycats just because we always joke about all the people that like copy Stripe in the design world. It’s like, always this slanted style, but it’d be nice if people copied a brand that was messaging forward lean. Because I think it forces you to reflect on who you really are. It takes… And I think it’s like anything. You wear a bunch of loud clothing, it kind of hides who you are. If you shroud yourself in these things, it’s like you don’t know what’s there. And I think it really like exposes the value and mission behind HEY, the way it’s done.
Anna: [00:24:46] I think that design, just like everything in the world, every cycle is a response to the cycle that came before it. Like the free love of the ‘70s and then we had the hard-nosed capitalism of the ‘80s. Everything responds to the thing that came before it. And I think on the branding side, I think these highly illustrated, very big visual assets. It feels like the response to that is more toward this early ‘90s, computing minimalism.
[00:25:14] But I think on the other side from what I’ve seen, and from what our team talks about on the product design side, I think we’re moving from a really minimalistic approach to a much more shadows and gradients and going a little back toward that, early oughts.
Christian: [00:25:29] Skeuomorphic.
Anna: [00:25:30] Skeuomorphism. So, I don’t know. I think it’s really interesting to see these design phases talk to each other and cycles so quickly, like every five years, but also to see brand and product design almost moving on a different spectrum from minimalism to like I don’t know, maximalism. I’m not sure what the the opposite of minimalism is.
Christian: [00:25:47] Victorian.
Anna: [00:25:49] Kind of interesting to see. Yeah.
[00:25:52] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:25:52] For more of the Better Product podcast, head over to BetterProduct.community/podcast. Adam is on Twitter at @AdamStddrd.
Wailin: [00:26:02] We are on Twitter at @ReworkPodcast and you can find all of our episodes at rework.fm. We’ll be back next week with our regularly scheduled programming and maybe Shaun will review a candle!