The Possibilities of “And” — Prioritizing Usability Alongside Feature Growth
Many of us can identify with using business software that has a robust feature set but is painful to use. Or perhaps it’s easy to set up and configure with the help of a support team but becomes a guessing game when you’re actually trying to get the job done. Either way, setting up a business’ tech stack can seem like a no-win game of “or” where you have to choose either power or usability, but rarely both.
At HubSpot we believe in the possibility of “and,” with ease of use equally weighted with a powerful set of features. We value transparency at HubSpot so here’s some real talk: Saying this is easy, doing it is difficult. As the VP of our UX team I’ve led us through releasing several new product lines and a rapidly diversifying user base, and I can tell you there’s a reason most business software falls short in usability…it’s really hard. Especially with a one-size-fits-all platform like HubSpot that serves a range of industries and users. We insist on a high bar for usability because it’s the right thing for our customers.
How we drive usability
We pull a combination of levers to put usability into focus as our platform increases in complexity. These levers are intentionally diverse; some are cultural, some process oriented, some foster shared values, others are supporting systems.
We drive usability in five ways:
- Agree usability is a core value & commit to a shared definition
- Understand the difference between usability & utility
- Nurture a customer-obsessed culture
- Operationalize, resource, and measure usability
- Leverage a common design language
Each of them contributes to reaching the level of usability our customers value (and expect!) from HubSpot. Here’s a deep dive into these five main drivers.
1. We agree usability is a core value & commit to a shared definition.
Last year our Product Leadership team committed to a hierarchy of needs, known as our “Mainsail,” that has become our operating system. Usability has its own layer, and together with security, reliability, and performance they comprise the fundamentals of the Mainsail. This is powerful because it created a shared commitment among engineering, product, and UX leadership that we value usability, and together we will support investment in it.
Adding usability to our Mainsail was one step; next we put a lot of thought into what we mean when we say “usability” to give us a frame for how we should think about usability. We researched many definitions and looked at a lot of customer data to come up with this definition to frame usability at HubSpot:
Usability is the measure of discoverability, learnability, efficiency, and accessibility in using the HubSpot platform to accomplish a user’s goals.
The four attributes we’ve chosen — discoverability, learnability, efficiency, accessibility — are core themes we consistently hear in customer feedback. Some users value one more than another (we know efficiency is top of mind for sales reps while marketers value learnability) but in general they’re universally important across our entire customer base. These attributes illuminate opportunities for moments of delight in our design. And tactically, the usability definition also serves as the basis for how we measure and categorize usability issues (discussed below).
We future-proofed the definition too — it’s intentionally flexible, which allows us to calibrate as the platform evolves. We consider it inclusive of all populations, like developers using our APIs, people using our free products, customers who operate across country borders in many languages, and those working with physical or cognitive impairments.
2. We understand the difference between usability & utility.
One of the keys to keeping our usability value pure across more than 80 front end teams is differentiating utility and usability. A utility improvement is functionality that adds net new value to our tools; a usability improvement improves an existing workflow or completes functionality that a user expects. But why would we draw this line? We’ve found it’s common for product teams to be compelled or incentivized to build new features instead of fixing or iterating on existing functionality. So drawing a line between usability and utility is a helpful guardrail teams can use to prioritize their roadmaps, and gives them the agency to figure out how to incorporate both.
As you can imagine, that line is often more gray than black and white, and that’s expected. The goal is not to perfectly separate utility and usability 100% of the time; instead over time we want teams to build the discipline to debate it among themselves. Whenever I hear the utility/usability debate it’s a signal we’re keeping usability — and our customers — at the forefront of our priorities.
3. We nurture a customer-obsessed culture.
When I think about why we value ease of use, it’s clear our focus on usability is rooted in a culture of putting customers at the center of our world. Several main customer feedback arteries pump real-time customer feedback to every single employee. By freeing this data, we reinforce a culture where the customer voice is omnipresent. For employees who aren’t customer-facing in their primary job function, we encourage partnerships with our support and services teams who summarize customer feedback trends.
Keeping these channels accessible and well-groomed serves an important purpose; it’s how we’ve learned that ease of use is very important to our customers. And these channels keep us aligned on top themes, like usability, that are supremely important to them. It’s a theme we’ve studied and dissected carefully, especially as our user base evolves. We’re close enough to the feedback that we can see small and large shifts in customers’ expectations about usability, which helps us address them with the right teams quickly.
4. We operationalize, resource & measure usability efforts.
The decision to establish a shared definition of usability and free customer feedback needs to be supported by an action plan to be effective. So we’ve taken measures to operationalize usability and help teams hold themselves accountable for keeping a pulse on how they’re doing. Accountability is very important at HubSpot because it’s how we honor one of our most beloved values: autonomy. We don’t want teams to ask for permission to shift their focus to usability. We empower them to make the call on their own.
We log usability issues just like we log bugs in the software, and these issues can be created by anyone in the company. Everyone from the support team to our CEO weighs in! Each issue is assigned to the team that is primarily responsible for it and they categorize and estimate the severity of the issue. Based on that calculation if a team reaches a certain threshold of usability issues, it’s a sign they should shift from new feature development to improving usability. We provide monthly reporting on the volume of usability issues per team, and that too is available for anyone in the company to view.
Incorporating feedback from customer channels and inviting broad participation is so powerful; there is remarkable transparency in our operating system. It also shows a truth we have embraced — usability is always a work in progress. And that creates an inherent incentive to strive for power and ease of use.
Along with logging usability debt and assessing impact, we’ve developed a number of ways to measure ease of use. I talk to many design leaders who find this daunting, and I’ve been there too. But we’ve leaned into a trick that greatly simplifies it. It comes down to measuring what matters to our customers. We asked users to tell us the most important tasks they do in HubSpot, and then we benchmarked the usability of those tasks. The results of this benchmarking study directed us to a few areas we were confident we’d be improving the experience for a large cohort of users. When we measured the most traveled paths in our platform it gave us tremendous clarity and helped frame usability issues from the customer point of view instead of guessing where our usability potholes exist.
We’re also mindful of the “build to close deals” product development strategy where usability debt can sneakily accrue over time. It seems like many enterprise software solutions take a wrong turn when they get in the habit of building features to close deals. The trouble is, when you exclusively design for decision makers you risk neglecting the people actually using the tool.
We know HubSpot customers represent small and large teams. In many cases the people deciding to buy HubSpot are users. But that’s not always the case; this year, for example, we are building more features for our enterprise customers. For them the distance between users and the people choosing the software is great. So we’re extra vigilant about maintaining a high bar for usability and guarding against this bias by involving real users in our discovery research. We invite them to participate in looking at early concepts to give feedback and in the process we inevitably uncover new ways to add value. Our approach and investment in discovery yields a continuous feedback cycle that keeps us hyperconnected to users. This seems like user research 101, and it is. But it’s remarkable how quickly we sacrifice the basics when revenue is on the line.
5. We leverage a common design language.
In 2015 a subset of our design team (back when the team could fit around one table!) started talking about how to achieve consistency at scale. First they established a design language for the product that was consistent with HubSpot’s brand. Soon after HubSpot’s first design system, Canvas, was born. The team also developed a process for every designer on the team to contribute to it, run by a rotating centralized volunteer team. Since then Canvas has undergone a number of iterations and the way we operationalize it has transformed too. This year we’re forming a small, dedicated design infrastructure team to fully own the operations and process necessary to shape shift Canvas as the user base and our team evolves.
Design systems are known to help distributed design teams achieve consistency — a very real and practical reason to use them. But we understand that the consistency Canvas affords us is really in service of our macro usability goals. We believe consistency is one driver of usability, so the investment in keeping Canvas a living, breathing system is an investment in achieving the power/ease of use value HubSpot is known for.
Breaking the Tyranny of Or
What does it really take to go to market with a robustly featured product that honors ease of use, too? For us it’s a combination of culture, a shared definition of usability, a sustainable operating system, deploying the right measurements, and a common design language. When we align on these levers across our whole organization the possibilities — for us, for our users, for our product — are endless.
If you’re jazzed about working on a team that’s making business software easy and powerful, we’d love to hear from you. We’re hiring for product designers, content designers, and researchers; check out our careers page at https://www.hubspot.com/careers/product-engineering.