CEO Friday: Focus on the User or your Product Will Suck

David Barrett —  April 29, 2011 — 7 Comments

There’s nothing more frustrating than wasting time trying to save time, and the easiest way to do that is to use some complex off-the-shelf solution for a really easy problem.  Take something as straightforward as user help.  If someone needs to ask for help, they already have a problem — it’s the absolute worst time to make a user jump through hoops, and certainly not hoops that don’t work.  Accordingly, we’ve tried to make it as easy as possible to get support:

  • just email,
  • click Help in the upper-right corner,
  • or if all else fails, click Feedback in the upper-right corner, type your issue into a box, then click Send.

Easy peasy.  Everything goes to a help person, they answer within 24 hours (if not immediately), and everybody’s happy.  It’s why Expensify has legendarily good support.

Sometimes we get asked, why “waste time” writing our own help system, and not “save time” by using something off the shelf, like GetSatisfaction?  And one major reason is because writing it ourself took so little time; integrating an outside system (with CNAMES, SSO, etc) would have taken longer.

But the real reason we don’t is because the one thing it needs to do best — help users get help — it does poorly.  Indeed, GetSatisfaction gets satisfaction for the company, by making the user do a bunch of extra work just to ask the frickin’ question in the first place.  Take my recent attempt to figure out why I can’t upgrade Thunderbird:

  1. I find the relevant help page on Thunderbird’s site.
  2. The answer isn’t there, sadly, but I see this cool button titled “I have this problem, too!”
  3. Given that I do the have problem, I click it thinking that it’ll — I dunno — add me to a list of people with this problem.
  4. Instead, it asks me to log in to GetSatisfaction, and provides a zillion options to do so.
  5. I’m not really interested in doing this, but I figure I’ll give it a shot: I choose the Facebook option.
  6. A big pop-up flashes before my eyes, and now I see my profile image — cool, it connected to my account!  Except.. it’s still prompting me for my email address.
  7. So I type in my email address, even though the whole point of Facebook Connect is it shouldn’t need it (or should automatically get it).
  8. I click Continue, and it tells me “This email is in use with an existing account. Please login with the password for this account.”  What the hell?  Why did I bother Facebook Connecting?
  9. I try my password.  Naturally, I can’t remember it.
  10. I try resetting it.
  11. While waiting for the password reset email, I instead decide that a better use of my time is to write this blog post explaining why Expensify doesn’t use GetSatisfaction: because I don’t want to subject our users to the same bad experience I’m currently enduring.

Don’t get me wrong — in the best case scenario, GetSatisfaction is really good: if you already have and are signed in to an account, or if you remember your password or if FaceBook connect doesn’t flake out; if everything loads quick; if the question already exists and somebody bothers to respond to it; etc.  The best case is great.

But when dealing with support, you should be far more interested in the worst case, as that’s what the user who’s having trouble will probably endure.  Probably they don’t already have a GetSatisfaction account, or if they do, they’re not signed in to it, don’t remember the password, or have some FaceBook connect problem.  Even if the their question has already been asked a million times, it doesn’t change the fact that they want to ask it again — if they wanted to search for an answer, they probably would have already found it.   And even if they survive the process and successfully ask the question, you’ve got to remember to actually respond.

I don’t mean to bag on GetSatisfaction — it’s one of the best of its class of system.  But it’s “class of systems” shares a lot of the problems of classic enterprise products: a huge product solving a small problem, sold to someone at the “top” even though it’s used by people “at the bottom”.  Indeed, this dynamic is what makes enterprise products suck: the people using the product (employees, end users, etc) have no real say in the selection, and thus make up a very small part of the pitch.

For example, consider the text on the GetSatisfaction homepage:

  • Measuring value from social media shouldn’t be this hard
  • Give a voice to brand champions
  • 50,000+ companies trust Get Satisfaction
  • Get Satisfaction for Facebook: turn Likes into Loves
  • 2011 Community Manager Insights
  • Enterprise: Sometimes size does matter
  • Get Satisfaction powers the world’s best brands to solve problems, give a voice to champions, bring out the best ideas and drive better business.
  • Who is JarGon?  JarGon is the customer service robot. He has no heart and isn’t capable of love. He was created in a secret lab to frustrate customers, and Get Satisfaction is locked in an epic battle to protect the populace from this bumbling, metallic menace.

Is ANY of that interesting to the end user?  The only thing a user wants is “Get answers to your questions fast and reliably”, but that message just isn’t there.  Again, it’s for an obvious reason: GetSatisfaction isn’t sold to users.  They don’t participate in the buying process.  Their concerns are, frankly, secondary.  Not necessarily an afterthought, but it’s clear from their language that their focus is on making the company, the customer service department, the community manager — the “top” happy.  The “bottom” just has to deal with it.

This top-down dynamic gradually — inexorably — focuses the product on the buyer’s needs, not the user’s.  It forces the product to adopt a bunch of features the user doesn’t care about, or that the user actively dislikes, in order to justify a thicker bullet list and bigger price tag to the buyer.  It makes the product suck.

Stay focused on the end user or your product will also suck.

PS: Wouldn’t it be slick if there were some sort of help system taking the Expensify “bottom up” approach that serves as sort of help agent? For example, it could:

  • Have a 24/7 concierge staff that is generally versed with how to navigate help systems and specifically familiar with supporting the top products
  • Automate integration with the top support systems (GetSatisfaction, UserVoice) as well major brands help systems.
  • Have a case-management system that works for youso when you log a support ticket with this service, the service goes out and tracks down the answer for you — finding and emailing the right address, nagging whoever needs to be nagged, calling and waiting on hold for you, posting to the right forum and waiting for the response, etc.
  • This service wouldn’t actually answer your support questions, they would just serve as your agent to ensure your question gets asked (and re-asked) in the right place, give you ongoing status of each outstanding question, and then route the response back to you.

Maybe it’s a terrible idea that wouldn’t work. But if you could make it work, you’d have a userbase that loves you, and would be able to gradually disrupt all the other help CRMs out there. Users are sick of being cut out of the process, and if you give them a voice, they’ll speak up loudly.

David Barrett


Founder of Expensify, destroyer of expense reports, and savior to frustrated employees worldwide.

7 responses to CEO Friday: Focus on the User or your Product Will Suck


    I think this is also part of why companies who outsource their call centers get a bad reputation. They are solely focused on bettering their bottom line, not on helping their customers. There really isn’t a good way to be efficient with customers when they are upset. If you don’t mitigate the reason for them being upset in a courteous and timely manner, one of your competitors will.

    One of the major upsides to personally interacting with the customer when they need technical support is that you are able to get a feel for how they are using your software/website and use that feedback to improve your code. When a company resorts to a forum style tech support option like Get Satisfaction, they miss that personal interaction and the opportunities it affords.

    In all, if the software/website is really as awesome the developer thinks it is, the business really shouldn’t need to spend that much money on tech support. It should be easy enough for most end users to be able to use without handholding.


    Sean – I agree entirely. In fact, everybody at Expensify chips in on help: we randomly dispatch all help email and 800# number calls throughout engineering, marketing, etc. So if you dial our 800#, there’s a chance I’ll be the one taking your call.

    I’ll admit, sometimes it’s hard to justify spending time walking individual users through the product. But I feel it’s crucial for everybody to have experience with real users so we stay in touch with real people — and thus ensure our opinions on the product and company direction are steeped in reality. It also keeps us all on our toes as we all need to know the product pretty much inside and out — even the parts we don’t use ourselves — just to make sure we’re able to answer the questions when we get them.

    So it’s not the cheapest or funnest way to do customer support, but I feel it’s the best for users and for the company as a whole.


    Out of curiosity, do you use a custom setup for other parts of your site in order to see the same benefit? At my current company, we custom design most of what we use in order to provide better benefit to the customer since we work with a rather specialized data set.


    We try to use off-the-shelf wherever it makes sense, but in general it only “makes sense” if the tool fits your needs perfectly — if it’s more than a little off (or if you’re unwilling to adjust your needs to fit the tool) then a custom solution is generally better.

    For example, like everyone we started with Google Analytics, but ultimately found we had to build out a bunch of more powerful analytics tools that tie directly into our database. As it is, I don’t even look at Google Analytics anymore as it only shows a tiny subset of the data (and the least interesting subset, at that).


    The forum is a brighter place thanks to your posts. Thanks!


    I already spent for 2 days just to fix my exporting issue to QBO. But your chat people are not in there. They will left you before you solve your problem or fix the issue. Please help!

    Natalie O'Connor December 16, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    Sorry for the confusion. Our chat feature is not currently a live-chat. We suggest including as much information on the issue at hand in the initial chat and our Success Team can guide you. Thanks for being a valuable Expensify customer.

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