This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine.
By Vanessa Quigley, co-founder, Chatbooks.
We started Chatbooks four years ago with one simple idea: to help people hold on to their family memories by automatically turning their Instagram posts into photo books. That original product was a hit, and by 2018 we were ready to go bigger and better and solve the photo book challenge for even more people. Our goal was to automatically turn all the photos on your phone into books.
We were uniquely situated to solve this: over the last few years, customers had uploaded more than 4.5 billion photos to Chatbooks, and made millions of decisions about the photos they wanted to include (and exclude). We analyzed that data, found clear patterns in what people printed, created algorithms to find those patterns in new photo sets, and voila — we were ready to give people automatic photo books!
There was just one problem, and it took comparing photo books to self-driving cars to help us figure it out. We’re all admirers of how Tesla is pioneering autonomous vehicles, but we’re definitely not all driving down I-15 while reading a book. But we are gradually transitioning to cars that use driver assistance to help us all drive with less stress. The Society of Automotive Engineers lays out the levels of driving automation on a scale from 0 to 5. Level 0 includes automated warnings, like the blind spot monitors that make switching lanes safer. Level 1 is “Hands on” the wheel and adds lane-keep assistance for staying in our lane. The scale continues: Level 2 is “Hands off”, 3 is “Eyes off”, 4 is “Mind off”, and 5 is “Steering Wheel optional.” And while Level 5 sounds amazing, would you get in a car without a steering wheel and pedals?
For us at Chatbooks, launching fully automatic photo books was like going straight to Levels 3 and beyond, without first excelling at Level 1. Our intuition and data-driven culture had led us to creating and optimizing an epic solution... that no one was ready for. By early spring, we realized we needed to add a third superpower to our tool kit to turn our technology into something customers would use and love.
That superpower — and the hero of our 2018 story — is user research. To do that well, we needed to build out a whole new Product function at Chatbooks based on user-centered design. That started with a national executive search to find a fearless leader who could forge the path. We found exactly who we wanted in Lauren Treasure, a head of the DNA product at Ancestry.
We’ve always talked to customers at Chatbooks (it’s one of my favorite things to do!) but Lauren quickly upleveled our “talk to customers” mindset. Instead of talking to a few customers at the beginning or end of a process, we now talk to many people, in many ways, throughout everything we do. It’s all about empathizing with the customer: what are their problems, and what are they trying to do? The customer’s job isn’t to give us the solution — although they will have lots of ideas — but to share their objective and problems.
Then our job is to take their objectives and find solutions. We brainstorm concepts as a cross-functional group (UX, product, marketing, engineers), etc — and then we put very basic prototypes in front of users. We take their feedback, then quickly iterate and make new prototypes based on their responses, and the iteration cycle continues.
What we found surprised us. Nobody (nobody!) asked us to make a complete photo book for them — but they did ask for the process to be super simple and easy. People want assistance to look at the right dates, and they want us to take out garbage photos and group similar photos. But once we’ve cleaned things up a bit, they like to look at their photos and choose the ones with emotional resonance.
Today, we’ve reached “Level 1,” which turns out to be exactly the delightful experience people are looking for in a photo book maker. And as we close out the year, we don’t just believe we’re the best way to make a photo book or card on your phone — we went out and proved it, over the course of a thousand user feedback sessions. The collective power of that individual feedback now shows up in the cold hard data: conversion rates have increased by over 50% since we started our user research journey! Now we get to start 2019 off with a bang and begin to iterate our way to the next level, whatever that may be for our real-life customer.