Why we started a User Research team (and what we learned along the way)
I remember when it was easy to make user-centered decisions. The year was 2015, and at the time, CallRail only had about a few hundred users to its name.
Cue the dream sequence, everyone!
Four years prior, our CEO Andy Powell needed a call tracking software for his startup, Bimmershops. At the time, call tracking tech was limited to enterprise businesses with deep pockets. The services on the market were expensive (especially at lower volumes), and the implementation and management were so complex that users usually needed extensive training.
Andy and Kevin Mann built the original CallRail app for Andy’s own use case, and began shopping it around to other businesses like his. Early on, our users were in a consistent, beta-style feedback loop. As the team grew to include support agents, we blocked out part of every company meeting to discuss ‘what the customers were saying this week.’ That way, every person in the company received weekly updates about our users’ main goals and problems.
When I joined in 2015, we were still creating a product roadmap heavily inspired by requests from users, and we were still getting weekly updates from our customer-facing roles. In short, we had found ways to stay aligned with the needs of our users — the people for whom we were building our product — but it was going to be next-to-impossible to scale this approach.
Over the last 4 years, our business has scaled quickly. We were still ‘dogfooding’ (using our product internally), but our own use cases were less and less like our small business or agency users. Pretty soon, we needed to work harder and harder for the alignment we previously took for granted when our whole team fit around a conference table.
CallRail had already achieved a lot by forming cross-functional teams and empowering them to build a great product. But this entrepreneurial approach, which had worked so well when we were small, started to show signs of strain around the time we hired our 100th employee.
We had created a product development culture that was heavily reliant on leadership and veterans for direction on what to build, and how to build it. Our customer insights were being gathered and disseminated through what amounted to an extended game of ‘telephone,’ meaning they were often out-of-date the moment they arrived on our desk.
We were moving fast and making assumptions. There were a couple of features that got deep into production, before a quick check-in with a group of users invalidated our strategy. We would build a feature for release, and then sometimes go back and make changes based on feedback. So when we started to take this rework time into consideration, it looked like the time we gained by cutting our research phase ended up costing us overall.
The challenge was proving that measuring twice and cutting once would save us time and money in the long run. We went into a phase of guerilla research tactics that were cheap and cobbled together. We sent out a few surveys and set up a few calls, but mostly jumped on calls that were already happening within sales or support. We used FullStory and our own app to see what users were doing, asking, and where they were getting stuck.
Once we started collecting product insights, we needed to figure out a way to manage and distribute it. We also wanted to set up a stronger channel for feedback, not relying on people sending in tickets or calling support to ask for something.
We had UX Designers and Content Strategists rally around the cause and join in on the efforts. Everyone wanted to help, but we didn’t know exactly where to start with all the tools and strategies for starting and maintaining a user feedback loop. We hired a hybrid UX Designer/Researcher, Andy Jin, and he helped us get some key processes in place.
The original plan was to build a case slowly to move Andy into full time User Research, by carefully choosing projects with well-defined goals to show value of research through metrics like higher conversion, higher revenue, and saved development time.
But then, we took a gamble: We decided it made more sense for Andy and Brittney Sovik, our Content Strategist, to team up on a research plan to validate a high-profile product concept. The user insights from this project were so valuable that even the most hesitant stakeholders were persuaded by the volume of input, a lot of which cut against our original gut instincts for how to execute this project.
In other words, our User Research team came together surprisingly quickly! Now, we have more buy-in and time built into the design cycle, mostly for validating prototypes and product strategies that are in flight. Likewise, Andy has transitioned into full-time user research, and Brittney has moved into a hybrid role.
Both Andy and Brittney support and help coordinate research across teams, but all of the UX Designers, Content Strategists, and Product Managers are involved in the project-research process. All these years later, and we’re still attending customer events and speaking directly with our users about their goals and pain points, and how our product could better meet their needs.
Andy and Brittney are developing a centralized repository for documenting and distributing insights from our users, and are working on plans to automate portions of the participant sourcing and signup. We’re all working on using these customer insights not just to test new features, but to constantly refine and improve the user experience for the best (and one of the most-used) call tracking services on the market.
CallRail started out as a few nerds who were passionate about accurate, data-driven decision making in their marketing efforts. We built a beautiful product for other analytical marketers like us. Now, we’re investing in new roles and processes to ensure that our data-driven and user-oriented spirit scales along with our team. It requires a lot of work, but I’m thankful to be a part of a company that is committed to meeting the needs of our users.
And I’m also thankful to have a user base that’s so willing to give feedback! (Shameless plug: Sign up here if you’d like to participate in CallRail user research.)
Interested in learning more about the company culture here at CallRail and joining our fast-growing team? We’re always hiring!