Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of speaking with the head of the MailChimp UX team and author of Designing for Emotion, Aarron Walter.

If you design products, or have a product idea, listen in as Aarron shares many of the secrets of MailChimp’s success.


Carl: Today we have with us Aarron Walter from MailChimp. And MailChimp, as many of you know, is just an amazing email marketing tool.

So Aarron, how are you doing?

Aarron: I’m great. Thanks for having me.

Carl: Now, do me a favor for those listeners who don’t know MailChimp and don’t know you, give us a little bit of a background.

Aarron: Well, MailChimp is a web app, a tool for sending email to lots of people or just a few people to connect with an audience to say something meaningful.

And my background—what I do there—I am the general manager of new products. But I’ve spent the past seven years working on MailChimp, leading the User Experience team.

Carl: That’s great.

So I’ll tell you that I use MailChimp quite a bit. I have many different endeavors that I’m involved in both as the owner of a service shop, I use MailChimp to manage how we contact the people that have signed up for our newsletter. And then also as part of the Bureau, I have probably seven different groups that I have created; probably 20 different segments…see I know all the terminology, Aarron. (laughter) And I have to tell you once you understand the system it’s really, really powerful.

But it wasn’t always that way, I’m sure. I’m sure when MailChimp first started out it was a much simpler system. Now tell us a little bit about about how long you‘ve been with MailChimp and the evolution of MailChimp as you know it.

Aarron: I’ve been there since 2008. I was employee number four. So I’ve been there a long time thinking about how to make it useable and how to make it fun to do work. It’s the really important thing for us when we build apps for small businesses, medium businesses, even a lot of large businesses use MailChimp as well. It certainly has changed a lot over the years. Although we’ve added a lot of tools and features, it’s really important to us that…we believe that it’s one thing for an application to be powerful but it’s not truly powerful if it’s not easy. We don’t want to make software that dominates people, we want to make software that people can dominate, control, use to do the things that are relevant to them. So you mentioned once you understand the system, it’s really easy to do. Our goal is to actually go one step further; to make this for anybody, anybody that’s not into software, maybe they just use Facebook and they know how to do basic internet searching. You don’t have to be a coder, you don’t have to be a computer savant to use MailChimp. That’s our goal…is to make it really easy. 

And then the next step is to let that grow as your business and your level of sophistication grows. That you can do really fancy things, talk to specific segments of your customers like you just eluded to. Do really fancy email designs if you wanted to up your game there. Learn a lot and dig into reports, etc. So the idea that it’s an app for anyone to get started and use; we want to empower the little guy, the underdog. But we also want to build tools that grow with businesses so they can do lots more sophisticated things down the road.

Carl: I can only imagine as employee number four…and how many owners are there?

Aarron: There are two co-founders and owners, Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius.

Carl: So there’s one other person who was there right before you…

Aarron: So yeah our head engineer, Chad Morris, he’s the other person, he was there before me. Generally when they count employees, they don’t count the founders.

Carl: Okay, gotcha.

Aarron: It was an interesting time where there was just a few of us in the office, in a tiny space. And it was fun and exciting. And we had a lot of freedom to try out a lot of new things.

Carl: And now you’re hundreds, right?

Aarron: I think we’re a little over 300 people. We’re about to move into a new space at Ponce City Market, which is in downtown Atlanta. This really cool old building that used to be the Sears and Roebuck building. It’s the biggest building in the southeast…biggest brick building, I should say. Our space is something like two football fields end to end. So it’s changed a lot since when I started. It’s been really cool to see.

Carl: That’s amazing.

One of the things that struck me—I had the opportunity to come to your office just over a year ago—and I’ve been fortunate that I am allowed…I’m able…and allowed…my wife is fine with it…to travel around and work from different locations. You have, at MailChimp, a culture that is so strong and powerful, you feel it when you walk in.

A lot of the shops that I’ve been to…and I’ve said this to a lot of people over the past few years…you walk in and there’s a dark room and they turn on the light and they go “this is the ping pong table” and then they turn the light off and you leave. And you’re like “why is the light off?” and it’s because nobody has the ability to go in there without somebody staring at them like “why aren’t you working?” At MailChimp you guys have truly created that space. When we were walking through a cafeteria area or something like that and people were playing ping pong and it was really, really amazing. 

Congratulations to you for continuing that culture, when you were four people or six people or all the way up to hundreds. It’s kinda fun…I can’t wait to swing by the old Sears and Roebuck and see what you guys have done over there.

Aarron: It’s, like I said, it’s really fun to see how that’s…how the culture has grown and evolved. To be honest, it’s a lot different but it’s a lot of the same. And, a lot of the same in the best ways from my perspective.

It’s a very family oriented place, that we respect people’s time and commitment to their family and their personal life. But we also are really passionate about what we’re working on. We’re passionate about our customers and passionate about design and craft. And we just believe that all of those things can exist in your life together and you don’t have to make a huge sacrifice of one of those pieces because they’re all important. And if you can build a space where all those things can exist simultaneously you get really healthy, happy people. And, not that we’re thinking about metrics and so forth when it comes to building the company and the people that we hire, but we have a really low turn rate. People don’t—it’s pretty rare that people leave. Sometimes it happens where something’s happening in a person’s life, spouse gets a job in another city, something like that. For the most part people are really excited to go to work.

Ben and Dan, the co-founders, I feel like all the credit goes to them because they have a very strong belief that they want to build a place that people love to work. They can work hard, make something and feel that reward. And also get ahead at the same time without leaving their family behind.

So it’s pretty common that we see people in the office with their kids. You come in on a Monday morning and you can see that some kid came by this weekend—maybe someone had to pick up a book or something like that—and the kids wanted to hang out and build some Lego stuff or draw on the walls or something like that. That sounds like, is that a gimmick, having kids around and so forth? We don’t believe so. We believe that when you make a fun place to work, a place that respects people and respects their humanity, they want to do great work and we feel like it feels good to make a place like that and a place like that enables your best work. We can make really great things for our customers when we are at our best. When we’re happiest.

Carl: And that really shines through.

So when you’re four people or six people and deciding how to change MailChimp, deciding how to change the application itself. I would imagine you sit around a table and it’s a pretty quick discussion—you may spend a half day brainstorming and then you decide things and you move forward. But when you get 300 plus and I’m sure a lot of those are support and things of that nature, call center and that sort of thing. But now you’ve got this totally different structure how do change requests or the idea of improving MailChimp come in? Where do you find them, is it something you sit with the team and discuss? Is it something that comes in from the outside or all of the above? And how do those get implemented now that you’re so big?

Aarron: You’re right that the majority of the company is support. I don’t know what the numbers are but I’d say it’s easily a third or more of the company. And the product team is, it’s growing but it’s not huge. We have a lot of very capable folks. The whole company is filled with that type of person but the product team in particular…it’s not a big team because there’s some talented folks that can get a lot done very quickly. So that makes the decision making process…it still remains efficient…despite the growing size.

But you’re right that back in the day it used to be that we’d get together, it was usually just three or four of us, we’d get together and we’d talk through ideas of what we could do in the app. And that was relatively fast and efficient in terms of getting to a decision. But the way that we made decisions, I think was not as intelligent as it is today. Because back then we were so small we didn’t really have the time to do a ton of research. We would visit customers and talk to customers and do usability tests and stuff but it was hard to find the time because we wore so many hats.

Today we have a dedicated research team. We do both quantitative and qualitative research. Last year we traveled about a hundred thousand miles around the world visiting customers on three continents. We go to customer spaces, see what the working environment is like. We talk to them about what their daily routine looks like. We see the types of machines and devices that they use. We see how they collaborate or maybe don’t collaborate. We get a sense for the ambient noise and all these different factors that inform how they use our products. And that helps us understand what needs to be optimized and refined; where we could expand and do new things. We try to ground all of our decisions about what we either add to the app and actually we do take things away from the app on purpose—which is something that a lot of companies are loth to do because they are worried about backlash, that customers will feel a sense of loss or betrayal that they don’t have this thing they once had. But you can’t work on an app for years and keep adding things and expect it to be, remain useable, easy and powerful. Because everything you add comes at a price. There’s more to be figured out; more to try to slog through to get a task done. So we’re very cognizant of that. But the decisions about what we add they’re not a few people pondering in a room. It’s people that are traveling the world visiting with customers, hearing what’s happening and how they’re using it and where they’re getting frustrated, and compiling that into patterns that we see. Sometimes we see an issue, a problem that a customer has, but it’s kind of an outlier, not really something that there’s enough gravity to base some big changes or invest a lot of work into. So it’s really talking to customers. The closer we stay to our customers the more informed we are and the more relevant the things that we put our time and resources into the more relevant those things can be to our customers.

Carl: So basically you’re resting on your laurels. (laughing) Just sitting there (thanks Carl) making decisions on a whim.

That’s amazing. So a hundred thousand miles, three continents and you have hundreds of thousands of users, right?

Aarron: Millions.

Carl: Millions? Good lord!

Aarron: We’re north of seven million.

Carl: North of seven million! And I’m proud to be one of those. Cause I gotta tell you, you think customers get irate and they have problems, I’m happy to play that role and then maybe I can knock you down to just over seven million.

But let me ask this question because this has got to be a challenge…and obviously MailChimp is smart; you’re looking at a lot of traditional analytics, you’re looking at a lot of usage as well as going out and talking to customers and you even said it when you were explaining that, you said “how they collaborate or they don’t” so when you get to a decision point and it could be when you’re removing something because you don’t see that percentage of people using it and it’s a logical thing to remove because you have to add something or it could be when you’re saying “okay this is a good feature,” it’s never going to be right for everybody. Because you‘ve got so many people. So talk about that decision making a little bit. Like when you sit down, how do you decide that final step?

Aarron: So you’re right, there are some things that aren’t going to be perfect for everyone. And sometimes you have to sort of, you have to take a chance on what the future is going to be. And you build for the future, not where people are right now but where things are headed.

There’s one example I can think of off the top of my head. A couple of years ago we did a pretty major redesign of the app and one of the key reasons that we wanted to do that—we did a ton of research—we saw more and more people doing sophisticated things with MailChimp and collaborating, and they were collaborating and using mobile devices and there seemed to be some kind of overlap there. Usage of mobile devices extends the work day. That the work day really doesn’t end except when we’re asleep. And there’s a sense of there’s found time, that people discover more time and they fill that time with more to-do’s. So the to-do list doesn’t actually become more manageable, and you get a thing knocked off your to-do list when you’re standing in line at the grocery store. Well, we refilled that saved space with another thing to do. And because of that, because of this found time and ubiquity of our relationship to our content and our devices and these ever growing to-do lists, people feel the pressure to pass tasks back and forth more often and collaborate. And we saw this pattern studying how people work today. So more of an anthropological study of people and less of a how are you doing a specific task in the app. And that helped us see that there’s really a big shift that’s happening in culture and that needs to be reflected in our app and we need to lay the groundwork so we’re ready for that. Building collaboration into the product. Building the product so it works great on a tablet when you’re on the couch. Works great on a phone, like build new apps for the phone, etc. And think about the continuum experience, how we move from device to device and the content and the tasks are passed back and forth.

Carl: This is great information and I really appreciate you sharing it.

So truly, you said it’s anthropological, you are observing how people are using this. So how do you do that…are you actually having people who go out and are observing? You can obviously see some stuff when it comes through the system.

Aarron: Yeah, I mean we actually go out and we watch the people and that’s what led to that. But your questions was “how do you design for everyone and some things aren’t relevant?”

So we did this redesign and we launched it and we tried to tell that back story to our customers saying “we studied a lot of customers and this is the phenomenon we saw.” And we heard from quite a few customers that said “Yeah, but I’m not that person. I’m at my desk all the time and I’m not on my mobile device and I’m working solo and I’m not collaborating and you just moved my cheese, you just changed the app a lot and that affected me.”

And we’re sympathetic to that and we actually did make some refinements and changes to address some of the things that people pointed out…like how much content was visible on the screen, those sorts of things. But we also have to take, there are times we have to make the change because we see the writing on the wall. This is how the world is changing and we have to make this decision and invest now because the world is going to keep changing whether you’re going to change with it or not. And we don’t want to take a cavalier attitude toward our customers needs at all, but we also want to make sure we’re moving the product forward and enabling our customers to do more.

Carl: Like any product, any great product, MailChimp has a personality. It’s got a vibe, it’s got a feel to it.

I recently had to share MailChimp with one of the people at nGen Works and get them up to speed on how to use it and it was interesting as we were going through it there wasn’t that sense of frustration that you might get with some things. Now we were challenged, we were trying to figure out how to accomplish certain things but we were doing it together and it felt good. And one of the things that I think makes that possible—and this is going to sound really silly—but it’s a smiling chimp head. (laughter) And I know a little bit about Freddie, I know a little bit about the concept of everything’s better if you throw a chimpanzee on it.

But seriously, when you start looking at the branding of MailChimp and how that impacts the experience of using the application, what do you hear about that? I mean, we just had an event last week—Owners Summit in Austin—and you guys were so kind to help sponsor that and the MailChimp hats that are basically kind of a Freddie replica that people give to the kids and put on their heads. Those things were all over social media. So talk about the idea of Freddie and I guess actually preparing people for an expectation of what it’s going to be to use MailChimp.

Aarron: Well, I’ve done a lot of research of this topic and wrote a whole book about it, Designing for Emotion, there’s just so much depth in that subject of psychology and emotion and how it affects and shapes our behavior. And I’d like to say that all of our marketing and design strategies are rooted in very deep thought but the gods honest truth is that a lot of it was accident, that we later discovered why certain things worked. All of how we choose what sort of products to make like these handknit monkey hats that people wear, we make vinyl toys that are posable. These are things that we find fun and interesting and it comes from the fact that we want to make work fun. We want to make work fun for ourselves, we believe in building an environment where you can actually love what you do and not feel depressed on Sunday night knowing you have to get up the next morning and start on the conveyer belt again. So that kind of guides us in what we do and putting ourselves into those things, I feel there’s a bit of our fingerprint present in everything we make. And when we share a bit of ourselves with others I think that creates an opportunity for people to be empathetic, to feel a personal connection. And that helps build an affinity for our brand in a very roundabout sort of way.

And in terms of the personality inside of the app and your observation about figuring out or solving problems, being encouraged by a smiling chimp; there’s actually a fair bit of psychology around this that when people are in positive moods they can solve problems more effectively, and it’s not that they suddenly become more intelligent or more skilled, it’s that they get more grit. That when you have a smile on your face, you’re more willing to and more resilient, you’re more willing to work through, think through and invest a little more time to think about a problem. Rather than if you’re dissatisfied or you’ve got an experience of a piece of software that’s very corporate and very gray and impersonal or it fakes humanity. That’s one thing that we’ve discovered, in lots of experiments, is that putting your humanity into the things you make there is really a positive side to that which you’ve just described. But there’s also danger that some people won’t quite connect with that. But we’re willing to take that risk because we see how it does put a smile on a persons face, makes a gray working environment where the boss made me send a bunch of emails and I’ve got a deadline and I just want to get this over before lunch. That that scenario, why does it have to be a chore; why does it have to be painful? Why can’t work be fun? It’s an ethos that guides us in what we do every day and the things that we build we want them to do that for other people.

Carl: I love and hate this concept of fake humanity, of faking humanity, and you see it. So it could be because of my background, but there are times where I see something and I’m just like “that was a business decision.” Whereas with MailChimp it very much feels…it’s authentic, it’s real. That’s for me and I would venture to guess that’s for your millions of users as well.

And I guess one of the things I wonder is: as you move forward and the number of customers and the growth of the company and the evolution of the app, how do you hold on to that humanity? I mean, it’s got to be a conscious decision but it can’t be forced. So talk about that for just a second.

Aarron: Boy that’s a really tough one to answer. (laughing)

Carl: Sorry to put you on the spot there Aarron but you’ve got me really piqued here.

Aarron: So far so good, I’ll say that. We’ve certainly grown quite a bit and it doesn’t seem to have affected our mojo, at least from our internal perspective, maybe customers see us differently now. I feel like the humanity thing and putting yourself into your work in an honest way a lot of times we are not asking something of the customer. For us, this is a ridiculous—probably not the best business advice so please don’t take this as business advice—but we try not to sell or pitch or convince or pressure. We’re essentially putting our products out into the world because people, we know what it feels like when someone’s really trying to twist your arm to convince you that this is a great thing to buy, to spend your money on, to invest your time in. It just feels inauthentic like someone else has their interest in mind before yours. So the golden rule “do unto others as you would have done to you.” That sounds rather cheesy or hokey to try to invoke when you’re talking about product design and running a business but I feel like there’s some truth to that. That’s a universal principle that we try to treat others well. Whether it’s like our billboard—we have billboards around the world—that it’s just a blue color field with a winking Freddie and it doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t say MailChimp, it doesn’t say go buy a thing. It’s a little secret handshake, a wink to our existing customers that says “Hey, we see you, thank you. We know that you know.” And people respond to that, they’re baffled by it. Like “why are you guys spending money on billboards that don’t actually have any return on investment?”

Carl: But they do. They have such a return, right?

Aarron: I believe so. We do believe so. We hear that from customers. I mean people have written articles about the billboards.

Carl: Exactly.

Aarron: Because they’re just totally stumped by it. You know, there’s another thing that runs through the core of MailChimp and that is, we’re a little bit weird sometimes. We’re experimental, we try different things that don’t always make sense because creativity is connecting lots of different things and you can connect a lot of things when you’ve got a diverse set of experiences. So when we try an experiment with different design ideas, business ideas, etc., it makes us more well-rounded, more things that we can pull together. Parts in the parts bin so we can assemble things into meaningful new things that could evolve in the world in ways we can’t predict. That’s probably as good as I can do Carl in getting close to answering.

Carl: Aarron, that was amazing.

And honestly, to use an app every day and to know that when you click on a button something’s going to work, that’s great. To have that faith that the thing is going to happen because I went through the steps. But when you get the opportunity to understand all of the people behind that click, to understand the thought that went into it, the risks that were taken, and not to sound too cheesy…but the love that’s baked in. Because it’s obvious when you’re talking that there’s a passion here. You’re a super-smart guy, you probably could work anywhere you want and you can deflect that all you want, but you’ve chosen a home here and you’ve stayed here since 2008. So I think that right there says a lot about the culture and the opportunity at MailChimp because you’re not going to stop evolving…you’re going to keep, like you said, keeping an eye on what’s going on, keeping an eye on how people are using your product. And you’ve given so much great insight and advice today to our listeners. 

I would like to ask one final question. And hopefully it’s not another stumper. (laughter) For the people who are listening…a lot of the people that are listening to this probably are just starting out building their first app, or maybe they have an app that they’ve been trying or fighting with for a while but they just haven’t gotten to that next step. What advice would you give to those product teams that are still at these early stages of their journey?

Aarron: There’s probably a lot of advice. But the thing that I have found most valuable in the years trying to figure out how to make great products, not just good products, is thinking about the emotional context of the situation. And I try to ask myself how does the customer feel—the person using the thing that I made—how do they feel in this situation at this moment? And a lot of times we don’t know. It’s just too hard to predict. But I’d be willing to bet that they’re, regardless of what type of app you’re working on, you probably know a point at which people feel stress, fear, concern, joy, happiness, the thrill of success. We know those points and there’s small ones and big ones. And thinking about how people feel in these moments and thinking what could I do at this moment to relieve some stress? To allay some fears? What could I do to celebrate a person’s achievement with them at this moment? Those sorts of small interactions that recognize that emotional situation can be very powerful, really resonate and build a sense of trust. It’s putting you in the app in the things that you design and creating a bridge with your customers that are using the things that you make. That’s served us well over the years and it may well be the secret sauce of MailChimp. I don’t know but it certainly helped us build experiences that aren’t just useable, that are pleasurable, that are joyful, that are honest. Because not every situation is a celebration and time for a sense of humor and cracking a joke. There’s some situations where if something goes wrong, there’s an error in an app or something goes down, you need to use the right tone of voice there. To be honest about a situation and inform a person. To try to allay the fears. So keeping in mind the emotional context and realizing that you don’t have to build products that feel like work. You can build products that feel personal and humane. I think that’s a great way to make things.

Carl: And that’s amazing advice, to keep in mind that emotional context of the situation.

Well Aarron, thank you so much for giving us your time today. And for helping our listeners understand the lessons that you learned and the things that you’re still facing. Things that they can take with them as they’re working on their products.

Aarron: Hey my pleasure. Thank you so much for chatting.