Our Elastic Minds - Has SaaS Let Learning Fly?

The software-as-a-service industry is relatively young in the making. Blogs and columns on business advice, pricing psychology, design trends, etc. are constantly being added to the noise to reflect the differing successes or failures from startups that have attempted the SaaS model. As a person who has spent her entire career thus far in the space, it’s interesting to see how many people have opinions on the matter (often people who you’d think really have no business having one) and how they range.

As a support specialist here at TimeTap, one of the things I constantly think about is our on-boarding experience. Will new signups know how to set up their account? Will they understand how to arrange their working hours? Will they know what we mean by the term scheduler? Is adding an appointment intuitive or do they need a detailed explanation of how to do it?

What has been the most intriguing thing about the SaaS model is inventing these learning strategies. Much of the determining factors around a user’s pickup speed come from UI/UX elements and how fast the application is such that users don’t get fed up with slow software and bail, all of which are controllable aspects. What strikes me as funny, though, is how hard the balance is to strike between trusting your users to learn some aspects of the application through practice and knowing when to provide the proper training materials.

Many SaaS companies in the face of such a difficult balance have turned to gaming strategies, like progress bars or badges, to increase user adoption and give users a goal, the idea being that the more small wins you can give a person, the more invested he/she will be. Others have come up with interactive tours to increase familiarity early on. Almost all have introductory email campaigns to allow necessary information to slowly trickle into the hands of new signups.

But, beyond intuitive interfaces and friendly on-boarding strategies, many SaaS companies feel like they’re floating uncomfortably, unable to really trust users to learn the ins and outs of their software. And why should they feel comfortable? Countless blogs and thought leaders preach the message that if your software is too difficult to learn your attrition rate will be high. They report on the growing trend of startups forming with a designer on the founding team.

As for me, I wouldn’t say I’m the average user (although I think the idea of having an average user is a bit minimalistic but that’s another post). I do a good job staying on top of emerging SaaS companies and probably signup for 2-3 new services a month, for either the free trial or the whole shebang. I have a pretty fast pickup speed and typically require minimal support, if any.

I don’t say this to brag, but to point out that many of you are probably nodding along with me right now. I say this because, for as much as we worry about whether our users will “get it”, I think we often forget how much we’ve “got” in our own practices. We get pulled into these blog posts preaching best practices and become hyper aware of how our own design elements might not being following them. But we forget that for the people using our software, we’re far from their first rodeo.

How the Internet has driven learning

Professor Bruce Charlton has written at length about the idea of psychological neoteny and sociologist/new age writer Martha Beck argues for its importance in our evolution. I would like to add to the conversation that it has been the internet that has contributed to our lifelong neoteny more than any other scientific development. Biological neoteny is “the retention by adults of traits previously seen only in juveniles”, and when translated over to psychology it implies our unique ability to be lifelong learners and have the traits of “curiosity, playfulness, affection, sociality, and an innate desire to cooperate.”

While most animals grow out of those traits and focus solely on survival, humans retain it our whole lives and the advent of the internet and SaaS companies that provide serious value has fostered its growth. Since knowledge is now only as far as a Google search away, learning is something we do without as great of an intention anymore and this is arguably developing this trait faster than if we did spend our life in a classroom.

So in all these blog discussions, where is the argument that users approach your software with a rapidly developing ability to learn it? No, I am not saying this as an excuse for developers to put less thought into the on-boarding process or for support to lag in response time. I’m saying this because, just as skeuomorphism in design is insulting to the viewer, so is our talk as though the users learning the software were developing are Neanderthals approaching a computer as if for the first time.

Again, I am not making the argument that we should go against design standards or make things less intuitive. In fact, I think that there being design standards points to what we know about the human ability to learn. But in our language of business growth and user acquisition, we have to stop making ourselves superior to the user by using hand-holding terms when the majority of users can figure it out enough to be self-sufficient.

At TimeTap, we place a premium on the importance of fast and quality support. We don’t hesitate to give out our office number and publish it visibly on our website which, among the online scheduling providers out there, isn’t necessarily common from a support stand point but we get more compliments on it than you might imagine.

At least 3 times a week we’ll field a call with a sigh of relief on the other end from a person glad he/she didn’t have to go through a voice-operating system to get placed to the right person. Few phone calls last longer than 15 minutes and the vast majority of our users pick up how to use our application without needing any real hand holding.

Do we still stress about our on-boarding process? Of course! Do we still chart our growth numbers and tweak what we’re doing to try to raise the bar? Yes! But we also take comfort in what our users, indeed any users, are evolutionarily prone to do: learn.