Instant Usability – The FreshBooks Way

As posted at the FreshBooks Blog.

When you work hard it’s awfully nice to have that work recognized – especially by an expert in the field.
 
The design of the FreshBooks application is a story of continuous improvement.  Every release (and the next one is due out very soon) includes improvements that make FreshBooks easier to use.  Why does easy matter?  Because it ensures a positive user experience which makes people (it’s all about people after all) want to tell other people about your service. Positive experience inspires other designers and it leads to more paying upgrades (i.e. it affects your bottom line).
 
About three weeks ago I received a call from Jack Bellis of Usability Institute.  Jack found FreshBooks through AListApart.com, which is an online resource for web designers, and he tried the service.  As someone who literally wrote the book on usability in 1997 (scroll down to “Computers Stink”), Jack appreciates good design when he sees it.  What he liked about FreshBooks was the emphasis we have placed on “instant usability”. 
 
While the phrase is new to me, the concept is not.  We try to design every aspect of FreshBooks to ensure you are taught how to use the service AS you use the service.  The effort we invest in instant usability reduces support calls and increases the number of people who choose FreshBooks as their online billing solution.
 
Jack’s report is a great read for anyone who has a website.  Jack painstaking chronicles 28 things that FreshBooks does right write to deliver a great usabiliity experience.  Honestly, you can learn a lot from the time Jack has taken to dissect the FreshBooks application.  I was amazed at the time he invested in preparing this document – it’s inescapable.  Jack did all of this of his own accord – we had no involvement or influence over it.  The fact that Jack even bothered is a strong indication that we are on the right track at FreshBooks, and I can tell you we are just getting started – so please stick around.

SAAS Feedback Benefits Benefit Us All

I was just catching up on Lars Pind’s software blog and I came across this snippet from John Gruber of Daring Fireball:

“Once software starts down this path of guessing what it is the user is trying to do, and then doing something special based on that guess, it must guess correctly nearly every time, because the times when it guesses wrong are so annoying that they far outweigh the extra convenience of the times when it guesses right.”

The fact that guess work is not necessary in SAAS feedback driven software developement is a boon for users and developers alike.  Now it’s common sense (i.e. “what do we build next?”) that is the x factor for many software services.

I went on to comment on Lars’ blog as follows:

“…this is the beauty of software development in the ASP/web2 landscape…you get so much – and such direct – feedback from users that you can make the right move almost all of the time.

Developing software pre a web enabled instant feedback loop was infinitely harder because of the distance between developers and users. SAAS closes that gap and benefits both parties.”

Updated: I elaborated on this post, over at the FreshBooks blog in a post called, “Why We Are Better“.

Introducing FreshBooks

From the brand new FreshBooks.com blog:

It is with great excitement that we make the following announcement:

After two years of dutiful service, we are retiring the NAME of our online invoicing service “2ndsite”, and renaming it FreshBooks.com.

We’re excited.  It’s a new name and a Fresh start.

To coincide (well almost…) with the release of our new name, we will be releasing a new version of our service in two weeks time.  The new release includes some excellent usability of enhancements, as well as the ability to send invoices by first-class mail for the US post (including a return envelope).  All existing FreshBooks/2ndSite users will have their ACCOUNTS UPGRADED in to include these features in two weeks time in the manner that we roll out our regular bi monthly upgrades.

[Note: If you can’t wait two weeks, you can try the new service,  but keep this in mind: don't invest your time setting up a sneak peek account because ALL SNEAK PEEK accounts will be DELETED in two weeks.  Why?  Please don’t ask, just know that if you want to try the new service in advance, that your sneak peek account will be deleted.  Go here and you can create a regular account that will be upgraded in two weeks with everyone else.]

Why are really releasing a ground mail service?  Honestly, many of our users are confused as to why an online invoicing service would release a service that helps people send invoices in the mail.  The fact is many businesses want to do their billing online, but don’t know how to make the transition to online billing, or can’t afford to build their own proprietary online billing system.  FreshBooks is the solution for these businesses. 

Instead of having to build your own proprietary online billing system, companies can now create a FreshBooks account, import their clients and send their invoices [there is even an API so you can integrate FreshBooks with your existing accounting systems if you need to] - it’s easy and fast.  Gradually your clients who receive invoices in the mail will transition to online billing and your business will save the money it used to spend on postage and envelopes and fulfillment.

Billing is a pain – a costly pain for many businesses.  FreshBooks is the painless billing solution and it’s low-cost.

That’s the news for today.  A new name.  A new release [coming very soon].  We have more news coming – lots of it in fact –, so stay tuned and we will fill you in on the details.

Well…there it is folks…I hope it was worth the wait…

mesh Tickets are Sold Out

Just running into the weekend with a last second piece of news.  mesh tickets have just sold out.  Thanks to all our sponsors and everyone who is coming.  Stuart (like me) wrote a short post…we’re busy with last minute prep ;)  Hope to see you there:

http://www.meshconference.com/blog/post.php?id=57

Updated Sunday Night: we are REALLY REALLY sold out.  We are concerned that people will walk up and try to buy tickets.  Please do not do this and advise friends against it, as we will be turning away everyone at the door.  We’d love to let everyone in (believe me), but we are maxed.  Thanks.

The Excitement Builds and Fame Is Spreading

mesh is getting close…I can feel it and it is exciting.  I am meeting with speakers to prepare panels…having dinners, having drinks.  Very human.  Very fun.

As you may already know, the mesh organizers (of which I am one), have been striving for a third way to run a conference: less PowerPoint and more coffee breaks, to connect. One of our un-stated goals (I trust I speak on behalf of the other four members when I say this) is that we want to share and spread the enthusiasm and the excitement we have.

One of the ways we are doing this is by providing a platform for a select group of start-ups and instigators to have 5 minutes on stage at mesh.  We are calling it 15 Minutes of Fame.  Today we released the winners (we had many great entries).  I recommend checking Stewart’s post and Mathew‘s post to learn more about them. RobMark and are also talking about 15 Minutes today.

By the way, if you want to see a glowing post about mesh and what we are trying to do, have a look at what Miss Rogue is saying…shucks.

Bottom Up Marketing

One of the emerging trends that web 2.0 is helping to facilitate is bottom up marketing. I touched on this as it relates to web applications a while back.   Basically, bottom up marketing occurs when rank and file users adopt a technology that eventually percolates up to upper management. In terms of groups, technologies often begin with fringe users and spread into the centre.

These principles apply to the dissemination of information as much as they do technology.  It’s a very natural progression any way you slice it and the adoption curve is steeper than ever thanks to web 2.0 technologies.

At the mesh conference, we are going to be looking at how bottom up marketing affects traditional marketing – it’s something every marketer needs to understand inside and out. It is the way of the future, and let me tell you, I am totally sold.

Why? Mesh is a living, breathing example of the power of bottom up marketing. As the organizers we gave ourselves 7 weeks to sell a little over 300 tickets. Just seven weeks. What was our advertising budget? $0. Seriously.  Talk about a leap of faith <grin>…

After 3.5 weeks we had sold about 200 tickets  – exclusively as a result of us blogging about it and the word spread and if that is not amazing, I don’t know what is.

What have we seen along the way? Well, we have seen that people are willing to come from California, from New Zealand, and all over Canada to attend. (And we have had great support from Vancouver – thanks, Van city!). What kind of people are coming? From our five blog posts the word has trickled out and up. CEOs of publicly traded companies will be there. Government types. Start-ups. Consultants and political wonks. The crowd will be diverse and engaging and we’re honoured to be providing a forum for people to connect.

Why is bottom up marketing great? For one, your ear is to the ground. In the blogosphere, it is not hard to hear what people are saying about you – just check your web stats! It’s also not hard to see what you’ve brought to life.  For example, Jen Nolan is an IBM developer (her husband, Chris, is speaking at mesh) and she is going to use the Unconference Room to talk about women in web 2.0.  Excellent, excellent stuff.

So, it’s great to be able to walk the walk with mesh. As 5 guys with other jobs, we are grateful to everyone for the support mesh has received. We’re still gunning to sell out and I encourage you to buy a ticket or tell friends who are planning to attend to get theirs soon, because with 2 weeks to go, there may not be enough to go around.

Mathew, Stuart, and Rob are talking the web marketing from the bottom up meme today as well.