For those who don’t know about Mailbox app I recommend checking out the video below. In a nutshell it transforms your email into a to-do list that allows you to reorder, defer and organise your messages in ways previously unavailable through email clients.

This rethinking of email caused much excitement online and the interest in Mailbox quickly hit fever pitch.

In fact interest became so intense that the developers behind the product began to worry about launch. The app relies heavily on servers to manage deferred emails and push notifications. Would these servers deal with the strain of all these people signing up for the service on day one?

Although load testing is common, nothing can fully prepare you for the real thing. The developers therefore wisely decided to control the rate at which new people signed up.

A controlled roll out

This is of course not a new idea. When Google launched Gmail, it controlled the speed of signup using an invitation system. Many others have used similar tactics in the past.

Gmail invite

Mailbox was not the first to limit rollout of their app. Google used this approach with Gmail.

What made Mailbox different was the attempt to make the process as fair and transparent as possible.

The company decided that, instead of the invite system adopted by Google, they would implement a queue. You signup and reserve your place in the queue and when your turn comes you get access to the app.

To be as transparent as possible, Mailbox decided that when you launched the app it would show you your place in the queue.

Mailbox wanted to be transparent and so the app showed your position in the queue.

Mailbox app showing queue position

On the surface this all seems reasonable. However, the reaction online was far from enthusiastic.

Comments on Twitter ranged from a cynicism (those who claimed it was all a publicity stunt) to frustration that they had to wait. People didn’t understand the need to wait at all and even those who did were horrified at just how many people were in front of them in the queue.

The reviews on iTunes were equally scathing. Ratings of the app quickly bore no resemblance to the quality of the app.

Worst of all, many people simply gave up and uninstalled the app. They looked at how many people were in front of them and the speed at which that number was going down, before concluding they wouldn’t get access for months (even though the blog made it clear that rollout would quickly ramp up.)

So what can be learnt from the confusion surrounding the launch of Mailbox?

I believe there are four lessons:

  • People hate to wait.
  • Ensuring the user knows the whole story.
  • Perception is everything.
  • Making sure the user feels valued.

Let’s start with the most obvious conclusion.

People hate to wait

This one is a no brainer, but bears repeating. After all the guys at Mailbox obviously didn’t consider it.

We hate to wait. Whether that is waiting for a web page to load or queuing in a supermarket, we don’t like people wasting our time.

In our rich, western culture the most scarce resource most of us have is time. That has made us deeply impatient.

What Mailbox chose to do was highlight the fact that we had to wait rather than minimise it. There may have been no alternative to the queue system, but by drawing attention to it so obviously they alienated people.

We need to be looking for ways to minimise the users perception of waiting. That might be by allowing them to do other tasks or by providing a sense of progress.

You could argue that showing your position in the queue did provide a sense of progress. However, the progress they were being shown was slower than the reality so giving the user a false perception.

Ensuring the user knows the whole story

One of the biggest problems with the Mailbox queuing system is that progress appears so painfully slow. You see 20,000 people in front of you and that number clicking down at an excruciatingly slow pace. You quickly begin to wonder if you will ever get to use the app.

On its blog Mailbox made it clear that the pace would be slow to begin with but then increase dramatically over time.

Mailbox rollout graph

Mailbox explains on its blog that rollout will quickly increase.

Unfortunately many people never read this blog post. They simply took the current rate at which the queue was being processed and concluded that it would be months before they got access.

They need the whole story. It is not enough to show their place in the queue, you also have to give them an indication of how fast they will get access.

Mailbox probably felt they had addressed this issue with a button linking to their blog right below the users place in the queue. Unfortunately you cannot rely on users to seek out additional information. If the message is as important as this one it needs to be front and centre.

At first glance the user’s perception was of slow progress and as we know, perception is everything.

Perception is everything

Whatever their motivation for the queue, it was perceived by many as a marketing stunt. By making such a big deal out of the approach and showing users position in the queue so prominently, they were adding to the already considerable hype surrounding the product.

This is a dangerous road to be on. Users are increasingly aware of the psychological tricks of marketeers (such as creating a perceived shortage) and don’t respond well when they feel that they are being manipulated.

This also demonstrates that something can have too much hype around it. It can be over exposed and this causes a backlash.

We need to tread carefully in how we present ourselves online. Often in our desperation to gain exposure we can alienate the very people we are trying to reach. People are fed up with being sold at online and even the mere perception of that can drive them away. It makes them feel under valued.

Making sure the user feels valued

I used to love the TV series “The Prisoner.” Probably the most famous line from this show was:

I am not a number. I am a free man.

Signing up for Mailbox made me instantly think of that show. I felt like a number in the queue. It made me feel under valued.

I was just one of thousands and thousands of people all waiting until we were worthy of using Mailbox.

Now I know that Mailbox didn’t see me that way. In fact their communication on Twitter has been second to none. However, the queuing system left me feeling under appreciated.

We need to be so careful in how we make our users feel. On one hand we want to show them how popular our site, service or app is in order to increase its credibility. However, on the other we must avoid reducing them to just another user.

Unfortunately it is so easy to leave users with this impression. Impersonal e-mails, passionless corporate copy and poor customer service to name just three. It is something we need to constantly guard against if we wish to avoid alienating people.

The bottom line

Could Mailbox have predicted this reaction? Possibly, but then it is easy to say that in hindsight.

What it could have done is prepare for the possibility. This was something that had never been tried before and so there are always risks.

For example, it could have constructed the queue page of the app in such a way that it was easy to update without resubmitting their app to Apple. That way they could have redesigned it to make it clearer that the level of rollout would increase rapidly. They could have even replaced the numbering system entirely with something more friendly and personal.

Perhaps Mailbox should have tested a few different approaches before launch to see which one went down the best with users.

Don’t get me wrong. It was great to see a company being transparent and trying a new approach. However, in such situations a little caution and a lot of testing goes a long way.