What product managers can learn from Stamps.com

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In seconds, eh? Well… Let’s try it out!

I listen to a lot of American podcasts, and one of the adverts that keeps coming up is one for Stamps.com. It sounds like a fantastic service: You get a set of scales sent to you, and then you can print your own postage at home, on custom labels that look pretty fancy.

Sounds awesome, right? Of course! No trips to the post-office! Printing your own stamps! It’s like living in the actual future!

Except, well, not quite.

I thought it sounded like the future until I went to actually try the service. It’s something I think every product manager should do at least once, as a great example of what not to do. Every step of the way, you’re met with roadblocks.

Let’s look at a few.

Login credentials

Passwords. I use LastPass, and my standard password is a random string of 25 characters, which includes alphanumerics, numbers, and symbols. There’s absolutely no reason to refuse my password for being longer than 20 characters — but that’s what Stamps.com did. That was my first inkling that this wasn’t going to be a pleasant experience.

User names. I don’t want one. I failed to save the right password (because I couldn’t use the auto-generated password), and so had to do a password reset. But first I had to get my user name mailed to me, because I couldn’t remember it. Why bother? The user name is tied to the e-mail address anyway, so why not just use the e-mail address?

Not a great first impression — unless you’re trying to set my expectations very low. In which case: Well done.

Confusing design language

Designers. I’m sure you have a few. I don’t particularly care if the site looks pretty or not, but you keep jackknifing between different styles of design, which is really confusing. Some of it also doesn’t seem designed at all (i.e. it looks like the HTML is there, but nobody got around to style it).

It makes you less trustworthy, it makes the site harder to use, and it makes everything about your product feel unfinished. Not a great first impression — unless you’re trying to set my expectations very low. In which case: Well done.

Lack of browser support

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Quite apart from styling a web warning like a Windows XP warning (which is confusing to begin with), this message should never be shown in the first place. You know what browser I’m using, if I’m in the wrong place, just redirect me!

When I am taken to your ‘print postage’ screen, I’m told that this version of the site doesn’t work in my browser, and that I need to go to a different, new version of the site.

This brings up so many questions — why is there an old site? I didn’t choose to go to an old site, so why would you send me there? You can see which browser I use, if you must have an old site, at least just redirect me without making me click anything.

Confusing checkboxes throughout

Please be consistent — in your Settings menu, you have some tickboxes that mean yes (“Show unavailable services”) and some that mean no (Don’t show print postage confirmation dialog).

Why? A tickbox should always mean ‘yes’.

It’s easily fixed: Default to unticked, and change the copy to “Don’t show print postage dialog”. Or leave the behaviour as is, and change the copy to “Hide print postage confirmation dialog”. That way, the user is confirming something, rather than wondering whether saying yes to no means no or yes.

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The browser/scales integration

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Erm… Why?

To use the USB scales, I have to use a ‘plug-in’ piece of software to work with Chrome. It’s making me download a virtual disk image (.dmg), with a file on it that I have to double-click, and then install some software.

That’s a really dumb idea. Chrome has a perfectly fine way of dealing with these sorts of things: Chrome Extensions. There’s no reason to have a separate installer, and there’s especially no reason to force me to quit my browser while you install a plugin.

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Once I did install the plug-in, it failed to ‘connect to the plug-in’. At this point in the proceedings, I am completely unsurprised by this — which is also not a good sign for Stamps.com: If my expectation is a failure, am I really going to continue using the service?

Which… I have no idea what that error actually means. The ‘plugin’ is a piece of software, right? Why is my browser trying to connect to it? What does it mean that it fails to connect? Why, even after waiting a couple of minutes, does the problem not resolve itself? The message continued to show until I rebooted my computer. So much for ‘print your own stamps in seconds’, and I’m finding myself regretting I didn’t just go to the post office.

Oh, but the fun doesn’t stop there.

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Those are some snazzily named labels

The sheets of stamps all have a serial number on them that you use to determine where on the page a stamp should appear. That’s smart. However, Stamps.com sent me a couple of sheets of postage labels as well — slightly bigger ones, with space for address details etc. They also have serial numbers, but I can’t type them in for some reason. Why?!

Okay, okay, so I need to pick my label from a list… Except it’s not on the list. Which means that the sheet of sample labels you sent me — this very week (the fetchingly named SDC-3110), presumably to attempt to sell me more of the self-same labels further down the line, are useless to me.

That’s a crap user experience on several different levels: I want to use them, but I can’t. You want to upsell me on them, but you won’t. It makes me waste time trying to figure out how to print to these And it makes me wonder what else is broken about your system.

And then it doesn’t want to print.

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Uh oh.

When I’m trying to print postage from my main computer it refuses because I have no printer installed. That’s no business of yours (I print to PDF and e-mail the PDFs to the printer that are in another room. Yes, it’s a pain in the arse, but I print very rarely, and it’s easier than networking the printer or running a very long USB cable), and there’s no reason to stop me from doing this. Moreover, you’re making me install a printer I have no intention of ever using in addition to making me restart my browser in order to install a plugin: That’s two pieces of software I didn’t want on my computer.

Anyway. I’ve invested enough time in this already, and dammit, I will print my postage. So I went ahead and networked the printer via a computer in another room, and printed a test page. Excellent! It works! I have a networked printer!

Except Stamps.com still didn’t let me print, thinking there’s no printer connected:

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On the left: “No printers installed”. On the right: The print dialogue, showing my installed printer. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

Sigh. Brilliant. Now, I have a working printer on this computer, except for some reason, Stamps.com can’t see it, and refuses to let me print.

I give up, and go through all of the above steps again on my secondary computer, so I can have it all running on the computer that’s physically connected to the printer.

Stamps.com doesn’t know about the UK.

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Yeah, there’s a really good synonym for that.

I wanted to send a letter to the UK, but the United Kingdom doesn’t appear in the list of countries. Strange — is it not possible to send post there? So I scrolled back up to E for England. Nope. Nothing. Weird.

Then it occurred to me: Maybe it’s under Great Britain? Yes. Which is lovely, except nobody calls it that. There’s a faster way of saying “Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, you see.

Finally! I sent something!

So, after what felt like an eternity, I was finally able to print out some stamps. Such luxury! Such convenience!

Anyway, I popped the letter in the post… And 2 days later, it came back to me, to my own letterbox, without any comment from USPS. I have no idea why it was returned to me. So I put a line through the ‘from’ address, just to make it extra clear where I wanted the letter to go, and I put it back in the USPS post box.

2 days later, it came back to me again for a second time. Again, without as much as a hint for why my postage wouldn’t be accepted. Did the USPS refuse my Stamps.com stamps? Did they not like the destination address? Did they think I had not put enough stamps on there? No idea.

And there’s so much more

The above are just the things that immediately came to mind; I warmly invite anyone to go through and try out the site; there are so many tiny niggly things that just don’t work that ultimately, the site is a cavalcade of frustration.

As it stands, I think I’ll use Stamps.com extensively. Not to send letters, mind you, but as an example of how you can comprehensively screw up a good idea.

Why does it matter?

I know all of this is a ridiculous string of first-world problems. And it usually doesn’t upset me when websites are spectacularly poorly designed. In this case, however, Stamps.com is exactly the type of site that people who aren’t particularly web-savvy would use. I am of the opinion that this means that they have a responsibility of holding themselves to a higher standard of UI and UX than most sites. Why? Because it’s a great opportunity to let people who are perhaps a little bit frightened of the web have a great experience.

As it stands, I think I’ll use Stamps.com extensively. Not to send letters, but in my entrepreneurship lectures, as an example of how you can comprehensively screw up a good idea. I would certainly not recommend it over going to the post office: The post office would be faster and easier, and at least at the post office, the user interface (talking to a human being) makes sense to everyone, no matter what your technical skills are.

Photo at the top of this post is Broken Letters (cc) by Zeitfaenger.at

Haje is a founder coach, working with a small, select number of startup founders to build exciting, robust organizations that can stand the test of time. Find out more at Haje.me. You can also find Haje on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Written by

CEO of Konf, pitch coach for startups, enthusiastic dabbler in photography.

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