Oh, Yahoo! Mail. It’s one of those products that many of us used at one point, and it either stuck or didn’t. For a lot of users it did stick, as it is currently the No. 3 mail product on the web, behind Microsoft and Google’s products, of course.
Today, the company announced a redesign across all platforms: iOS, Android, Windows Phone and web. Internally, the company called it the “Cuatro” release, for obvious reasons. I had a chance to speak with Adam Cahan, SVP, Emerging Products & Tech, at Yahoo!, who is in a role that’s just a month old, set up by its CEO Marissa Mayer.
We talked about today’s release, and how Yahoo! is entering a shift into iterative product design and maintenance, letting user feedback and usage patterns guide their way. This is nothing new as far as products go, but for Yahoo!, this might be a complete cultural shift.
Adam Cahan: I think the most important piece is that we’re really focusing on the user behaviors and what users are here to do with email. The funny line we’re using internally is “we want to re-imagine email to be email.” When it comes to email, what you want is fast and easy, anywhere access. What we learned is that speed and simplicity are features, and that’s what users are trusting us with. We spent a lot of time not only on the details of the performance here, but also watching how it impacts everyone. We do a lot of bucket testing to see what happens.
It takes a tiny bit of time for users to re-adapt, then we observe behavior. What we’ve found is that we’re getting more of their time.
In terms of mobile, people expect that their products and providers are available anywhere they go. For email, it’s important for our users to have access to that.
TechCrunch: Tell us about the cross-platform approach to your products, specifically something like Mail.
Adam Cahan: There’s a tremendous amount of nuance on every platform. Folks have been using webmail, so they come to expect certain things from Yahoo! and expect consistently. Each platform has its own subtlety. Nobody wants Mail on iOS and Android to act the same way. Our principles carry across though.
For iPhone, infinite scroll is something that’s there. In the same way, for Android, we focus on screen density, seeing how many things you can display on a single screen. These are metaphors you see across devices. On Windows 8, we’re emphasizing things like Snap view and tiles, which are a new thing.
The big emphasis is when we focus on these questions about users’ daily habits and what they’re doing on a regular basis, you start to see how small improvements on performance impact their daily life.
The metric we know from the web release is that we’re saving 36 million minutes a day, which are tremendously meaningful minutes. That’s the scale of impact. We’re watching performance by the seconds and the minutes.
TechCrunch: How do you talk to your users?
Adam Cahan: It depends on the nature of the product and design. In the case of something like Mail, you have the classic opportunity for bucket testing. This is where we can test behaviors. We want people to come back to email more, and get more done. It’s a bit more complex on mobile. We’re monitoring true performance there and the core technology: scroll view, battery, and things like that. Very product centric.
We do get user feedback all of the time, we do read them and see what people are saying about the product. We have customer care that people reach out to, and we learn a lot through those channels. Something like speed and performance isn’t something that can really be articulated. If users are happy with your product, and your product is speedy and easy, they will change their behavior.
TechCrunch: Iterative design. Tell us how launching things more often beats big yearly redesigns.
Adam Cahan: I was not directly involved in the 2010 Mail design. I’ve taken on my new role as taking on mobile. I will say this, you’re starting to see a lot of the guiding principles that we focus on coming to light in these products.
We’re really actually focusing on the user and ensuring that we’re bringing out high-quality products with great design and performance. Also, we’re raising the bar on ourselves. We’re following a much more rapid cadence with iterating on our products now.
There’s lots of other things going on.
TechCrunch: Your role is new. Can you tell us more about it?
Adam Cahan: My group is called “Emerging products and technology” – we brought together our mobile teams, any product that has a mobile component. Flickr and our connected TV platform. Bringing those three together as a focus is about these shifts in behaviors. People are engaging with all different forms of devices and we wanted teams to engage with our products on them.
Personally, I came to Yahoo! a little over a year ago through the acquisition of IntoNow, a second screen application. I previously worked at Google as well, and did another startup called Auditude that Adobe acquired. Marissa created this role about a month ago.
So here you have a golden opportunity for Yahoo! to grab marketshare in any number of verticals. Mail is clearly the focus right now, as it’s one of the most-used, fully-owned products at Yahoo’s disposal. Can it do the job right? Can it really bring an experience that keeps users happy, as well as potentially pull others away? Those are questions that need time to be answered.
Without a doubt, Yahoo! Mail is starting to a look a little like Gmail, and that’s not a bad thing. Simple is better, especially when it comes to something like email, which nobody likes to do.
What I can say is that for a lot of Yahoo’s products, there’s only one way to go, and that’s up. Make no mistake though, there is a long, long road ahead for Yahoo! Will it be paved in purple and gold? Stay tuned.
[Photo credit: GigaOm]