In 2004, Google’s new email service sent ripples across the tech world, not only for its advanced features, but because the April 1st launch date felt like a prank — and the playful press release only fanned those flames.
But Gmail was real. Signups were by invitation only until 2007 (a tactic that platforms like Clubhouse still copy from the Google playbook). At the time, scoring a Gmail address felt like unwrapping the golden ticket to an exclusive club.
It’s worth revisiting how email worked 17 years ago. Email clients like Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and others were painfully slow. You had to load a new page to compose a message and manually enter the full address. The process was cumbersome, but email was still relatively new. Collectively, we thought it was fine — until we tried Gmail.
Google changed the game with fast, Ajax-based service. It offered 1GB of storage — a ridiculously high limit at the time — and slashed the delete button. The searchable, nearly spam-free interface was clean, and autocompletion minimized the chance of sending your email to the wrong recipient. As Michael Calore wrote in Wired, “new messages just appeared, chat windows popped up instantly — all without a browser refresh.”
Gmail quickly found success, and now has over 1.5 billion users. It was also a major inspiration for me as I started building JotForm back in 2005. Drag-and-drop functionality and WYSIWYG editing weren’t common at the time, but Gmail’s application convinced me to implement them for web forms. I spent hours getting those details right, which turned out to be time well spent.
Interrogate the status quo
It’s easy to become complacent when technology changes so quickly. In 2004, we were still excited to have email; few people questioned how the actual email clients functioned. Gmail rewrote the rules by identifying “acceptable” glitches and building a superior solution. Regardless of how I feel about Google today, this story still energizes me. It’s a reminder that opportunity is everywhere.
If we step back and examine our assumptions, there are endless ways to improve products, services, and entire business models. But where to start? According to Rework authors Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson,
“The easiest, most straightforward way to create a great product or service is to make something you want to use.”
Countless entrepreneurs have successfully applied this advice. For example, Vancouver-based founder Lilian Umurungi-Jung couldn’t find delicious and healthy snacks while she was pregnant with her son, so she created Mumgry — a line of natural nut butters that even Beyoncé recommends.
In 2013, founder Payal Kadakia launched ClassPass after struggling to find a dance class that fit her schedule. The ClassPass app and website simplified the process of finding and booking workout classes, and has since expanded into a membership-based platform for fitness, wellness, and beauty.
Both stories feature new brands and products. But even after you’ve solved a tricky problem, ongoing innovation is essential. There are many different ways to become the Gmail of your industry — or simply to keep raising the bar. Here are three angles our teams often apply to refresh their thinking and boost creativity.
1. Make it faster
Speed not only improves digital tools; it can also give physical products and services a massive advantage. Consider how you could implement quicker ordering processes, search functions, delivery options, service completion times, or communication channels. Almost all businesses have systems or processes that are ripe for acceleration. Find the slow spots and fast-track the journey for customers and users.
2. Make it easier
The first robotic vacuum cleaner freed people to read or watch TV while the device did the dirty work. Bluetooth technology enabled wireless connections with everything from earphones to stereos to cars. Major product leaps are often built on eliminating hands-on effort or cutting multiple steps down to just one. What could you simplify in your offering? What would eliminate the heavy lifting, either mental or physical, for your customers? What obstacles do you accept as inevitable that could possibly be overcome?
3. Enrich the experience
Even before Gmail, Google built its reputation (and its growing fortunes) on a stripped-down interface. At a time when search engines were cluttered and utterly confusing, Google served up a single page with one search field. There was nothing to find or learn. Just enter your terms and go.
At JotForm, we constantly tinker with our product to make it easier, more intuitive, and hopefully, more fun. We also A/B test our changes, interview users, and survey customers to ensure those changes truly do make it better. UX professionals are invaluable in this process, but the best opportunities arise from thinking like your customers. Use your own product from different entry points. Put it through the paces. Look for moments of friction or even slight frustration, and consider what could streamline that experience.
Whatever you do, try to stay open and approach your work through a lens of continuous improvement. Even when it seems the big challenges are resolved, there’s always room for growth — and a way to change the game for everyone.