Element (previously known as Riot) is a bold enterprise alternative to a messaging landscape dominated by what some might call surveillance capitalism. It’s also a prime example of a business that realises being mandated by “the powers that be” is not enough for adoption to thrive.

The team knew they had to go native with a beautiful design and experience comparable to consumer options. But to make that transition with an engineering-heavy culture is never easy.

The function of the company was now to implement the designs that the design team were coming up with as efficiently and accurately as possible. 

To literally say to everybody here, even the backend guys: you are here in order to take this beautiful artwork and these beautiful interactions and make them actually exist as efficiently as possible — is just a totally different way of thinking about it.

Read on for more on this and how they made it work from Co-founders, Amandine Le Pape and Matthew Hodgson at Element.

B2B deserves design like B2C

Amandine: Even if it’s never to consumers and it’s for employees only, the user experience cannot, must not be unsexy.

That’s super hard to get right. Especially when you’re building on top of a decentralized system with encryption, where you want people to have a bit of a control on how they can configure it.

Matthew: In order for B2B tech to actually remotely succeed, it needs to punch its weight against consumer offerings. And in fact, it needs to be sexier than consumer offerings. 

So for instance, in our domain of collaboration and communication, our main competitor is WhatsApp and that is not a B2B app at all, even if they might halfheartedly try to pretend to be. 

We have a double whammy of needing to be as sexy as the consumer apps, whilst also needing to fulfill all of the enterprise IT requirements and regulation.

The hardest thing is really to put things into the right words and we have the additional complication that we are literally creating new categories — there is no one who is doing encrypted communication on top of a decentralized system. It doesn’t exist. 

So we have to find a way to describe what we’re doing which makes sense without having to describe the entire underlying situation. 

Amandine: If you can give your employees better tools, they’re going to be less frustrated and happier.

There were some debates where people said: all we need to do is sell to business. Why do you have to spark joy or delight users if you’re selling to business? 

But if the product doesn’t spark joy, then you feel forced to use it. 

We want to build something which makes people happy and they use it because they like it. That’s the differentiator we’re trying to get to.

Matthew: France adopted Element a year or so ago and the way in which they’ve marketed it internally has been quite interesting. There has not been an edict top-down saying, “hello public sector worker, the federal government is mandating that you use Element clients.”

Instead they have almost done the opposite. They’re saying, “by the way guys, you know, we have built our own messaging app and it’s actually built for you. If you want to use it, it has the features that we think you actually need to do your job. 

Moving to design-led culture

Matthew: We built an in-house design department and made sure we hired folk with experience from consumer companies. It has been a very conscious cultural brainwashing exercise to go and turn the ship around. 

We characterized it in two ways. One was that the function of the company was now to implement the designs that the design team were coming up with as efficiently and accurately as possible. 

To literally say to everybody here, even the backend guys: you are here in order to take this beautiful artwork and these beautiful interactions and make them actually exist as efficiently as possible — is just a totally different way of thinking about it.

The other thing was to change all of our KPIs as a company. Previously it had been around the growth of Matrix as a communication protocol and literally how many 30-day retained users (R30) we had on Element.

But in retrospect, we had no key primary metric around churn. There was no question at any point as to how rapidly R30 could be going up.

We’ve totally pivoted the KPIs now to focus on short term retention and churn on a cohort basis e.g. I have the people who installed the app on this particular day, what percentage is still using it after 24 hours?

It’s been a lot of back and forth getting those KPIs in place, and it might sound a bit “management” but it has a real palpable difference to the mentality of the company. 

We took everybody to an offsite where the entire theme was to focus on that pivot of mentality — that our goal is to delight users and compete with consumer apps, even though we’re selling to business. 

Funding attitudes to open source

Matthew: A lot of the VCs we spoke to who were more old school, would often say, “well, you know, you don’t need to worry about UX that much because all that’s going to happen is that they will buy it and then everybody will be forced to use it. The fact that it looks like a Visual Basic 5 application from the mid-nineties is kind of what people expect from enterprise software.”

There’s a pretty vibrant and switched on VC scene specializing in SaaS and enterprise software which is quite open minded in terms of the models which will work. We’ve had a lot more success for instance, hunting funds over in Europe and in London than we have in Silicon Valley.

I think for us specifically it’s because Element is an unusual mission-driven project to build the missing communication layer of the web. And it’s not Uber for dogs or Slack for hamsters or whatever it might happen to be, it’s not just cookie-cutting an existing, typical hyper-capitalist model.

It’s a much more ambitious mission. And frankly, that doesn’t seem to sit well with your typical Silicon Valley investor. There seems to be a lot more “bigger picture” thinking going on over here.

Examples and interesting resources?

Matthew: The Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley takes these Titans of industry, sits them down and records them monologuing for about six hours — then publishes it completely unedited. I would massively recommend listening to these uncensored trains of thought, which for instance, give you a bird’s eye view of the boardroom of Apple for 12 years from two slightly rival factions of the senior VPs. 

Tagged in:

About the Author

MaxTB

Max Tatton-Brown is founder and MD of Augur, the entrepreneurial communications partner for "unsexy" tech.

View All Articles