Innovation in Association Management: The Making of Our Mailing Service
Last modified on October 1st, 2021
By Lauren Cassis
Do you feel like your current association management software is providing you with the support and tools you need to thrive? Or are you curious about how an AppFolio partnership could benefit your business? In this article, I’m going to give you a firsthand account of how we approach customer partnerships at AppFolio, and a behind-the-scenes look into our product development process. But first let me tell you a little bit about myself. I’m Lauren Cassis, and I work as a Product Manager for AppFolio Property Manager’s Community Association Market. Currently, I’m working on products and integrations aimed at making AppFolio a one-stop-shop for community association data and minimizing manual data entry in other systems.
A Day in the Life of a Product Manager
At my core, I’m passionate about helping people and I absolutely love problem-solving. Working on the product side of AppFolio Property Manager is rewarding because I get to help people (both customers and colleagues) evolve by equipping them with the right technology. There’s a lot of empathy, research, and collaboration involved. I spend most of my days focusing on how I can help solve problems in the community association management industry, which means I get to talk and listen to customers often. Through interviews, surveys, and usability calls, I collect qualitative and quantitative insights regularly.
As a product manager, no two days are the same. I quickly shuffle and adapt my to-dos based on customers’ needs. That said, here’s a snapshot of a typical day for me:
- I start off with a daily “stand up” meeting in the morning with development teams to uncover blockers, discuss in-progress work, and demo in-progress work.
- I lead meetings with development teams, where we go over priorities and ensure we are staying focused on our plan for product development.
- I hold various meetings with business stakeholders to troubleshoot problems, and to communicate updates, customer feedback, and plans.
- I work with engineers, our amazing user experience designer, and business partners, clarifying and negotiating product requirements based on customer insights.
- I might meet with marketing to discuss an educational opportunity, like this blog or a webinar.
- I partner with the user experience designer and lead customer calls, where I respond to feedback and update product plans.
Every day comes with quite a few meetings, so it’s important for me to set aside time to focus on working through analysis and product planning, among other things. At the end of the day, my job is to transform our product strategy into a product roadmap for each of the product teams. Although a product roadmap may evolve with feedback, it provides a step-by-step visual representation of what needs to be done to develop and launch a product.
Where Innovation Meets Passion
What I respect most about working on AppFolio’s product team is our thoughtful, collaborative, and customer-centric approach to innovation. We innovate cross-functionally, because we know that great ideas can come from anywhere within the organization, especially when so many of us have relationships with our customers.
By leveraging our close customer relationships, we ensure innovation always aligns to customer needs. We are big believers that engineers play a critical role in consistent innovation. Most engineers are passionate about solving real problems for real people, so we make sure to connect engineers with customers as early and often as possible, so they can stay close to our customers’ needs.
In addition to listening to customers, we also look at trends shaping the industry, like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and predictive insights. Throughout the development process the product team tends to own the problem-solving space, however the entire team owns the solution and therefore, the innovation. And while engineering is critical, the user experience is arguably the most important and most difficult aspect of innovation. I think AppFolio does a really good job balancing engineering innovation with a great user experience. However, in order to be truly innovative, you need time for deep thinking. So recently, a group of us dedicated an entire week to ideating on products and solutions to better serve our customers over the next five to ten years.
AppFolio’s Approach to Product Development in a Nutshell
Product development at AppFolio is based largely on Agile Methodology. Agile Methodology is about working iteratively, adapting to new information, and encouraging frequent feedback. Each team focuses on solving for a specific product problem or set of problems. Teams are autonomous, owning work from end-to-end, but not without accountability. We are responsible for understanding how each solution will solve our customers’ pain points.
The development process starts off with brainstorming and designing a prototype. After a round of customer interviews about a specific pain point, the whole team brainstorms solutions. Product and user experience teams (UX) work to distill the ideas, and then UX will convert ideas into a prototype. Prototyping allows a fast path to validate our solution. The next step is to show prototypes to customers, collecting feedback and adjusting the prototype until it solves the problem. As you can see, it’s a cyclical process that continues to iterate to create the best possible version of the product.
The Story Behind Mailing Service
One innovation I’m particularly proud of launching is our mailing service — a solution that automates the mailing process for association management businesses. Rather than having to manually print and stuff envelopes or jump in and out of third-party solutions, this mailing service is fully integrated within AppFolio, so all you have to do is select the documents you want to send and AppFolio does the rest. It saves our customers a lot of time and frees them to focus on bigger picture items, like growing their business.
Our mailing service was inspired by the needs of customers and the wild idea that every process should be built into the software. In the community association market, it’s very common to see many software integrations. We knew how beneficial it was for a management software to capture all-in-one communication needs as well, because of what our customers constantly tell us. Mail is a requirement for this industry, but the process itself leaves many of our customers feeling stuck in the past, so it has been very gratifying to digitize this clunky, manual process.
A great product team understands what the end-user wants, and every decision they take should be driven by those requirements. However, as you can imagine in creating our mailing service, there were endless opportunities, so we had to be strategic about which opportunities provided the most customer value. Because we took an agile product development approach, it was easier to know which problems to solve first.
With our mailing service for instance, we conducted a ton of research upfront, which led to gathering requirements, brainstorming, prototyping, and developing. We partnered directly with our customers, who volunteered to work with us through a few rounds of beta testing for that particular innovation. The purpose of beta testing is to test the key components of a product, identify errors that could potentially arise, and minimize risk for the first release. After we launched an early beta version, we learned where the service needed to be improved and went back to work with making tweaks before the final launch.
Of course even after the final launch, we were not finished with our mailing service. Even though our teams started to work on other features, we still needed to respond to incoming customer feedback. For example, we have now added more information to the final step of the workflow, so that customers have more certainty. This includes a table of the mailing recipients, number of pages for each recipient’s letter, and better error-handling related to uploaded PDFs. We are also planning to support return envelopes and perforated pages for statements in the near future, as a result of feedback.
At the end of the day, product development is an ongoing dialogue between our teams and customers. As our customers’ needs and the market evolves, we work to anticipate those needs to provide solutions that make their lives easier and businesses more successful. It gives me great pride to work alongside our customers, and I can’t wait to see what innovations we’ll come up with in the future together. If you’d like to learn more about AppFolio’s approach to innovation and service, take a look at this article.