Mistakes and hard choices: How our platform found simplicity

There’s a paradox at the heart of our platform. On the one hand, we’re all about simplicity. At the same time, ease of use did not come easily. For BaseKit, it’s taken over a decade of iteration.

As we said in our last article on the subject, software development is a journey into the wild. That’s particularly true at the start of a software platform’s life – and if you’re in SaaS you’ll know what it’s like to find your way through the jungle to product-market fit.

Research by EPFL university found that, 73% of start-ups need to pivot to a different market over time, and at BaseKit we have our own pivoting story. Fifteen years ago, we saw what we needed to do, cut out a hundred features, and made an educated bet on mobile.

The fork in the road: Going for less while others go for more

When we were first introduced to a major hosting company, we saw a complete absence of simple tools in the hosting market.

Every one of the incumbent options was full of designer features. And in the hosting industry at the time, people thought all those features were necessary.

We could empathise with them. After all,  in the early days of BaseKit, you’d have seen a lot of numbers on our site builder platform. There would be sliders and CSS values – and you’d be able to tweak every parameter and design option to your heart’s content.

Gradually though, we realised this wasn’t what was needed. Our users – primarily small business owners – didn’t want or need to build up the constituent parts of their desired look one by one.

By the time we stepped into the hosting market, we’d cut a hundred features that were originally on our platform. Many of these features were very useful, but they were only useful for a small part of the audience – primarily aspiring web designers. To everyone else, these features were a distraction that didn’t enhance the overall experience.

Most users didn’t want to tweak the padding on a pixel basis for each element of their web page layout. They just knew they wanted to achieve a certain layout or look.

It’s a bit like the difference between Photoshop and Canva – the first gives designers all the tools they need, the second gives non-designers the tools they need. Both are very effective platforms for their chosen audience, but while Adobe’s entire creative cloud has 33 million subscribers, the simpler-to-use Canva has more than 170 million users.

Similarly, over time, we found that the simpler our platform became to use, the larger the reach we could have. So we began to take a ‘make it effortless or not at all’ approach, even if it meant making hard calls about what should go in the product pipeline.

How we decided what should go in our development pipeline

The trouble is that SaaS in all sectors is almost always looking for a reason to add more features. This is the standard tactic to justify increasing the monthly fee or to convince people to switch to a pro pricing plan. It’s the inevitable journey of so much software.

You really have to be very intentional to go away from that trend, but that’s what we did. As our site building competition continued up the complexity curve, we headed in the other direction – even if some people didn’t understand it at the time.

It’s like the old Apple vs. Microsoft debate. Apple was often criticised for leaving stuff out of their products. The iPhone shipped without a keyboard – something pretty well unthinkable at the time. It’s the kind of simplicity that requires innovation to pull off, and actually sets a new standard.

This wasn’t easy to do. We needed to think about the most common user experience and put that at the forefront of every decision.

  • If any feature was cool, but only appealed to a fraction of our audience, we had to deliberately put it aside.
  • If any feature would appeal to 10-20% of our audience, it couldn’t go at the forefront of our UI/UX – it needed to be easily discoverable but out of the way of the core user experience.
  • If any feature did belong in the core user experience, we needed to ask: How can we make this feature delightful, obvious and easy to use?

For instance, one feature on the chopping block was Photoshop layering. Users were once able to import a certain format of a Photoshop file, and BaseKit would turn that file into a web page or use it to help you design the web page.

It was very popular with designers, but it had very limited appeal elsewhere. Perhaps the handful of designers using our platform weren’t so happy, but everyone else was getting a much slicker, cleaner experience as a result.

How simplicity made us ready for the future of SaaS

Another thing we’ve found: if you take on this design philosophy of simplicity, you’re going to be more adaptive to shifts in the market. That’s what happened to us when smartphones were beginning to take off.

Essentially, around 2008, we chose to make all our sites responsive for mobile.

At the time this was not as obvious a move as it is now. The idea that the majority of the people using the internet would one day be doing so on a smartphone didn’t seem at all true – or it seemed to be a very long way away. As a result, many platforms charged more if you wanted to make a mobile site. Some wanted you to pay for two separate sites – one for mobile, one for desktops – or to pay for some high-priced premium add-on.

We had a different idea: that mobile optimisation was just basic functionality. It was pretty radical at the time. And as mobile phones gradually became dominant, we were proven right.

Later we decided to make our sitebuilder application work mobile-first too. And soon we were one of only a very few products that had a full spread of features in a mobile compatible format.

In both instances, our commitment to simplicity paid off.  If a site was going to work on a mobile phone (which had a very limited data rate back then) it needed to be simple – and we knew exactly how to make that happen. And if we’d have been racing others to full-feature complexity, we might never have been first to market with a mobile-first site builder.

Simplicity wasn’t easy to create, but the result is now easy for everyone. Our white label website builder is yours to offer – so you can scale your offering while maintaining your vision for simple, elegant, localised software.

For more of our thinking on software development and partnerships, see our blogs on the zone of suck and how your platform can avoid it and our guide to scaling: build vs. buy vs. white label.

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