Interview with Adam Bates, Paychex Senior Product Manager
Adam Bates has had a major influence on the design and functionality of our human capital management solution, Paychex FlexSM. We recently sat down with Adam to get his thoughts on what great application design represents, and how he and his team have been applying best practices to Paychex Flex.
Hello, Adam. Could you give us a quick overview of what you do at Paychex?
I’ve been with Paychex about two and a half years now, beginning as a product manager for our mobile application.
When I started we had around 10,000 users a month using it … 40,000 downloads. So, it was still pretty new. From that we dove in and charted a course for how we could drive adoption of it.
Since we’ve grown the mobile application, we’ve recently crossed the half a million download threshold. And we have over 100,000 people on it in a given month now.
And it still continues to grow about 200 percent year-over-year in terms of usage. So, adoption has been pretty strong.
I worked on that solely for about six to nine months and then was brought into looking at all of Paychex Flex.
How did you get started with the Paychex Flex project?
I was first asked to look at the user experience we were offering and what we needed to do there, and a couple of things really jumped out. We encountered this in the mobile app too, where from a feature perspective, [Paychex Flex was] very competitive and even market leading, but from an experience perspective, there were some things that we could do better.
So, I led an effort to update that and put it on par with some of the leading consumer experiences in the market today. Now I’m leading our user experience team as well as several product teams that are in the process of redoing the entire Paychex Flex user experience.
Who do you look to as technology innovators?
I think there are some obvious ones that jump out. Google consistently rises to the top of companies doing innovative things on the Web. They invest a lot in quantitative user research. So, it’s not only, “Hey, we’ve got good designers.” It’s, “We’ve got designers—and we’ve got a lot of usage data that we’re using to drive decisions. We run a lot of experiments.” So, they publish a lot of research.
We're looking at them as a benchmark, because a lot of the things we’re doing now, even on desktop, are inspired by mobile. We look at a lot of mobile applications.
In their latest design updates in Office 365, Microsoft has done a lot of innovative things and has really driven simplicity and quick responses. I think the thing big guys like Microsoft and Google have really done well is that cross-device experience, which is so important now.
It’s not about a desktop app, a mobile app, and a tablet app. It’s about an experience that is elegant no matter how you access it, acknowledging that people will probably use multiple devices in any given workflow.
What are some technology trends you’re following?
One of the biggest trends from the technology side is that, whether it’s a personal application or a business application, the expectations are really blurred. Just the rise in apps and everything being online, consumers young to old are using them nowadays. And those consumer experiences are driving their expectations for any application. Design has reached such a high level that when people began using more administrative business applications, [where it] used to be acceptable that they were archaic and required a manual, they expected the experience to be intuitive.
People have to be able to come into a business application cold, with no training. It has to feel like the consumer tech they’re using. So, that’s the mindset shift we are really driving in this new design. And we’ve received good executive support for prioritizing projects that are more contemporary or innovative as opposed to just feature based.
What’s a good example of those trends in business applications today?
So, whether you’re using one of those Office 365 products, like email, on your phone, your tablet, or your web browser, or your desktop client, it’s a generally consistent experience. It’s also very fast.
From the search to how things load, Microsoft has put an incredible amount of focus on making it very responsive, so that you touch something and you get instant feedback versus maybe older versions where you touched something and you waited and hoped it was loading.
I think too, just from the feel, they have a very contemporary design. Transitions and animations are two of the popular trends that can really impact perceived experiences with the application.
Research shows that when it’s a smooth transition, for example when the new element slides in a way that feels very natural and not overdone, that those transitions are actually subtle but very powerful cues to the user that if you touch your mobile device, something new will happen. You’re shifting into a new space. That kind of transition in quality is something that, again, Microsoft and Google are incorporating.
How have you applied those trends to Paychex Flex?
My team presented concepts to [senior vice president, information technology, product management and development] Mike Gioja. And it wasn’t just about showing cool, new functionality. It was, “We need to be across devices. We need to be very simple and intuitive. We need to be adaptive to individual users, meaning one experience does not fit all.”
The needs of the small business owner are very different from the needs of a large business owner, CPA, and employee. An application needs to adapt well to those very needs. It needs to be super responsive, and snappy, and fast. And here’s an experience that does that.
Could you describe the development process for Paychex Flex?
A good deal of research analysis and user testing happened prior to involving project teams.
And then, when we land with a project team, the question is, “How can we can structure this and roll it out so that we’re not going off for a year and developing something that we should do incrementally, so that we can get more direct feedback?”
Aside from that user research and testing there are usage analytics. So, that’s the other big input. How are people actually using the application and what do we infer from their needs based on that we cycle back into the product? It’s an ongoing cycle to improve what’s out there and then add more to it.
The key to getting application development right is to get it out there, test it, then make decisions based on actual usage and feedback. And that’s what we’re doing with Paychex Flex.