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From designer problem to consumer plugin – how we launched Spacer

In this edition of the Product Leadership Podcast, Alice and Russ chat about how we created the Spacer plugin for Sketch from an internal problem we had and then turned it into a commercial product.

Along the way they cover:

  • How Spacer was created to solve issues that our own designers were facing
  • Staying curious about your audience and connecting with them
  • The importance of getting the right feedback and using it to improve your product

Use the discount PODCAST20 for 20% off Spacer 💰

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Transcript

Alice:

Hey everybody, welcome back. Um, as you can probably hear you’ve got different hosts this week, uh, or this edition of the podcast. It’s uh, Alice. I’m head of marketing here and I’ve, um, stepped in to talk to Russ. (cheers and laughs) That’s the crowd clapping for our new host. Woo. That was for Russ, anyway, Russ is our design director, head of design. What’d you call yourself Russ?

Russ:

It doesn’t matter. As long as you, your inflection goes higher and higher, as you say the title, I go by design director now,

Alice:

Very fancy stuff, um, yeah. So Russ is our design boss. Um, he’s been on the podcast a bit before and he’s chatted about side projects before as well. Um, back in 2015, he loves them.

Russ:

Well, I’m not spinning any of those plates anymore, which is probably good for my mental health, uh, lots of new ones to spin though.

Alice:

um, we’ll chat about one today, which, uh, is a plugin, which, uh, Ross has created for some of the design software we use. Um, so do you want to quickly run us through what you’ve made? What it does?

Russ:

I will. Yes, absolutely. Uh, so we’re talking about Spacer, which is our, um, recent sketch plugin. Um, it is essentially a tool that helps designers manage the spacing in the UI work. Uh, I’m going to make a point of not getting too techie about this today because I could talk in depth about this topic, but I think 99% of people will not care. Um, so I think that’s about as, uh, that’s about as loose an overview I’ll give it helps you manage spacing and user interface design.

Alice:

Nice. Uh, I mean, obviously a podcast where we just tell you we’ve made something would be pretty dull. Um, so for, we would chat about some of the lessons we’ve learned with Spacer. Um, talk about the steps around bringing a kind of micro product to market, um, obviously without, without a budget, um, and getting people using it. Um, so I suppose the first question would be how you start out testing, whether people want something like this.

Russ:

Yeah. So, um, so I guess the, the thing to know, yeah, this is one of the cases of us scratching our own itch. Um, so we have like a, an issue in UI design for something that bugs us, like we think could be improved. Um, and we tend to try and build something to help ourselves with that, and then go looking elsewhere to see if it interests anyone else. Um, the very first time I showed, uh, some progress on Spacer to the public was, um, I essentially faked that I had, uh, built the plugin and when actually I was doing some clever things with symbols and video editing. Um, and I posted that into a few Slack channels, um, for some design communities, just to see if people were interested and I shared the problem.

Alice:

that that was going to be my first question, you know, is, is there any way to make an MVP with a plugin and, and, um, that the sort of is it’s a bit of a wizard of Oz, isn’t it?

Russ:

Yeah, it is. Yeah. Um, I, yeah, I think the point I was trying to prove was that were this automated, it would be great. So I can just show someone what it would look like if it was, if it were automated. Um, and if people are interested in that, then I know I should probably go and build it. Um, so yeah, I think, I think, you know, it’s, it’s a bit blunt, but like lying to people will help you in the early stages. Um, and as long as none of those people later on listen to a podcast where you admit that you lied to them, I think you’re getting away with it.

Alice:

Oh, no,

Russ:

I know who I will and won’t share this podcast with so

Alice:

nice I suppose the next question was, um, did you learn anything you, you didn’t really expect from that? Was it, was it quite straightforward or, Oh, were your findings quite interesting.

Russ:

Um, I was, I was intrigued to see how many other people shared that problem and didn’t have a solution that they recommended me to, you know, whenever you go looking for, um, for people who share the same issue as you, you often find someone who’s like, Oh yeah, cool. Well, we do it this way and it’s not really an issue for us, but I wasn’t hearing that a lot, which is, you know, it was a good thing for me. Um, although truthfully, if someone has given me a better solution that I didn’t have to have built myself, I would’ve probably latched on to that. We wouldn’t be here now. Um, So, yeah, so, so that was definitely, definitely one of the things is, is, um, finding people who haven’t actually yet you might be the first person to solve that issue. Um, and the other thing is the stuff you don’t expect to hear. So, um, this is a sketch plugin in particular cause that’s the UI software that we were predominantly using at the time. Um, and lots of designers I was speaking to, you were saying, Oh, this thing is great. Uh, have you got a Figma version? Are you going to build a Figma version? Um, and I had had developers reaching out and saying, I can port this for you. Um, you know, if you wanted me to, and, you know, things I hadn’t even considered yet, cause there are 10 steps down the line. Um, you know, you’re sort of gauging interest and seeing maybe where this thing will go. Um, so yeah, that, that definitely is something that I, I sort of wasn’t banking on, on seeing so early on.

Alice:

Yeah, it definitely makes sense. So you started getting ideas for a lot further down the line, um, and from your kind of initial, initial thing. Cool. Yeah. Um, I mean, obviously like marketing is my big interest, so I’m always interested in, in how people market products and, and getting a bit of exposure without, without having a big marketing spend behind it. How, how did you approach that?

Russ:

Yeah, I mean, obviously, uh, we’re lucky enough to have you in house, which means I can, I can, um, Get your expertise on this kind of thing. Um, before you got involved with that? Uh, I think the only, I’m trying to think what other publicity. Before you got involved with that, the only, um, bit of marketing I did was to send out just a simple email campaign. Um, and that was to, uh, a sort of list of designers that we already have access to. Um, and essentially saying we’ve just released this plugin and seeing if anyone would go ahead and pay for it. Um, and I got some response not great. Um, and that was a little bit demoralizing, but the most important thing that came out of that is that like people went in and paid for it and, you know, that’s that first indication that, yeah, you’re onto a winner here. Um, you know, it’s all well and good people saying, Oh, this is pretty cool. I’d love to use it, but until they’ve actually put in their credit card details and, and made the order, um, don’t really know if you know the, the value proposition is right and you’ve got the price, right. So. Um, and then after that point, um, was when, uh, you suggested quite rightly, uh, that you come on board and help out with some of the more active marketing outside of email campaigns, um, and took to the socials, right? Maybe you want to tell us about what your, what your first steps were there.

Alice:

Yeah. I mean, I was thinking as well about, um, getting it listed on product hunt and, um, things like that, which seemed to be quite helpful. But, um, it it’s surprising how much traction making a Twitter account for a plugin like this can make, um, essentially sort of looking around the hashtags to do with sketch. And I mean, designers are by and large tweeters, you know, we were, we, we were tweeters and, um, You know, seeing, seeing how people were trying to solve these problems and just, you know, trying to chat to people. Um, and, and, and, you know, say, is this something you want, do you want to, you know, this, this looks good. Doesn’t it? Hey, Sketch. Um, I think we were, we were very lucky to be in, um, Sketch’s, 10 years of Sketch newsletter. As one of the featured plugins, which I think is something that came off the back of just a bit of, a bit of hashtag usage. So I think I wouldn’t overlook being able to get that, that initial traction and get people, spending their money from something as simple as just, you know, just re-tweeting everything that Sketch does and, you know, and seeing, seeing who’s who’s really into, into their plugins.

Russ:

Yeah. I mean, you got, you got as a huge win for, um, for getting us into that newsletter. Cause that’s like the most exposure we’d had up until that point by far. So, so is that process quite manual then? Like, are you, are you, um, just sort of sit down and thinking about what kinds of accounts that you’re going to be, be targeting or, or, you know, people who follow this account or people that I will tweet at? How, how does that process come together?

Alice:

Yeah. I mean, there probably are a lot of ways to automate this kind of stuff, but I feel that it becomes a bit impersonal then. Um, you know, there are probably ways that you can kind of, um, scour various hashtags and it feels a bit robotic, but yeah. You know, it’s about making a bit of a connection with, with, with these people who would be users, you know, looking at, um, various accounts, uh, you know, kind of sketch fan accounts, you know, places where people can show off what they’re making, what they’re working on. Um, and just kind of, you know, crushing people’s conversations for a better day, bulging in as a plugin.

Russ:

I was just going to say you’re absolutely right. Um, that there is a massive difference between when like a brand turns up and you can tell that it’s robotic. Like you don’t, that almost seems like an intrusion, but when someone’s actually sort of responding to a conversation you’re having, it’s such a different, um, experience for that person.

Alice:

Yeah. I mean, I, I, I’m quite skeptical about social media automations because I’ve just seen too many, uh, things that have missed the mark. You know, I think anything and thing related to your, your interaction with, with the public or people you would like to be users or, um, people aren’t stupid. They know when a conversation isn’t natural. And I think a brand trying to try to barge in with something that’s a bit copy and paste, um, feels cringy Um, I say it like something I’m really curious about with this and that, that is probably quite interesting to our audiences. Um, what’s good. What’s good about making plugins, why what’s good about solving our own problems? You know, , what would other agencies get from doing something like that? So, or any, any businesses listening, thinking, Hey, I wanna, I wanna make a, a bit of tech that solves the problem.

Russ:

Yeah. I mean, I think, um, it’s probably the easiest, uh, thing to validate to the person who’s going to sign off on the cost of it. Um, you know, if, if you’re saying quite clearly, um, this will allow us to work faster and work better in the same way that you might pitch. Uh, Oh, there’s a, there’s an external product or something else that, you know, some other service I’ve found that one to use and here’s how it’s gonna help me in my job. That’s quite an easy sell. Um, it’s, you know, a line manager or something, um, to get budget signed off. But, um, the difference being here is that like you, you own that thing. Um, so if you can, then shift, um, you know, what you’re using internally to what other people might take interest in? Um, you know, there’s so much more potential there. Like there’s so much more to be gained, um, by building something yourself, um, also like very important to say you also have way more of the risk, um, because you may, you then need to maintain that thing yourself. You know, no one’s going to do that for you for free forever. Um, and you know, the product will have to change and shift if you want to, um, you know, grow it and get more people buying it. And it may become something that actually doesn’t solve your initial problem that well anymore. But that’s how it that’s, you know, I’ve seen quite early on now, is that the kinds of requests I’m getting for changes, people would like to see with Spacer are really that in line with what you would call your product vision for it. So you do diminish control of it. But when it goes from, um, something we just use internally to something that we built internally, and now we sell, um, to our, to our peers.

Alice:

What kinds of requests are you guessing for it?

Russ:

So, um, so where these come from is maybe an important thing as well. So, um, After about a week or so of, of, um, releasing the plugin. I put together a really quick like public roadmap. Um, cause I wanted to show, um, you know, I’ve got all these great ideas that, you know, would be difficult to build or fun to build or just some direction that the product might go in. But there’s no place to, um, like share those, right? You don’t like send someone the product they just bought and then send them 10 ideas for things you might do in the future. But if I, if you give them a link, um, you know, with the next update and say, Hey, by the way, um, have a look at our roadmap and get in touch with us. Anything that interests you, it’s like a really quick way of getting people thinking about what else they might want to do with your tool. Um, so on the back of that, Um, you, you find that you get your sort of like enthusiastic early adopters who see something in your roadmap and they’re like, Oh, that is absolutely great. Or, or, or have you thought about doing this, um, as a feature, um, and that, you know, suddenly I’m getting like, inspired about my product from other people who are using it kind of for free. Um, so that’s, that’s really powerful. Um, Even as a sort of side note, um, some people will misinterpret what you’ve written on your roadmap, um, and they contextualize it and what they think you mean by that, uh, which is another like fun way of getting of getting people’s ideas about something that, that, you know, you sort of, um, don’t really expect to get.

Alice:

Cool. They’ll definitely make sense. Um, I mean, do you like, can you, I don’t really know where I’m going with this, but, um, it’s, it’s opening that is opening that roadmap map up to the public, kind of always a good thing. Obviously, these people are your, your users, but, um, it’s, you know, say we were building an internal tool. Um, can you, I mean, are there any sort of downsides to, to that, that degree of transparency. Does it become a bit, a bit of a kind of who shouts loudest game?

Russ:

Yeah, I, yeah, I know. I know what you mean personally um, I’ve always seen that the earlier you can share something, whether it exists or not, um, you are more likely to collect something really valuable from people who see it. Um, there are arguments, do be made about, um, you know, people building products in capacitive spaces where it’ do or die, um, you know, product a versus product B. And if they knew what we had on our roadmap next, you know, they’re trying to get us to the post, that kind of thing. So there’s definitely cases where you just keep hush about things, but, um, but you know, do you need to keep absolutely everything that you’re about to build complete your secret? Probably not. Like it’s probably one feature in 10 that actually, you know, you want to keep on the slide. Um, but the rest of it, like it’s valuable to show people that we have a plan to improve this thing. So you’re not just buying what we’ve built up until now, but you know, you’re also purchasing like what we plan to do over the next year. Um, and I think that, you know, that gives people confidence in what you’re doing.

Alice:

For sure, definitely it shows that there’s going to be a progression of the product and that people can contribute to that definitely makes sense.

Russ:

Even, you know, probably worth saying. And it’s, I guess it’s specific to the area of product we’re building in, but, um, you know, open source, um, plugins for software like this, like often die after a few updates of that UI software. Like something that goes incompatible. The developer hasn’t made a lot of money off of it or has made nothing off of it and has no motivation to build anything more. So just showing people that you’re not, you know, your plan isn’t to just disappear like everyone else. Um, you know, it shows you, you believe in yourself a little bit more.

Alice:

That would be super frustrating as well for some, some plugin that you use to just die

Russ:

So we constantly find, and that’s one of the reasons that, um, you know, we worked on Spacer in particular was that we used to use this really nippy, um, sketch plugin that did sort of half of the clever things we wanted to do. Um, and that became, um, outdated, really sluggish with newscast versions, basically unusable. Um, so it was one of the reasons that got us to, you know, to actually act on this ourselves, um, was that we had a new need for it because it just that, you know, the existing solution to run dry

Alice:

And I think that’s quite common, isn’t it? In terms of, you know, people building their own solutions, it tends to be because they they’ve had some kind of work around that that’s become less workable. I mean, it’s, I’d say it’s probably quite unusual for someone to just wake up one day and say, Hey, I want to completely solve my own problem. Like we do tend to all go out, you know, looking, looking for something first don’t we. I guess I’d quite like to move on to now. Um, you know, how, how building something like this has sort of informed, um, what you do every day, if there’s any way in which it’s kind of informed your, your day job or sort of, you know, for, for, for good or bad, um, Made you, it made you look at the rest of what we do.

Russ:

Hmm. Yeah, I think, um, I think one of the nice reminders to us I have is that when someone tells you that they really enjoy using something you’ve made, that’s a real motivational boost for you too. To work on the things that you do. Um, and sometimes we’re a bit distant from that. And sometimes there isn’t an avenue to that, you know, we’re an agency, so we work through, um, product teams and their own management, and sometimes that stuff is lost. Um, so it’s kind of a reminder in your process to find ways to collect feedback. You know, we’re often looking for critical feedback to help us improve, but, um, they have to share the, uh, you know, some of the compliments that come through as well as something that, um, I’m definitely reminded, um, to, to bring into our projects. Um, and you know, and, and taking a bit of a risk as well. Um, yeah, there was, there was no by no means, um, any certainty that by releasing this, like, we make our small investment back. Um, but we learned something along the way anyway, and, you know, we’ve, you know, I’ve embarked on enough of these small projects where they don’t end up going anywhere and, you know, um, and that’s fine. So, um, so yeah, I think it’s always just worth taking that, taking that little bit of a risk for a while.

Alice:

I mean, in terms of, of what we usually do all day, how does it differ when you’re, you’re making something, um, for yourself rather than for a client project, other than, you know, having to sort of do it somewhat in your spare time or space?

Russ:

So, I guess one of the things that’s that’s helpful is, um, not having a big feedback loop to go through. Um, so when you’re working with stakeholders, um, who, you know, you need to organize time to meet with, you need to. Balance and gather their feedback and work on next versions when you’ve cut out a lot of that stuff so that you can just do something quickly. Um, you know, you work a lot faster and, and, you know, things get things get done a lot quicker. Um, and you’re also a bit more relaxed about your output, you know, like yeah, things can get really caught up on, um, you know, brand and identity and, you know, and, and what does this thing to say to people, but if you’re just doing a small experiment and you’re not trying, or you don’t have a stakeholder, that’s, that’s giving feedback. You can do a 10 minute logo and we did do a 10 minute logo and that’s okay. Uh, and know that can last as long as it does. So yeah, you do have a bit more freedom to, to, to not, um, not get so indebted and, and cautious with your work, which is nice.

Alice:

Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I think it’s, it’s always good to have that, that bit of space to experiment. Isn’t it? Well, I mean, obviously we’re, we’re a bit biased, but do we, do you think that the people listening, other agencies, do you, do you recommend these as these little experiments or, or to, to build your own tools and, you know, play around with things like this?

Russ:

Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s, it’s the culture of the hack day, right? Um, you know, large companies try and do this as well, where it’s just down tools and, and build something that. You know, we’re not trying to create a spin-off business out of, um, you know, reduce the pressure a little bit. Um, so yeah, I think that’s facilitated in places and that kind of work easily falls by the wayside when you’re busy. Um, So, yeah. I mean, you know, those agencies that don’t absolutely should because there’s, there’s no doubt that in every agency that someone’s out, they go, Oh, this process I have to go through every time it’s such a pain in the bum takes me a lot of time. Um, and I wish, I wish that was, you know, the solution that could like deal with it. So, um, So, yeah, I, I, you know, the other side of that is that I’m in a slightly easier position. Um, and, uh, I can, uh, I’m closer to making the decisions on whether we invest in this kind of thing. Um, but having a space so that your team members and people who work in your team are able to suggest like, Oh, it’d be really interesting if we built something like this, um, learning coverage that kind of innovation to throw in buzzwords without saying innovation.

Alice:

innovation, innovation, innovation. Got it, got it. Get enough keywords and yeah, I mean, that was the next thing I was going to ask really. Like what, what would be, you know, kind of fairly, fairly sort of succinctly, what would a kind of framework for finding out a bit about this type of problem? Um, you know, finding out what. Well, your design team are up against or what, you know, what you could make that would make people make people’s lives a bit easier. How did you go about gathering that information?

Russ:

Um, I guess I’m going to lie here about us, cause I didn’t, but I can’t, I can’t, I can make up a quick story about how you would because it’s sort of ties together.

Alice:

Okay.

Russ:

Um, so agencies are very used to, um, you know, hosting retrospectives around the projects that they’ve just completed, um, and learning from them. So, you know what, well, what we should continue with what we should never do again. Um, so taking an example like that and turning it more towards, you know, looking inwards like us as, as designers and developers and know people in marketing and sales, um, what’s bothering us in our day-to-day work. Like where are our tools letting us down, uh, processes, you know, holding us back and just using kind of an open space to work out some of those, um, those issues can just tell you so much about what you could improve, um, in your company. Um, that may not be a tool that you need to build. It may be, you know, um, discovering a new service or, or, you know, changing some, some, um, something in your workplace, something like that, but the outfit, you know, improving someone’s day to day work and that’s hugely beneficial.

Alice:

Absolutely. And then the, the, the kind of fringe benefit is that you can then roll it out to other people and it’s a value to them and it makes, it makes a little bit of pocket money as well.

Russ:

Exactly, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. I’ve had two bags of pick n’ mix on the back of Spacer so far and I’m loving it.

Alice:

I mean, that’s, that’s all the riches anyone could ask for really. I suppose we’re probably about ready to wrap it up, but I mean, is there anything else you think that, that really stands out about, about how, how things have gone for you or anything that, that didn’t really go as expected or that you’ve, you’ve sort of learned

Russ:

I think it’s really important to make space, to experiment as a team. What we’re trying to say is that you should make space for. Uh, for people to suggest new ways of working. , I think, um, the message from us here is that, um, there’s always room to look at your processes and find something to improve on. Um, and you know, that’s, that’s as low risk as you want it to be. Um, and there’s always something powerful that comes out of the end of it. So, um, yeah, definitely, definitely take that on if you’re not already practicing that.

Alice:

Nice. Uh, I suppose the final thing is where, where do we get Spacer, uh, from, if we want to give a nice little gift to the designers in our lives or solve our own problems, where should we go looking for this?

Russ:

Great question Alice! I actually was going to say like, just Google Spacer plugin so we don’t have to read out a domain but you really don’t find. Um, space of plugin through Google . Um, so you can take a look, our Gumroad page, which you can find at gum.co/spacer. Um, and we have a discount code running at the moment. Um, if you type in the key word.

Alice:

Yeah, podcast 20.

Russ:

Okay. Um, and if you, uh, check out before the end of the year using discount code podcast 20, you will get 20% off because you’re our best friends.

Alice:

Nice. Good stuff. Nice speaking to you, Russ. Hopefully we will be allowed back on the podcast. If listener numbers tally up with Tom’s performance.

Russ:

This is a takeover Alice, what are you talking about?

Alice:

It’s all ours now.

Russ:

Thank you, Alice.

Alice:

Cheers Russ. See you later. Bye.