#6 UX lessons from the Magic of Screensavers (part I)

Reading Time: 6 minutes

How listening to users turned a freeware side project into the #1 selling software in the world.


Great design is about developing value. My experience creating screensavers shows how users helped me create value for them. As you shall see, screensavers were not trivial and were a response to real needs.

The secret to value is listening to users, then ACTING quickly. 

The Magic story begins

Before you can listen to users, you need to HAVE users. After years designing Mac software and multimedia, I started a consulting business. Most of my clients paid me to design DOS apps (yuck!).

When Windows came out, I leaped on it to produce better, visually designed products for clients.  My dev partner, Ian MacDonald, and I toyed with animation and visuals. We rigged up automated animation tests with changing values as a screensaver.

First we share, then we listen

We liked one of the animations with mesmerizing interference patterns, so I posted it online as freeware. Just for fun, I called it Magic. We then forgot about it and went back to serious work.

Within a few weeks, letters starting arriving from Magic users. Curiously, they were negative letters detailing a few bugs, how difficult it was to find our address, and how annoying it was to guess how much money to send. Despite the complaints, all the letters included cash.

The secret of my success

My mind was blown. Even negative user feedback reveals opportunities. I’d never built anything that motivated people to send me letters, much less SEND US MONEY for BUGGY SOFTWARE. Once we understood the bugs, we fixed them and posted a new release to quiet it down. SIZZLE! A lot more letters. More bugs and more money. We fixed the bugs and set a sale price. BOOM! Suddenly our mailbox was overflowing every morning with fan letters, all with cheques or cash. I talked to more users to figure it out.

Stumbling into a product pivot

It was a decisive moment. Users were telling me they LOVED the Magic screensaver and were recommending it widely. However, it was taking a lot of time from our other projects. One morning, I pulled the trigger, announcing “Drop everything else. We’re a product company and THIS IS IT.” Windows wasn’t great back then, but it had 25 times as many users as the Mac. If you love users, you go where they are. We went all in to take this opportunity seriously. We reviewed how Magic was being distributed, how people paid for it and did a risk analysis/ code review. If people would pay for it buggy, imagine how many would pay for it flawless?

Problem 1: the danger of being hooked into everything

User bug reports allowed us to understand how dangerous a screensaver was. Magic didn’t crash because our code failed. It crashed because screensavers were vulnerable to every other app. In order for a screensaver to operate, it has to hook every message from every other app on the computer. The system hook lets it know you’ve been inactive long enough for it to kick in and allows it to wake up on input. Running 24/7 and being hooked into everything meant a screensaver could crash if ANY app had a serious error. That could crash the whole computer. This is no longer the case, but it was a critical problem for years.

Approach: pro-active engineering and rhythmic animation

Fortunately, Ian and I had experience working on life-critical systems. To prevent crashes, we created new defensive programming techniques. We monitored and pre-flighted everything going on in the system so that we could isolate and protect our code from application or system errors. At the same time, we were iterating the animation and user interface design to perfect the customer experience. Many users thought it was named Magic because it seemed to magically sync with music the user was listening to. It was absurd, but instead of ignoring it, I explored that idea by listening to music while I tuned the algorithm. If users liked the animation when it was accidentally rhythmic, how much better would it be if I deliberately established beats and rhythm to the movement?

Solution: relentless iteration

Every new application presented new ways to screw up the system, so the crash vulnerability was a VERY HARD PROBLEM.  The value of Magic’s animation wouldn’t mean anything if other apps could make it crash. We started a weekly cycle of a) aggressively seeking out problems, b) addressing them, c) testing carefully and d) releasing the next version. We call it Agile now. For a long time, it was 3 steps forward, 2 steps back on the tech side. We made so many mistakes, but they never stopped us. It took 24 version releases to perfect the tech and the animation.

Results: KABOOM!

Within a month, Magic exploded. Our mailbox was filled every day with dozens of fan letters. Very few bugs and a lot more cheques from all over the world. We hired some help to answer the phones, read the mail, filter new requests and fulfill the orders.

Problem 2: help people buy it

We learned from the fan mail that most of our users worked at companies and many wanted their company to site license it for 10, 50, 100, 5000 users. Whoa! The other problem was that we had users all over the world who couldn’t pay us in Canadian dollars.  We were making it too hard for people to pay us.

Problem 3: help people justify it (password protection)

Users handed us a dilemma and a solution. They wanted it because they LOVED IT. They bought it personally but couldn’t JUSTIFY IT at work. Users wanted us to add password protection since there was NO built-in ability to lock a PC back then.  That would be something they could sell to management and their IT dept. There was also concern from IT Departments that Magic might slow their computer down. We responded by pro-actively detecting how busy the computer was so that Magic COULD NOT INTERFERE or slow anything down. It was tricky, but worth it.

Solution: Maximize product ROI

If you want to sell to business customers, your product needs a high return on investment (ROI). If you wonder how a screensaver could have an ROI, let me unpack it for you. A typical screen cost $300-$600. At the time, every screen was vulnerable to burn in if you didn’t buy a screensaver. That’s a lot of cost saving. I also introduced the first password locking system into the Magic screensaver. The value of protecting company data was worth even more preventing screens from burn in. We figured these things out in consultation with our paying customers and then organized that into a sales sheet that showed typical companies achieved 15-20x ROI from licensing Magic for all their computers in the first year.

Magic was ready to step up. All we had to do was open the gates to let it grow. We spelled out the ROI for customers, made it easier for international buyers and built a sliding fee scale for site licenses. We tuned performance and refined the wrap-around password protection to lock up a PC. We also sought out more ways to distribute the trial version to online services, computer books and journalists everywhere.

Lesson learned: remove obstacles & the money will flow

Our sales leaped several orders of magnitude. Instead of hundreds of orders a week to home users, we were now selling to thousands of users per week through site licenses. Here’s the crazy thing: It was STILL JUST THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG. First, users had to go out of their way to find and download Magic. What they got was a free and fully functional app. Every once in a while, the animation would mention that it would be pretty cool if you paid for it. No marketing. We just responded to users. Apparently, cool animation that saves your screen from burning in and password protected your PC was something users felt compelled to pay for, including site licenses to Microsoft, Intel, HP, the US Government and the Kingdom of Tonga.

New opportunities: Go further

You might think this was as far as you could take a screen saver. NOT SO. Instead of just riding the money train, we started Magic 2.0 with a modular design for different animations and user contributions. We started building a collection of novel animations. As soon as we informed users that a module developer’s kit was a coming attraction, tons of users requested first crack at the kit to make their own screen savers. It also sparked many requests for us to develop custom screensavers for corporate clients. We had just started setting up deals with international companies to distribute and sell Magic in local currencies.

Solution: What we chose to do

With so much opportunity, we were at a crossroads. I was a designer/architect and Ian was a developer. We had managed to make some good calls to get the sales flowing, but it wasn’t our strength area or our passion. We could have hired a bunch of developers to make corporate screensavers, a dev liason for the modular kit, and a sales team to go global. That was one choice, but our fans and customers wanted an incredible, creative product. With thousands of fan letters for our creativity, product design and finesse, we chose not to become a sales company so we could focus on continuing to be a great creative company. Therefore, we looked to outsource sales so we could concentrate on making the ULTIMATE SCREENSAVERPart II continues the saga of how Magic turned into After Dark.

Lessons learned

Actionable user feedback isn’t everything, but its the linchpin of success. Creating screensavers was FAR from trivial, but hard work is richly satisfying when it pays off.

LESSON 1:

Great design is the art of interpreting user feedback with creative inspiration and authenticity.

Why did an experiment become a product, make money, become flawless, and get adopted everywhere? We listened to users and ACTED appropriately. Fixing bugs, redesigning for safety, adding password protection, simplifying site licensing. These things worked because they were the right response.

LESSON 2:

Doing right by users unlocks greater value. Relentlessly remove obstacles and everyone wins.

Every step we took was to resolve some user pain or need. Each of those steps also increased sales and revenue. That’s no accident. If we create something great, its value will be limited by the obstacles users face. When Michaelangelo was asked how to make an eagle, he said he started with a block of marble and chipped away everything that was NOT an eagle. Similar relentless, small iterations allowed us to perfect the screensaver.

LESSON 3:

Creative inspiration works best as a riff on something real.

Great design contains lightning bolts of inspiration, but it doesn’t do any good unless it’s based on real feedback. Don’t invent solutions to imagined problems. NEGATIVE feedback can be GOOD NEWS. When users tell you where it hurts, they are telling where you can unlock value. When you understand their pain, you’re ready to create inspired solutions.

BONUS LESSON:

Given the right framework, people can be pretty awesome.

Every user already had the software for free before paying for it. By definition, a screensaver only does its thing when you are not looking at it. I don’t know how many didn’t pay for it, but I do know that tons of people, companies and governments went out of their way to pay with cash, cheques, bank drafts and site licenses. Sometimes people do the right thing.

Postscript: the saga continues

Read the exciting part II of the screen saver saga, How Magic turned into After Dark.

About Bill Stewart

Bill Stewart is the founder and Senior UX Architect/Designer of UX Factor Design. His views on UX are informed by 29 years of experience in product strategy, development, visual design and team leadership. He's designed products used by more than 450M people and his inventions are currently used by more than 1 billion users. ★ Whether he's redesigning products to increase value, lindy hop dancing, or teaching kung fu, he looks to maximize the value in every experience. ★ Contact him at UX Factor Design (uxfactor.ca) for UX design consultation.

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