Jonathan Vella: “There is no such thing as “getting feedback too early”

August 28, 2017

IT Arena 2017 kicks off in one month! To fuel up your interest, we will start closely introducing you to this year’s speakers. In our first interview we talk to Jonathan Vella, Co-founder & Director of Design at Hotjar about the specifics of being a designer in tech, his company principles and values, as well as the latest upcoming trends of the industry. 

What have 10 years of experience working within design teams for web and desktop projects taught you about working in the tech scene?

Great question! Over the course of the 10 years, I had various positions, most of which were design and product focused. I got to work with some truly amazing people, some of which I eventually teamed up with to build Hotjar. There are a lot of lessons I have learned, some that particularly stand out are:

  1. Delivering value is more important as a goal than focusing on revenue. People use things that feel they give them value. If you manage to build a product which delivers value to its users, the revenue will naturally follow. If on the other hand, you build a product focused on generating revenue, the value will be compromised and people will eventually look for alternate options.
  2. There is no such thing as “getting feedback too early”. Feedback should be sought as soon as possible to validate your ideas and course of action early on with your users and stakeholders. What’s the point of building and committing time to a solution which has not been validated by the people who will be using it?
  3. The key goal for product designers and teams is to make sure they adhere to the KISS principle – “Keep it simple, stupid”. This is far from easy, especially in complex platforms, but keeping this in mind when defining and building an experience has helped me a lot throughout my career.
  4. Planning big changes/releases should be avoided by it’s not always possible. A great first step we started doing at Hotjar is to write the message/announcement that will go out to our users when the project is shipped. The message doesn’t need to be 100% finalised, but it needs to include everything we would want to tell users, keeping things as simple as possible. This almost acts as a project’s vision – when planning sprints and facing unexpected decisions we didn’t originally plan for, we look at the message and make sure that whatever we do still fits that message.
  5. We are all in the people industry. We can have incredible ideas, flawless plans and a fantastic go to market strategy – If you don’t have amazing people that will help you get there, you won’t make it.
  6. Never compromise when it comes to recruiting. Hiring the wrong person is a horrible experience for everyone – the hire, the team and yourself. When in this situation, the important thing to do is give constant feedback to the person. If inevitably, the best solution is to part ways, it should not be a surprise to anyone, especially not that person.


In the world of design, what is the latest trend and what do you predict will happen?

Trends are never in short supply. Most are just temporary, so it’s important to learn about the ones which give value to the end user. From my end, my favourite 3 which I believe we’ll be seeing more of in the coming years are closely related: Story telling; custom illustrations and animations. Story telling is extremely powerful to convey a message to an audience. Great companies who manage to nail this use illustrations and short animations to create extremely engaging content which people can easily relate to.

Hotjar was founded in 2014 with a bold vision to ‘Change the way digital experiences are built and improved by democratizing user analytics and feedback’. How did this idea come to life? How did you start the company with David Darmanin?

Prior to starting Hotjar, we (the founding team) had all worked together in the past so we already knew each other well. Before we set out to build Hotjar, myself and Erik were working by ourselves on two projects – we had a lot of product and tech experience but lacked business and marketing knowledge. On the other hand, David, Johan and Marc were also working on their own projects and their biggest strength was our weakness – business and marketing knowledge. Eventually, all our projects failed for different reasons.

At this point, David had reached out to Erik and me and proposed to us joining forces to build an analytics and feedback platform. As a CRO consultant, David had used a lot of tools to analyse user behavior and noticed that virtually all his colleagues and other professionals used the same types of tools for their job, yet there was no solution available which was effectively combining analytics and feedback as a single platform. Moreover, the cost to set up these tools was extremely high and heavily focused on the enterprise. After building an MVP and running some numbers we soon realised that we could democratize the entire analytics and feedback market by offering a freemium solution.


In only 3 years, Hotjar grew into a company with an ARR of 8 million $. What is the secret of success according to you?

There are a lot of things I could list but these would be the ones I would highlight:

  1. We identified and validated a pain point which was common to a very large number of people.
  2. Speed played a crucial part. Most of our competitors were enterprise solutions focused on a smaller set of features, and which moved and evolved slowly. This meant we were in a position to build things much faster than they could adapt.
  3. Unlike other solutions, support is available to everyone, even non paying users. Some of our biggest wins came from people signing up using their personal email and receiving the same support a paying customer would. These people eventually became Hotjar advocates and sold Hotjar within their organizations. This is truly the power of the word of mouth.
  4. User feedback is paramount. In everything that we do, we try to get as much feedback as we can early on to make sure what we are building addressed the needs of our users. During the 9 month beta and till this day, we reach out to users and customers in various ways to understand usage, their pain points and their workflows to always make sure we are building the right things right.
  5. Feedback is never one sided. We treat all feedback as a conversation. No comment or message goes unanswered and followed up on.
  6. We have been transparent with our users in everything we did – plans, roadmap, downtime, etc. This was a great platform from which to build trust with a number of users and customers who eventually became fans.


What are the Hotjar’s XAwards?

The Hotjar XAwards was an event Hotjar hosted in May of 2017. As a startup we know very well how hard it is to build a product and get initial traction so we wanted to give back to the startup community by hosting an event where early-stage startups (2 to 5 in team size) would compete for 3 awards with cash prizes – Best Overall Experience, Best Tech Achievement and Best Mobile App Experience. The response was phenomenal, with over 630 entries from which 10 finalists were selected and invited to pitch their projects to a judging panel. There were so many fantastic teams and projects that we decided to extend the invite to an additional 8 teams who had also impressed us even though they didn’t make it to the final 10.

It was a great event where we got to meet some truly innovative projects and the awesome teams behind them. Since we realised this would be a great networking and learning opportunity for both the invited teams and us, we decided to organise a 2-day event with international guest speakers from companies such as Basecamp, Pipedrive, PriceIntelligently, Receptive and SaaStock with the content heavily focused on early-stage such as positioning, funding, go to market, product and planning.

What is your favorite app that you use (almost) daily and why?

The app i use the most is Trello – I literally use it for everything. Personal to-do lists, projects, recruitment, brainstorming, etc. It’s an extremely versatile tool that is super simple to use.

Hotjar Ltd. is a privately owned company that builds intuitive and disruptive research and optimisation tools for web businesses. Hotjar is a new powerful tool that reveals the online behaviour and voice of your users. By combining both A) Analysis and B) Feedback tools, Hotjar gives you the ‘big picture’ of how to improve your site’s user experience and performance (conversion rates).