Jaxon Merril is VP, Digital Product & Design most recently at Beautycounter, a direct retail beauty brand with a multi-level marketing component. Throughout his career, Jaxon worked in a wide range of industries such as entertainment, ecommerce, and fitness, to name a few. He started his career working as a technical producer for live events at Walt Disney Internet Group before moving to Warner Music Group and later Fox Broadcasting Company, where he worked on “American Idol.” Jaxon then worked at Beachbody as an executive director of digital product development before joining Beautycounter in 2021.
In our conversation, Jaxon discusses his role in leading three digital transformations: creating an app for American Idol’s voting system in the early 2010s, building Beachbody’s streaming media platform from the ground up, and, most recently, moving Beautycounter’s technology from a home-built system to a vendor-managed one. He also discusses the reasoning behind his best practice that UX should report to product: it creates the best user experience while maximizing business value.
I was at Fox Broadcasting for five years, from 2009 to 2014. When I got there, one of the big initiatives was better digital engagement for American Idol. Back then, if you wanted to vote for a contestant, you were texting to vote. The iPhone had launched in 2007 and the App Store a year later, so app development for the iOS ecosystem was only a year old by the time I got to FOX. We came up with the idea to turn voting into an app and add second-screen experiences, so it would have the added benefit of keeping people glued during the commercial breaks. We launched it in 2011.
One of my biggest learnings from that is understanding your traffic patterns. On the entertainment side, many things are outsourced. You’re building these apps, but you’re dealing with one company that deals with voting and another that deals with streaming. All of that happens kind of peripherally from the core of the app. These companies would come in and say, “How much traffic do you get?” And we’d say, “25 million visitors a week,” but all that happens in 45 minutes on Monday night. They didn’t understand that it’s dead all week long and there’s this massive spike, so we often had issues with vendors who were unable to handle that kind of incredibly focused traffic.
The very first week that we launched the voting app, we crashed it. It came down. I got a phone call to my personal cell phone from showrunners during the first commercial break saying, “The app’s not working. Why isn’t the app working?” Obviously, we already knew, but what was happening was part of the voting experience was still connected to a development environment. All that traffic was attempting to go through one developer’s sandbox and it was melting down.
We were ultimately able to reroute traffic to the production environment and salvage the first voting episode. We made it work and by the next week we were good to go. It’s crazy how much traffic you can drive from a live television show when Ryan Seacrest says, “Pick up your phone and vote.”
I joined Beautycounter in 2021 when they were an eight-year-old company. At some point in their history, someone decided to move to a home-built ecommerce system and that was really starting to hold the company back in a lot of ways.
In the year that I started, we had a new CTO and the company was acquired by a private equity firm. Everyone recognized that the platform was holding the company back, so we had to find a new vendor and start migration to support the projected growth. One of the pitfalls that are very niche to Beautycounter — and, ironically, also Beachbody — is that both of those companies have a direct sales component to them. When you go from a strict ecommerce business to direct sales, your constituents and your stakeholders change exponentially.
It becomes very difficult to manage the balancing act that is product management, from strict customers and business stakeholders and then add this whole other group. I don’t know that as a leadership team, we adequately described the complexity that this additional constituent group adds to a project to the vendors that came in. The company that we ended up using had some experience with other companies like us, but our market was very different.
I’ll give an example from Beachbody. My boss from FOX was hired as CDO to lead this digital transformation for Beachbody. At the time, Beachbody was nearing $1 billion, but most of this was predicated on physical DVD sales. DVD and BlueRay player sales were on the decline, and most laptops were no longer equipped with optical drives. Beachbody knew that if they wanted to survive, they had to create the streaming service.
My boss brought me and a small handful of others on board to help define, strategize, and build what would become Beachbody on Demand. Within the first few months of joining, we had a beta. And this is a multi-level marketing company — they have a huge network of “coaches” who resell their platform. We were getting the beta in front of the coaches to build consensus before we went live. In less than a year, we had a streaming media platform with all of their programs on it.
At the time of that first launch, it didn’t have a lot of the features that it has today. We were focused on the simplest and fastest way to get a user to the program they wanted to do, and how to keep them in it. There were also lots of long discussions about price. The company and coaches were used to selling disk packs for $100. A recurring revenue stream fundamentally changes this model. How does that work for the coach network? How does that change this model across the business?
From a business perspective, we had a lot of headwinds but we managed to get it live. Once coaches saw it, they really started to fall in love with it. A year later, we had a lot of advanced features, it wasn’t just a copy of your DVD set on your computer. It was calendaring, how does this tie into my nutrition program, what does accountability look like, and all of these pieces that make sticking to a fitness program easier. It was more impactful. We had a very strong MAU/DAU ratio. People were using the program and coming back daily.
Absolutely, so today is 7 November, and if you haven’t done all your due diligence and testing by now, you’re in trouble.
If you haven’t been in a code freeze since 1 October, you’re in trouble. That’s my biggest advice. Talk to your company and understand what the business needs. Really start having a conversation about when code freeze needs to happen and stick to those guns.
We’ve all heard the stories where someone’s a week out from Black Friday saying, “It’s just a small piece of code but it’s going to make our analytics so much better.” All of a sudden, you lose a million dollars on that first day because something fundamentally broke.
Because of my background, I’m very into it. The companies that I’ve worked for tend to have war room-style dashboards specifically for uptime and to understand traffic patterns.
I think this is really important — not only for catching things when they go wrong, but because it’s a stark relief for the people that are working on the sites to understand how the site is actually being used in practice. It is really powerful for product managers and technical managers to look at that screen and say, “Who are those people? What specifically are they doing? What are the patterns? What are the journeys they’re trying to take and how do I make that job easier?”
When I talk to my teams, we will often review analytics dashboards. If we’re doing a team meeting or 1:1s, I’ll bring those dashboards up to encourage and reinforce the behavior that without a deep understanding of analytics, product can’t be fully effective. Product managers cannot rely on whim and intuition.
Now, we have a really solid understanding of what our analytics are telling us. They’re a key driver for how we need to make decisions. If you are a product manager who’s not making decisions based on data, you’re going to get into trouble.
I believe that UX should report to product in the same way that I believe that QA should not report to engineering or product. Those two things in my mind are best practices. Product and UX go hand-in-hand in all phases of the development lifecycle and should be working together from the beginning. The more cohesive the requirements definition and UX are, as well as the problem statement and acceptance criteria, the better the outcome will be. Having UX under the same management umbrella as product means that prioritization for these two functions will have less conflict and a skilled manager can ensure that resource allocation is aligned.
With regard to QA, it’s the opposite problem. Sometimes, when a QA resource is too close to the development side, it can be easy to dismiss issues and not document them, especially when a bug or defect is found together and is worked on in real time. It can be easy for someone to think, “I understand what this defect is and why it’s happening. We don’t need to write it up because the engineer is already working on it.” That’s not the response I want. I want every defect to get ticketed and make sure that we are tracking each and every one.
At Beachbody, we were doing weekly design sprints that included user feedback for feature development. For some features, we had a team of two or three people, usually a product manager and a designer, sometimes an engineer, develop wireframes, and put them in front of users. PMs would work with the user and employ what we called the eight-second rule. This process came to us from a mentor, Gerry Campbell, who was with us at Beachbody. He has a book that details this process among others, called Demand Horizon.
In the first four seconds, users need to be able to understand what they are looking at, what it does for them, and how to use it. In the next four seconds, they’re either in love with it or they’re not. A failure of either of these is a failure of the design. As politically incorrect as this statement is now, we used to call that exercise getting punched in the face. Because you would be attached to what you thought was a good experience and all of a sudden you’re realizing nobody gets it, likes it, or wants it.
Today, we do a lot of research upfront: competitive analysis, user studies, diary studies, UXR, etc. We tend to know within a certain margin of error what’s going to work and what isn’t. Leveraging the tight relationship between UX and product means that we can do this faster and with far more efficacy. That’s one of the benefits of UX sitting with product.
The obvious answer to that is generative AI. If you’re a product manager and you’re not using GenAI at this point, again you’re behind the curve. I think there’s a lot that can be derived from those tools. In my opinion, it’s not something to be feared from a work perspective, I think a lot of people have a little bit of a wait-and-see approach because of unfounded fears.
Regardless of your career, you have to think of yourself and your counterparts as competitors. For example, if you have competitors who are using better tools than you, you’re going to get outclassed and outpaced really quickly. It’s better to lean into these tools than get taken off guard.
Now, if you find that they don’t work for you great, that’s absolutely an answer. But figure out what they are and what they can do for you. Understand prompt engineering and how to get to the outcome that you want. It’s a very clean way to understand how to define a problem that needs to be solved.
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