Calendar app maker Canary stresses personal touch in user engagement

Canary Calendar community manager Ralph Bouquet uses a spreadsheet to log and prioritize feedback on the start-up’s new app, and often responds to users individually.
Canary Calendar community manager Ralph Bouquet uses a spreadsheet to log and prioritize feedback on the start-up’s new app, and often responds to users individually.Credit:

It figures that a bunch of guys who make a calendar app also make great use of their time. Scheduling is kinda their thing.

So what’s important enough to be on the daily itinerary? At Canary Calendar, a Cambridge start-up that launched its app at the end of September, the schedule almost always includes time for reading and responding to user feedback in a hyper-personalized way.

Notice a bug or have a suggestion? Tap the feedback button built into the app, and there’s a good chance you’ll see the fix soon — and get a tweet from one of Canary’s co-founders telling you about the change.

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“The feedback can be surprising, but it’s great for reflection,” engineer Matthew Ng told me. “What assumptions did we make at the beginning that we need to break and improve on?”

Reflection might seem like an obvious step for every start-up, but it isn’t be easy for brainiacs with advanced degrees from Harvard and MIT to check their egos and admit that features they designed so thoughtfully need to change. Ng confessed that he was stunned to hear many early users complain that they could not locate Canary’s menu icon, for instance.

“For us, we’re like, ‘Oh man, it’s right there. I put it right in front of you. How do you not see it?’ ” he said. “But getting that feedback, we can reflect on how to make it even more obvious. What’s causing people not to notice it, and how do we change and adapt to help people find it?”

The icon is now larger and more colorful.

Canary’s responsiveness has helped it clock 15,000 downloads in a little more than a month. Chief executive Varun Chirravuri — a high school classmate of mine and one of the smartest people I know — said humility has been a key to winning over people who use one of the many competing calendar apps already on the market. He recalled a nasty e-mail from someone who basically said Canary was lousy (I don’t think we can print the original adjective) because it does not automatically import events created in the native calendar app on iPhones.

Canary’s community manager, Ralph Bouquet, responded by explaining that users need only synch their iPhone calendars with their Google accounts to make events appear in Canary. The e-mailer is now a happy customer.

“That was a case where had you not had your head on straight, had you not said it’s important to get to the bottom of every problem and give a plausible solution, that would have been a person who would have never come back,” Chirravuri said.

To entrepreneurs who ask, “What’s the big deal about one cranky user?” Bouquet offers a practical answer: “Every comment, every feature request, every bug incident can speak to a larger story,” he said. “It’s very important to give a lot of credence to what even one person says because they could be speaking for many others.”