Mailvelope: Improving an Encryption Tool Through User Feedback

Motivation for making KeyPass accessible

map highlighting UkraineAlthough Digital Security Lab had only been operating for two years when they received their funding from Internews, they had already managed several small projects.

Offering a simple and free way to encrypt emails from webmail accounts (Gmail, Yahoo!, etc), Mailvelope is a tool that directly addresses the digital security needs of human rights activists who are working under surveillance or who are in internet-hostile countries.

Mailvelope has been part of USABLE since the beginning: in early 2016, one of the founders and developers, Thomas, took part in the Ukraine Tool Feedback Training and UXForum. For Thomas, the format of this (and subsequent) events were key to their success:

“The size of the groups was an important thing for us. Normally, at a large conference, you don’t have time to really talk to anybody, but the USABLE workshops have given us the opportunity to really get to know people, and to form relationships. Having small groups means that people feel able to speak, and to ask questions.”

This communication was critical in addressing an issue identified by Thomas and his team, namely that feedback from end users wasn’t always useful because:

  • It was too long and unfocused – people raised many issues at once, with no indication of priority. With such a small team, it was difficult for Mailvelope to identify and act on the most important issues.
  • Existing feedback platforms did not facilitate the kind of prolonged conversation that really enables the developer to get to the bottom of the user’s issue

Through the UXForums, USABLE created formats and pathways that helped users and trainers to give useful, targeted feedback that developers could really act on.

Mailvelope highlighted the role of the trainer as crucial in collating, structuring and prioritising feedback from groups of users, resulting in information that is far more concise and actionable. Mailvelope values these relationships very highly, and believes they will continue beyond the end of the USABLE project.

For Thomas, who, with his colleagues, participated in numerous UXForums, workshops and calls with trainers and end users around the world, the most transformative aspect of the project was the chance to develop relationships with people using Mailvelope in insecure situations.

“For me, it was eye-opening to meet trainers from very restricted countries, and to talk to activists who are at risk. We gained knowledge through USABLE, about accessibility and user experience, and that has been important. We can list the improvements we have made to Mailvelope as a result of this work. But the experience was harder to describe… when you see these user groups, they’re important and they have a voice.”

USABLE enabled Thomas and his team to work with UX Designers, which brought a whole new set of possibilities and challenges. The Mailvelope team made good use of the User Personas developed through the project, to come to a common understanding of a ‘typical’ Mailvelope user.

This was a new approach, but it has now been adopted as standard practice for the team. As Thomas says, the resulting improvements in usability are now more important to the team than ever:

“For these high-risk users, usability is now our main concern. When the tool is used correctly, it is secure – all of the feedback we have had confirms this. But if the tool is inadvertently misused, it can put the user in danger.”

Cover of the UX guidebookSynthesizing and Prioritizing Feedback

Collecting feedback from at-risk users is a critical first step, but it is not the final step in this process. To maximize the impact of this feedback loop by ensuring that the feedback shared is of high quality, relevant, and consistent, trainers should spend time reviewing, synthesizing, and prioritizing which pieces of feedback should be shared with the developer. Guidance for trainers and facilitators can be found in the UX Feedback Collection Guidebook.

(Banner photo:Filming a protest. Credit Morena Berti/Flickr)