Email infrastructure is the interconnected system that enables the sending, receiving, and storage of electronic messages. As such, it plays a vital role in facilitating information exchange, be it B2B or B2C.
On that note, the Radicati Group Inc. estimates that the total number of sent emails will get close to 400 billion in 2027. And the number of worldwide users is expected to reach 5 billion, in the same year.
As the volume of email traffic continues to grow, the importance of having a robust and reliable email infrastructure is hard to deny.
However, developing and maintaining a reliable email infrastructure is not without its hiccups. In this article, we discuss the top five challenges that organizations face in the email infrastructure product development process and provide practical solutions for overcoming them.
Since the traffic keeps growing, email infrastructure may struggle to handle the load. Companies need to take preemptive measures to accommodate the growth and avoid service disruptions.
Brainstorming the measures in parallel with the concept development is favorable. If not, developers need to do it with the release of MVP, or they risk the following:
- Lost productivity
- Decreased customer satisfaction
- Potential financial losses
- Drop in domain authority ratings
- Drop in sender reputation
- Cloud-based infrastructure
- Load balancing
The use of cloud-based infrastructure
With cloud-based infrastructure, developers leverage the scalability and reliability of third-party email services. In turn, they secure the resources necessary to address growing customer needs.
Sounds promising, but how does it actually work?
Third-party email services use large, centralized data centers to store and process data. So, software development companies can take advantage of the latest technologies and resources without investing in their own. And that helps kill two birds with one stone:
- The approach greatly reduces operational costs.
- It also provides organizations with a scalable solution to meet their growing needs.
The important thing to stress here is that you should develop cloud-based infrastructure one step at a time. This means it’s best to start running some tasks in the cloud, then scale the tasks themselves based on the current load (in this case, the volume of emails or user requests).
But cloud-based tasks shouldn’t be scaled ad hoc, it’s crucial to determine the respective product development strategy. Even more importantly, you have to know if there are any challenges and bottlenecks associated with that.
The implementation of load balancing
Before diving a bit deeper, keep in mind that load balancing should be implemented together with cloud-based infrastructure. At best, within one product development phase.
Now, load balancing refers to the distribution of workloads across multiple in-cloud architectures and tasks. The key benefit is that the existing product becomes capable of handling increased volume, even at peak traffic.
Since workloads are distributed across multiple servers, no single server gets throttled by the volume of email traffic. Therefore, the chances of service disruptions and bottlenecks are significantly lower.
Better yet, load balancing algorithms can be used to dynamically adjust the distribution of workloads, typically based on two factors:
- The number of requests.
- The processing power of each server.
Building one hell of an accommodation platform
Back in 2012, Airbnb’s product development process was at a pivotal stage.
They were hitting the target audience right on the head, scaling the entire platform. But user feedback revealed an alarming number of edge cases involving alteration requests, disputes, and refunds. At the time, all of these were handled manually via email, with no backend to support request processing, which put a significant strain on scaling the business.
Airbnb was facing a risky choice – hire over 1000 people within a year or build an automated framework to handle edge cases.
Yes, they chose the latter.
Jonathan Golden, Airbnb product manager at the time, had to ruthlessly prioritize. The main goal was to create a plan for an automated cloud solution (backend framework) that would handle and categorize the edge cases.
With the framework in place, Airbnb got unblocked fast and continued scaling at 300% to 600% a year. Note that these percentages refer to the early exponential growth of Airbnb.
However, there are more product development takeaways from this example than just moving everything to the cloud and automating workflows.
- It’s essential to first handle a technical challenge manually. Otherwise, developers might not be well aware of the root problems.
- A company shouldn’t wait too long before applying scaling automation, load balancing, or whatever. If you don’t do it in time, the challenges are likely to grow so much that it becomes significantly harder to overcome them.
- Always try to create a solution or framework that could be applied to other issues in the product roadmap. Doing that makes your teams much more agile.
Email infrastructure security, or lack thereof, is vital because it directly impacts the ability of organizations to effectively communicate with potential customers.
A product development team needs to address this challenge at an early stage, well before the minimum viable product. But it doesn’t stop there. Regular security audits should be a priority even if you’re dealing with a finished product.
As confidential information is often exchanged via email, a security breach can result in the exposure of sensitive information. This may have serious consequences for organizations, including reputational damage, loss of customer trust, and potential legal repercussions.
Additionally, it’s important that all teams understand potential security risks to prevent breaches that can circumvent encryption and security protocols. One such risk is social engineering, but more on that in one of the following sections.
- Secure protocols
- Regular security measure updates
Secure protocols, such as SSL and TLS, provide encryption and authentication services for email data in transit. Due to this, they can be regarded as the first line of defense in the email infrastructure product roadmap. Furthermore, organizations should regularly review and update internal security measures.
For example, a company developing the software needs to establish internal policies for engineers and other stakeholders to limit access to the code base, gits, etc. At the same time, the company should have clear protocols on how and why someone may be granted greater access privileges.
Development teams typically use the list privileges principle to achieve a higher level of security. This means more access is given on demand, and very few people have access to everything.
We previously mentioned SSL and TLS which encrypt moving data (data in transit). But the companies also need to consider data encryption at rest and establish different access levels to that data.
“Pinky promise, we won’t hack you!”
This is somewhat of a negative business case, but it clearly shows that there are always two aspects of security – the software and the people.
In January 2023, Mailchimp suffered a security breach (the third one within 12 months), exposing the sensitive data of 133 customers. And social engineering was the strategy the scammers used to get access to sensitive information.
Basically, it meant that online fraudsters used unsuspecting, and probably inexperienced, Mailchimp employees to gain access to protected data. The scammers phished the employees for their credentials, thus hacking the people, not the system itself. Nonetheless, the sensitive information of about 133 clients was exposed.
The bottom line is that the technical aspect of security needs to be bulletproof. But, at the same time, a company needs to establish procedures and educate employees on how to avoid becoming phishing or any other kind of online victim.
Reliability determines the ability of a system to function correctly and consistently over time. As such, it’s among the biggest hurdles during different iterations of a new product development process.
Without reliability, users can’t be sure that their emails will be delivered and received as expected, ultimately destroying the value proposition. Sure, this is the case for email infrastructure, but there’s a greater picture here.
The reliability of the final product in SaaS directly impacts the brand’s reputation and its ability to deliver. Be it an MVP or an already successful product, it needs to withstand various types of failures, such as increased use of RAM, spikes in user requests, unexpected infrastructure loads, etc.
- Implementation of redundancy and backup systems
- Regular infrastructure monitoring
Redundancy involves having multiple copies of the same data stored in different locations. So if one system fails, there’s a backup to be used. Several technologies allow for that, most notably load balancing, where emails are distributed across multiple servers to reduce the risk of failure.
Then, regular infrastructure monitoring provides metrics that allow developers to detect and resolve issues before they become real problems. This can be done with monitoring tools and regular system checks. Or, sometimes, development teams can apply SWOT analysis during concept testing to determine the best approaches.
Speaking of monitoring, it’s best if developers build alarms on top of monitoring. For instance, the alarms should be set for the following circumstances:
- If processes start consuming more memory.
- If there are specific data processing/computing issues.
- In the case of 500 code responses.
These alarms relate to in-house architecture support and on-call product management; both of which should be established during the software development process, or with the soft product launch.
In plain English, when there’s an alarm triggered by a concerning event, an engineer should jump right onto it, even if it’s in the middle of the night.
How the giants did it
Google itself is a great example of a product design strategy that successfully overcame reliability challenges early on. Their infrastructure is engineered to feature multiple levels of redundancy. That allows the search engine behemoth to ensure that user emails get delivered and received as expected, even in the event of an internal failure.
Another example is Microsoft, which implemented a highly reliable email infrastructure through the use of load balancing and backup systems. These measures have helped Microsoft ensure its email service remains highly reliable, even in the face of significant growth and increased demand.
But unfortunately, it’s not like that anymore. During the product life cycle, there were a few inflection points where Microsoft might have failed to run proper market research and competitor analysis—more on that under the Managing Performance Expectations section.
Interoperability indicates the capacity of email infrastructure, or any SaaS service, to integrate and work well with other applications.
Typically, the integrations should include:
- Customer relationship management (CRM)
- Enterprise resource planning (ERP)
- Data storage
What’s the benefit?
The ability to exchange information seamlessly between different applications assists companies in making informed, data-driven decisions. Plus, it allows them to streamline product-related processes. The bonus is that high interoperability also makes for a much better user experience.
Just note that this aspect should be addressed when brainstorming the product concept. And it pays to weigh the integration options against what’s available in the target market.
- Open standards
- Cross-platform compatibility
Open standards are publicly available specifications that allow different systems to work together.
The key open standards with email infrastructure include Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), Post Office Protocol version 3 (POP3), and Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP).
As for compatibility, email infrastructure must be designed to work with different operating systems (Windows, macOS, and Linux), as well as different web browsers (Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Safari, etc).
However, incorporating open standards and securing cross-platform compatibility isn’t challenge-free. Take SMTP for example, developers often need to make specific adjustments to it, and maybe even add encryption. To easily achieve this and other product-specific fixes, it’s advisable to use interconnected platforms such as AWS.
Finally, development teams need to pay close attention to signatures, spam solutions, DNS records, and more, as related to making their software work well with third-party integrations.
In a nutshell, this boils down to following the standard formats and protocols in each stage of the product development process. Afterward, engineers can customize the back-end workflows and the front-end where necessary.
Cut us some Slack
If you believe that Slack managed to reinvent the way we collaborate, you won’t be wrong. But the question is how they did it.
Let’s disregard the fact that Slack had a stable solution in the go-to-market stage. And let’s forget a witty marketing strategy that succeeded in converting hordes of frustrated IT workers. The important thing here is what happens after the conversion.
First of all, the bar to enter Slack is very low. However, it covers most use cases you can imagine. Then, migrating your teams to Slack is pretty straightforward. The user management is hassle-free, and the list of integrations goes on and on…
Depending on the size and scope of your business, you can connect Jira, Notion, Coda, Google apps, and whatnot to have all notifications and data channels under one roof. All that within days or even hours.
What’s most impressive is that Slack interoperability is pretty much set-and-forget. Once you integrate everything you need, you’re always a click away from a data or communication source. And that user experience is hard to rival.
5: Managing Performance Expectations
The challenge of managing performance expectations is all about ensuring that the product meets the needs and requirements of end-users. Because of that, it’s safe to equate performance expectations with user expectations, particularly when developing SaaS.
To be clear, the success of an email infrastructure product, or any SaaS, largely depends on how well end users and target customers perceive it. That is – how well the product satisfies the user performance expectations.
With the increasing dependence on email, users expect the infrastructure to be secure, fast, and reliable. Additionally, users want it to be:
- Easy to use
- Accessible from multiple devices
- Be able to handle email traffic at scale
- Clear communication
- Feedback loops
At the risk of stating the obvious, regular testing and optimization need to be an integral part of any product development process. It may involve conducting surveys, focus groups, A/B testing to collect user feedback, etc.
Clear communication goes hand in hand with testing as it helps build trust and transparency. Often, the communication includes regular public updates on the development process, informing users about infrastructure changes, and addressing any user-generated performance concerns.
All the communication and testing give developers qualified customer feedback which, in turn, assists in meeting their needs and expectations. The critical step here is integrating the given feedback into the product development processes.
Simply, this means being vigilant to all the downsides of a system. Maybe even doing business analysis to better understand what methodology to apply in improving the product without hurting its commercialization.
Then, the crucial step is in transforming all the findings into actionable tasks and updates to further streamline your software.
But, when testing and monitoring your application, there are certain things to keep in mind. For instance, stress tests determine if the code is running slow. However, the fact that something is running slow doesn’t necessitate an update. Development teams need a solid understanding of which updates are performance-critical, and which can be deprioritized for optimal use of resources.
The battle of the giants
As mentioned earlier, this section explores the areas where Microsoft possibly failed at performance expectations, giving way for competitors to thrive. There’s a bit of a story to it, involving both Apple and Google.
By the time they released MPP (Mail Privacy Protection) in September 2021, Apple had already beat Google for the email client market share. At the time, Apple’s share was close to 59%, Google was at around 28%, but Microsoft’s Outlook trailed far behind at about 5%.
Now, what could be the reasons Microsoft got beaten to the punch?
To find the answer, we should look a bit further into the past.
Google launched Gmail on April 1st, almost two decades ago. And it didn’t take long for Microsoft to realize that it was no April Fool’s joke. The father of Windows pushed hard to remain dominant for about ten years. But once Gmail took over the market in 2015, it was mostly a downward spiral for Outlook.
It’s safe to argue the reasons are failed performance expectations. Basically, Gmail was faster and easier to use, and it offered a much more streamlined interface. Coupled with more features, and much greater storage (1GB – 500 times more than Outlook at the time), it’s not surprising Gmail won.
Fast forward to today, and it’s clear Google could be in a similar pickle as Microsoft a decade ago. Now, the key performance expectation that failed is tracking. Given the number of inbound emails, be it marketing or transactional, people prefer to keep their email events hidden.
Sure, the fact that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to track open rates, geolocations, and devices gives marketers heartburn. But the stats show that’s exactly what users expect.
Apple’s email development teams noticed the trend early on and were among the first to offer a viable solution to keep email noise to a bare minimum. This kind of performance expectations, monitoring, and updates could lead Apple to dominate the email client space in the foreseeable future.
Build good products
By now, you should have a solid understanding of the critical challenges in the product development process. To highlight, it doesn’t really matter what type of product you’re developing.
The described challenges are agnostic to the niche and, largely, the product development cycle. Even if you’re just in the ideation stage, you certainly want the product to be safe, reliable, and scalable. Then, when you reach the startup stage, don’t stop with product idea screening and validation.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the product development process requires a lot of research, analysis, and implementation planning every step of the way. The good news is that this article gave you a solid roadmap and key areas to focus on.