Product launches are exciting times. There isn't another moment in the product lifecycle that is so full of anticipation and energy, excitement and fun. But product launches can also be stressful and nerve-wracking, especially the launch of a new product.
At Rocket we've launched a lot of software. We've had good launches, great launches, and some lackluster launches too. We have noticed some repeating patterns. Thankfully, we have found there are ways we can systematically reduce the risk and stress of product launch. We've outlined some of the lessons we've learned below.
What you won't know before launching
First off, it's good to separate what you reasonably can and cannot know going into launch so that you can set reasonable expectations for you and your team. Here is what you really can't know:
- You won’t know if your product is going to succeed. An Olympian can’t know if they’re going to win a medal without actually performing on game day. You can’t know if your product is going to be a success in the market without actually releasing it there.
- You won’t know if you’ll make lots of money. You can have the most brilliant revenue strategy in the world and have it fall flat on launch day.
- You can’t predict metrics or numbers. You won’t know if you’ll have a high viral growth coefficient or any other metrics until you actually get the system released. This is why we advocate for simple, working systems over complex ones.
What you can (and should) know before launching
Most everything else you CAN know. And because you can, you SHOULD know these things before you launch.
- Are you solving a real problem? Through customer interviews and market observation you can know if your concept is valuable and can help people solve a real problem. This is one of the most common mistakes in product design...building a solution to something that isn't really a problem.
- How usable your product is: You can know if your product is easy to use. Not just whether people can use it, but can they use it well. It is easier to use than what they currently have, or is it harder?
- How clear your messaging is: You can know if your product is easily understood in the marketplace. This is crucial for new products…even if they are easy to use, do people understand what purpose they serve and whether or not they should pay attention to them?
- How valuable your product can be: You can know if your product is valuable to someone, not everyone. Do they enjoy using it and find value in it over time? This is essentially what we need to know in order to have a successful product, and it’s possible to find out with a small group before launch.
Not only that, but you can know some of these things before the first line of code has been written. Before you even hire a developer, you can have a working, clickable prototype that gives you confidence you’re heading in the right direction.
So how much can you know? A lot. How confident can you be before a release? Very.
Reducing stress in the Design Phase
In the design phase there are several ways to reduce the eventual stress of product launch. They mainly involve learning about and testing the product concept itself as well as usability testing the user interface of your product.
- Customer Interviews. Through interviews you can get a real sense of whether something is a real problem or not. To know if it's a real problem people need to already be actively solving it. So it’s not enough for someone to simply state “yeah that’s a problem” but instead you must find out how they are currently solving it. Only active problems are real problems.
- Competitive Analysis. Through a combination of market analysis and customer interviews you can get a real good idea of what competitors exist for the solution you are considering. You’ll want to look at direct competitors, those which someone would decide on against your product, as well as indirect competitors, or those which customers end up using instead of your product. This helps you understand more about the problem itself and how valuable it is.
- Bogus Ad Campaigns. A good hack to test your messaging is creating ad campaigns ahead of actually having a product. It costs money but saves you a tremendous amount of time to test out messaging using Google Adwords or other tools. Some clients have gone so far as to create bogus products along with an entire clickthrough to sign up experience to understand what messaging resonates with potential customers.
- Clickable prototypes. Clickable prototypes help you understand how usable your proposed solution is. By having real people try to conduct real tasks using a prototype you can find out what’s working and what’s not working in an interface. You can use these to get a tremendous amount of insight into the value of an interface without ever writing a line of code. Don’t trick yourself out of usability testing by saying you’ll get plenty of feedback from real users when you launch…while that’s valuable it’s a different type of feedback. Test both clickable prototypes and live software.
Reducing stress in the Development Phase
In the development phase there are also ways to reduce the stress of product launches.
- Private beta periods. Once you’ve tested clickable mockups and moved on to build the actual software, roll it out in a private beta. You can tell a lot about whether or not people will actually adopt something by giving it to them this way. It won’t tell you much about the finer details like usability testing but private beta testers do give you a good coarse look at usage and anything bigger you might have missed. If you can’t get people using your software in a private beta, then you probably shouldn’t launch.
- Account creation and sharing loops. We've learned this the hard way. Stress test the account creation loop heavily before you launch. If you go into launch day with issues in this flow then you can end up with a lot less momentum than you would otherwise have. So use the beta group and QA personnel to run your account creation, password reset, and multi-device login flows extensively.
Usability testing and interface prototyping give you something most people lack when going into a launch: confidence. They can’t say whether your venture will be a success, but they can tell you if people find what you’ve built easy to use and understand. That’s half the battle. And just like an Olympian practices every day for years before they finally step onto the field, you should be testing and prototyping most every day until your product has proven itself ready to launch.