How to get over your launch fears

By talking about what exactly could go terribly wrong

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If you’ve ever launched a redesigned website you know negative feedback is part of the process.

Even if your site was outdated, ugly, and hard to use, it had become comfortable for your users. Change is hard, and users who are unhappy or frustrated are far more likely to take the time to let you know.

It can be a hard time for any project team. It can also lead to reactionary changes that counter the strategic thinking and user-informed choices you made during the project.

At Harvard Library we recently launched a new site. It’s a big change. We combined two old platforms into one and got rid of thousands of pages. We made a choice to build a site for our core users — students, faculty and researchers — relocating tons of staff-focused content off platform in the process.

We also decided our core users didn’t care about how we were structured. So we tore down the walls that had separated our content by library or by department — a change we knew would be especially hard for some of our 700+ colleagues to adjust to.

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We did our best to warn users change was coming. We had a beta site up for six months. Users hitting our existing sites before launch were met with interstitial pages and site-wide notification banners warning them a shift was in progress.

Beyond working with internal stakeholders to update content and get feedback, we also did a lot of staff outreach. We attended standing meetings of committees and departments and hosted our own open meetings where we explained our mission and fielded questions. We blogged about the project and shared those posts through a staff newsletter.

We also worked hard to remind staff at every step of the way that launch day was not the end of the project. In fact, we banned ourselves from calling it “launch,” instead calling it a “release.” One of our guiding principles for the project was that the website would never be done — and we took every chance we could to remind stakeholders of that.

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In addition to preparing our users and our colleagues, we decided to take some time to prepare as a team. So my colleague, user experience specialist Amy Deschenes planned a two-part session for us.

First, we set expectations around dealing with and responding to feedback.

Amy encouraged us not to take personally feedback that was:

  • vague
  • exaggerated
  • disrespectful

It seems pretty basic, but it was good to agree on this as a group.

The decision was also supported by the core commitments we were following as a team, specifically: “I decline to offer and refuse to accept incoherent emotional transmissions.”

That said, Amy encouraged us to find any nugget of useful feedback we could. We were to keep our eyes out for:

  • specific suggestions
  • examples
  • trends

After that baseline was set, we moved on to talk about exactly what could go terribly wrong. We FEARSTORMED.

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Here’s how Amy structured the session:

Fearstorming | 5 Minutes

Everyone on the team wrote down our fears around the launch of the new site on Post-Its, one fear per Post-It. Fears could be big — everyone hates it! — or small — we forgot to publish a page. The more the better!

Fear Themes | 10 Minutes

We grouped all of our fears into themes.

Crazy 8s | 8 minutes (adapted from the core Design Sprint method)

Once we had a set of themes that summed up the fears of the team as a whole, we played Crazy 8s — eight minutes to write down eight ideas for how we could allay, avoid or respond to our fears.

Best of 8 | 5 minutes

From there, we picked one of those eight ideas and for 5 minutes we mapped out a step by step guide to how we would get it done.

We probably had about 40+ fears after the first exercise. By the time we were done grouping them, I’d say we had just eight. Most of our fears were a variation on a theme.

Looking at our eight “worst” fears was kind of refreshing. None of them were all that scary when we really picked them apart.

And when we drilled down into concrete tactics to combat these fears, we realized that we were already doing a lot of work to avoid the worst case scenario, and we also came up with great new ideas that were easy to add into our process.

So if you and your team are heading toward the launch of a new site, I encourage you to try all or part of these exercises. It will leave your team feeling empowered to face the feedback that will inevitably come.

Writer and content strategist at Harvard Library. Also: amateur baker, aspiring quilter, avid reader, professional taco eater. I love a good hairpin turn.

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