Launch is the beginning

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

Photo by Glenn Beltz

Q: My team is about to launch a major new feature in our software. I’ve been working on this since I joined the company six month ago, so this is my first time shipping a product. I’m excited to bring my work to the world, but also worried it will fail. What advice can you share on how approach a launch?

It’s almost time to launch! This is an exciting moment to celebrate, but also a critical moment to focus on the future. Product are rarely fully baked the moment they leave the oven. Rather than worrying about whether you may fail, here are some thoughts on how you can best prepare for your launch and continue the momentum.

Own your pixels

Often, a designer’s work is more intense in the earlier parts of the project, when you’re exploring vastly differently directions and figuring out how the bones of the experience will work. Then, after the big decisions are made and the designs are handed over to the engineers, designers may step away from the work and leave it to the rest of the team to follow through. This is a missed opportunity. The more that everyone on the team takes responsibility for the finished product, the better the product will be. And especially as a designer, you can be among the team’s most valuable dog-fooders leading up to launch. You had a particular vision in mind when you created your mock or prototypes, and now that the experience is becoming real, you can see where your vision either isn’t quite matching the finished product, or form new ideas for improvements. In addition to helping ensure that the fit-and-finish is in a strong place, you can get ahead of post-launch iterations.

Track your goals, including everything that can go wrong

It’s likely you and your team have defined one or a few overarching metrics for tracking success. However, if this is the only thing you’re using to gauge how well your product is doing post-launch, you’ll be flying nearly blind. Behind every top-line goal is a complexly woven story. For each outcome that you’re hoping for, there’s a daisy chain of events that led to that moment.

For example, let’s say you’re working on a commerce product and your primary goal is to increase the number of “Items Sold”. Before that final “Confirm” button is clicked, there were many branches along the path where someone might have tripped up and the sale would never have occurred. Before launching, take the time to think through and track down these paths. How did this person come to your app? Why do you think they came? Was this their first visit or were they returning? If they completed a purchase, what happened next? If they dropped off at some point, when was it?

If the team has a strong culture of metrics tracking, the infrastructure may already be in place. But beyond tracking, understanding what caused the end result will help inform where your team should focus, either to double down on the things that are working, or correct the issues holding your product back.

Be ready to talk to the people, especially the people who love your product

User research plays a critical role at the start of a project in understanding the problems to be solved. Later, as development is underway, watching people use your product is essential for understanding how intuitive and easy to use your interface is.

After launch, you may have more quantitative data to work with, leading you to believe that the qualitative remarks of a few people isn’t is useful. This simply isn’t the case. Talking to people will help understand the stories behind the numbers. And in particular, the folks who love your product the most, in addition to being your biggest advocates, can help you unlock new opportunities. It’s as if your personas — the fictional characters to represent people that might use your service — have come to life and can talk! And it’s quite likely they’ll understand your product better than you do. If you can understand why it works for them, and when and how they’re using it, you’ll get insight into how to expand your audience to people with similar needs.

Keep up the momentum

Think of product development like a triathlon.

In a traditional triathlon, athletes compete in three continuous endurance events, swimming 1.5km, bicycling 40km, and running10km without any breaks. Your product launch is like the transition from swimming into biking — you’re bringing your head up from deep development and it’s time to pace yourself for the long ride ahead.

If the moment your product gets out the door, everyone on the team takes off for an extended vacation, you’ll not only miss a critical window for learning, but you’ll struggle to regain the momentum you had pre-launch in staying focused and productive.

This realization that launch is just the beginning, not the end, will need to be repeated again and again. The natural temptation is to view your launch as the finish line and move on to the next project. Be a vocal advocate for follow-through.

Buckle in for the long haul

I’ve seen my fair share of product launches to know that things rarely go exact as you expect them to. As much as you prepare, you’ll likely run into last minute issues, things will be hectic, and it’s unlikely you’ll see the results you were hoping for. But don’t lose faith — overnight success rarely happens overnight. A pivot isn’t a failure, it’s a sign you’re learning. And while the launch is important, it’s just one milestone in a long journey. So, rather than saying congratulations, I’ll say good luck and wish you all the best.

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