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Why big bang product launches fail to take off

What ‘growth’ means to you will depend on your organisation. It could be the number of people you engage with every month, or it could be the revenue you generate through your product. Regardless, the principles of acquiring, engaging and retaining customers is an endless challenge once a product is out there in the wild.

Jingda Chen, Unsplash

The first step on the path to growth is a successful digital product launch – a challenge which can end in disaster if the wrong approach is taken.

When building a digital product, often companies decide to pick a launch date, shout it out to the world, and keep everyone in the dark as to what the product will look like right up to the point when it’s launched. This is referred to as a ‘big bang’ product launch.

The rationale is mainly driven from a marketing perspective – get the audience excited ahead of time by creating some mystery around the product, tell them when it’s going live so that they can shout about it, thereby creating maximum impact.

On the face of it, it’s a cohesive strategy. However in practise, it can set product teams up for failure.

Developing products in secret

The first issue with big bang product launches is that they encourage developing products in isolation of the users they’re designed for. This can be driven by a couple of factors. On the one front, organisations can be fearful that exposing the product to users will result in a ‘leak’, undoing all the hype that they’re desperately trying to build. On another front, product teams simply believe that they know their users well enough that they can design for them without conducting external product testing.

The resulting product often fails to resonate with the intended audience.

This happens because the product team has not taken the time to empathise with their users, in order to understand their needs, motivations and anxieties. By skipping this step, the team fails to present the proposition in a way that the user can understand or relate to. Worse still, users may not even experience the problem or have the motivation to solve it in the first place, in which case the product is doomed to fail regardless of how it’s launched to market.

From a usability perspective, there are critical missed opportunities that arise when developing a product in the dark. In this case, all testing is done through the lens of people who already know the product, its functionality and how things are supposed to work. It goes without saying that this is not how digital products are used in the real world… They are used by people who have no idea what’s on offer, with little attention or motivation, and in challenging scenarios – old devices, odd displays and poor connectivity to name a few.

"When a product is developed in the dark, all testing is done through the lens of people who already know the product, its functionality and how things are supposed to work. This is not how digital products are used in the real world."

Delivering to a deadline

Once a product launch date has been made public, it falls on the development team to deliver, with enormous pressure to hit the deadline. Often the chosen date coincides with a market opportunity (“We’ve got to get it out there in time for Christmas!”), rather than being founded in the realities of when the product is likely to be ready. If the product team are asked to commit to a date too early – or even worse, not consulted at all – then disastrous consequences can unfold.

When teams are pushed to release a digital product in time for a deadline, it tends to be the final activities in the process that become compressed – such as testing to check that what’s been built is acceptable to the end user. When a deadline looms and there are questions over the readiness of the product, the organisation has the unenviable task of pushing back the launch date and dealing with the PR fallout and missed opportunities that would unfold, or to tell the product team to, “Just ship it.”

In this scenario, any defects that should have been raised and dealt during the testing process go undetected, only to become apparent when it’s already too late…

If the product team are asked to commit to a date too early - or even worse, not consulted at all - then disastrous consequences can unfold.

Pressing the big red button

When an organisation arranges a big public launch for a digital product which is buggy, crashes or is otherwise not market-ready, all that effort to generate interest can backfire spectacularly, only serving to make the failure even more public.

There have been numerous products which have suffered this fate, from, arguably the most public software failure of the decade, to the video game for Steven Spielberg’s E.T. After being rushed through development in five weeks instead of several months, it is now widely held as ‘the worst video game of all time’.

Exceptions to the rule

It’s likely that while reading this article, you’ll have questioned why big bang launches would be discouraged when Apple, famous for their slick, buzz-creating launch events, have shown that they can be used to such great effect.

In so many ways, Apple are the exception within the tech space, not the rule. For over 40 years, they have been building a fanatical community for their products who will happily spread the word when their new products are finally unveiled. That level of expectation also gives the media a sure-fire hit when they cover Apple product launches – no other tech company gets that level of exposure. Without that kind of amplification, big bang launches simply aren’t worth the immense organisational strain and propensity for failure.

Apple’s products are also some of the world’s most copied, with imitators ready to follow up on any new release with their own knocked-off version. No copycat can truly match Apple’s design or manufacturing expertise, but that’s not the point – being ‘first’ is extremely important to the positioning of the brand. That means Apple have had to become the best in the world at keeping new products a secret, so they can get them on sale before anyone else does.

Their entire organisation has been honed in order to create amazing products in secrecy; there is little transparency between departments as to what is being developed, and even line managers can be kept in the dark about what their reports are working on. This is all but impossible to replicate while delivering a quality product, and the truth is that the vast majority of companies simply wouldn’t see the benefits from this approach that Apple do.

How people really discover new products

People very rarely adopt new products or services because they heard about them through a big launch campaign.

Think for a moment about the digital products you interact with most often – Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, Netflix, perhaps. Users didn’t flock to them on launch day because they’d been hyped up by a marketing campaign in advance. They heard about them because their family, friends and the media sources they trust were talking about them.

Products don’t find users in one big bang, but in thousands of tiny whispers.

Product launch sequence

So if big bangs aren’t the way to go, how should digital products be launched?

A phased product launch is a much more sustainable approach. The principle is simple; get the product into the hands of a small number of users, capture data and observations about how the product is used, apply what’s been learned in order to improve the product, and once the team is happy, repeat the process with a larger sample of users.

We can reduce the risk of a big bang product launch by releasing in stages, slowly increasing the number of users each time. Each release should focus on capturing feedback and applying any important lessons.

When taking this approach, the product team doesn’t wait until the product is live to discover the issues and optimisations that are required. This greatly reduces the strain of launching the product and increases the likelihood of a great user experience when the product does go live.

It’s important to note that once the product is live, that should only be the beginning of the story. Teams should strive to continuously learn how their products are being used, uncover unmet user needs, and test and develop potential solutions.

When new solutions are ready for development, they should go through the same phased introduction as when the product was launched, with each new release treated as a launch in itself.

"Products don’t find users in one big bang, but in thousands of tiny whispers."

Read next

Secrets of the biggest selling launch ever, Seth Godin

Apple truly are the experts at product launches. This short blog post has an amazing list of tips on what to learn from the launch of the iPad. Note – a big bang approach is not one of them…

6 Software Development Lessons From’s Failed Launch, Matt Heusser, Computerworld

An excellent post-mortem examination of the launch failure – some of the mistakes make for pretty scary reading.

Total Failure: The World’s Worst Video Game, Geoff Brumfiel, NPR

Learn how Howard Scott Warshaw was tasked to develop the infamous E.T video game in time for launch – and how thousands of copies ended up in landfill.

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