7 catastrophic product launch mistakes to avoid

| March 7, 2016
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While successfully releasing a new product, feature, or UI is certainly not rocket science, you should consider approaching your next product launch like NASA approaches rocket launches. Folks don’t just show up at Cape Canaveral on launch day and say “Let’s try this and see what happens!” Whether you’re launching a product or launching a rocket, a single error can have a massive—even catastrophic—impact.

Because NASA has zero room for error, they must be meticulous about planning, communicating, training, and testing well ahead of launch day.

Much like rocket launches, product and feature releases are often months—even years—in the making. You’re planning, designing, building, testing, and making changes… over and over again until you’re ready to ship. Unfortunately, sometimes mistakes are made pre-launch and launches don’t play out as planned. But if you take notes from NASA and plan carefully, you can avoid seven of the most common mistakes made when launching products.

1. Not planning well enough

You know the story about the guy that failed to plan, right? Spoiler alert: he planned to fail.

Establish a clear plan early in the process and keep it updated throughout your product launch process, from pre-launch to post-launch. If done properly, your plan will be an invaluable tool for guiding your entire team through the product launch process.

Before anyone starts building anything, you’ll need to map out the entire project. Look at your launch in stages: pre-launch, launch production, launch, and post-launch. Be thorough. Go beyond listing tasks and assigning deadlines. Give your team a complete guide.

Give your team a complete guide to your product launch.

Prioritize different parts of the project, figure out what order they need to happen in, and then find the  right team member to execute on each task. Assign reasonable deadlines to keep the ship moving. Consider using a project management tool such as Trello, Asana, or Basecamp to track timelines and progress.

Most importantly, start early enough that your plan is actually possible. It’s easy to plan a product and launch in one month; it’s much harder to actually execute. Don’t give your team 6 months of work on a 3-month timeline.

2. Announcing a launch date too soon

Two bad things can happen if you announce a launch date too soon:

  1. On the product side, you don’t want to announce a date you can’t live up to. If you make a promise to your customers, you need to keep it. You don’t want to become the company that always has new product or features coming “soon.” Customers don’t have much confidence in “soon.”
  2. On the marketing end, announcing a date is the beginning of your launch’s hype. The interest your announcement builds needs to be sustained from that first announcement to your sigh of relief at the end of launch day.

If you announce a launch date too far ahead of the actual launch, you risk your marketing plan losing momentum and your audience losing interest.

3. Ignoring other internal teams

How long do you keep a new product (or plans for one) under wraps before showing it to the rest of the company? If you’re keeping it under wraps at all, you’re probably holding your team back.

Every department of your business will have a unique way to help with your product launch.

  • Your support team can guess the questions you might get, based on their close relationship with users.
  • Your technical teams (i.e. IT and engineering) can help you anticipate any technical difficulties or things to watch out for on launch day, and prepare solutions.
  • Your sales team can tell you which parts of the product will be the ones that “sell”  so you know which features to play up the most in the launch.

And of course, the only way anyone will actually find out about the launch is through marketing. You can release the greatest thing ever made, but people can’t buy it if they don’t know it exists. If you don’t develop a rollout strategy alongside your marketing team, you risk releasing something without making a splash. Sit down with marketing and discuss how you’ll promote your release. Ask questions like when and how you will get the press involved? How will you generate a buzz among current users? Will you release to everyone at first or roll out in phases?

All of these teams are valuable to your launch. Involve members from every area of the company as soon as you begin your preliminary launch planning to make sure you’re one cohesive team working towards the same goal.

4. Not training key stakeholders

Not only should your internal teams know about your launch, they should fully understand the product by then. That means training them in advance.

For example, consider your customer support team on launch day. If you’re launching something pretty different than what you’ve done in the past, customers will have questions. They might be confused. Your support staff needs to handle any uncertainty swiftly. But if they’re using the product for the first time that day, along with everyone else, how well will they be able to help customers? They should already know the ins and outs.

Train anyone who will be representing or promoting the product on your behalf—not just your own team. That includes any retailers, resellers, partners, etc. Even journalists who might be covering the launch should get a real look, if possible.

5. Neglecting pre-launch testing and feedback

Failing to include other people in the launch means that you’re missing out on a ton of smart opinions that can make your product better. As Ken Blanchard has said, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”

Launch day should never be the first time a product gets in the hands of users. Never, ever.

A “second set of eyes” on your product—people who aren’t as close to the project—is essential to catch tweaks and collect feedback. Because the truth is, your own team can’t give truly objective feedback once they’ve been looking at it every day for months.

Feedback is the breakfast of champions.

While QA testing is an obvious given at all stages in the product development lifecycle, it’s easy to forget the significance of good ol’ user testing and user feedback throughout. Don’t. QA will only tell you whether something works, whereas user feedback can tell you how well something works. You need to gather feedback, whether it’s via customer interviews, usability tests, or by sharing early prototypes with prospects, starting before you launch. Getting iterative user feedback will help you learn how to  more effectively solve the problem or pain point your product is designed to alleviate.

6. Not preparing feedback and support processes

There are two major communication channels you need to prep for a product launch: a way for users to share their opinions, and a way to offer customer support.

Your means for gathering feedback can be as simple as adding a “contact us” form to your site or app, or you could take it up a notch and implement a feedback forum where users can share and discuss their feedback on various aspects of your product. Ultimately, the goal is to gather insights into what your product is doing well, what it’s doing poorly, and what’s missing.

No matter how much pre-launch testing or QA you do, you can’t assume your new product or feature is perfect; things break, bugs happen, users get confused. Providing some form of customer support is a necessity for a successful product launch. At first, your support channel could be as simple as providing a “contact support” form or email address, but if you go this route you must be prepared to look for more scalable support solutions when your product takes off. Consider setting up a scalable support platform and/or knowledge base before you launch to alleviate some of the customer support “growing pains” you’re bound to experience later.

Providing channels for feedback and support goes beyond choosing an appropriate tool or platform for each, although those should indeed be up and running well before launch.

You’ll also need to decide how these will be managed and used. Who will be handling feedback? Who will be providing support?  And what will be the process for doing so?

For best results, formalize your plan for feedback and support well ahead of your launch. Put the right tools in place and clearly outline who’s responsible for what and you’ll be able to navigate any launch turbulence (i.e. bugs, missing functionalities) you may encounter efficiently.

7. Not learning from the launch

There will always be a way to improve a product and the way your team conducts a launch. That’s why post-launch analysis is so important.

Dig into analytics to see how the launch could have performed better and apply your analysis to  future launches. Look at early feedback to consider changes to the product. And consider surveying your team to help you improve your processes.

It’s good to take a look back both right after the launch, to capture initial data and opinions, as well as a little later to see how the journey of your launch played out.

Mistakes happen

Will you ever have a completely perfect product launch? Probably not. Sorry, life ain’t that easy (but at least you have a smidge more room for error than NASA.) But with proper planning and considering all of the scenarios above, you can prevent anything major from raining on your launch’s parade.