What Makes a Digital Product Launch Successful or Unsuccessful?

Developing a digital product is always challenging, and the process is often accompanied by heightened anxiety and a fear of failure. There’s no such thing as a sure thing, but you can be more sure of your digital product’s success if you take specific steps.

Our research shows that the seeds for the success or failure of a digital product are sown long before the first wireframes or the lines of code. In fact, the conditions at the outset of the journey appear to have a massive influence on the eventual outcome. 

Digital Product Development Is Too Important to Leave to Chance

You’re spending significant time, effort, and money investing in a digital product. The outcome could have a major impact on your company, possibly even changing how you work or generate revenue. 

Wouldn’t it be nice to know the main reasons digital product launches succeed or fail?

We set out to research what really matters. We interviewed product leaders who had led the creation and launch of a digital product in the last two years. We then used a method to score the success or failure of the resulting product launch, set out to look for themes. What kind of circumstances, practices, and mindsets do teams that create successful products have in common? What about the teams that create failed products?

Here’s what our research revealed about product launches that were successful and those that were not.

There are three elements successful digital product launches shared:

  • The process starts with identifying the problem first, not the solution 
  • Customers are consulted throughout, and especially early on
  • Decision makers are open-minded and willing to adapt based on evidence and learning

The most successful products resulted from a combination of empathy and expertise: there needs to be a balance between gathering information and feedback from users while maintaining your own strong point of view.

What Successful Digital Product Launches Have in Common

One of the biggest indicators of whether a product was heading down a successful path or an unsuccessful one was what happened right at the start of the journey. Product managers in successful journeys take the time to determine market desirability and tap into the voice of the customer as early as possible. Taking the time at the very beginning to listen to target customers and understand their needs and circumstances was a common pattern among almost all successful product launches.

Success launches shared these patterns of behavior:

  • Allowing a product team to do initial qualitative customer research. This qualitative research improved the product team’s ability to function effectively in the build phase and lessen burn-out in later phases. 
  • Pivoting project plans in response to customer feedback, when necessary, greatly improved the value offered by the product. 
  • Planning realistic goals along with high accountability/low micro-management among executive leadership. 

Taking these approaches greatly affects how problem-solving and planning are carried out, what direction the product takes, and what customer needs the product is responding to. Product managers in these journeys are able to reset expectations based on evidence and feedback from target customers, helping decision makers align on the ultimate MVP. 

This minimizes time spent fighting with leadership over features that aren’t truly valuable for launch. Strictly limiting what can be built on time is crucial when the team is fighting through the demanding crucible phase.

Aligning your goals with user needs makes it easier to create realistic and viable solutions.

What Failed Product Launches Have in Common

Failed product launches shared a stark and somewhat startling set of behaviors and patterns. 

First, failed product launches almost always started with project journeys that skipped–or were forced to forego–qualitative research. Second, these product journeys also tended to start with a fairly detailed solution in mind instead of responding to a customer need. And third, executive leadership and decision makers in these journeys tended to stick with their initial solutions and beliefs–often in the absence of any customer feedback–instead of adapting to learning along the way.

This path produced products that never really fulfilled an unmet need and left teams feeling disheartened and unheard when the product ultimately failed or launched with minimal interest.

The factors that contribute to most unsuccessful product launches include:

  • Cutting out qualitative, contextual customer research entirely or replacing it with limited secondary research.
  • Navigating internal power dynamics among leaders and decision makers vying for features and priorities, exacerbated by the absence of customer insight and research.
  • Failing to align leadership around the realities of what is possible in the time and budget allocated. This results in arbitrary timelines that are set, moved, reset, and moved again as it becomes clear they will not be met. 

While successful journeys start with early clarity, unsuccessful journeys begin with uncertainty, opacity, and doubt. In those situations, the product idea or impetus often originates from leadership and is dependent on power structures within the organization. 

When trying to understand the impact of early decisions, examining the build phase—for both journeys—is critical. While teams across successful journeys had a somewhat stressful build period, teams on unsuccessful journeys were crushed beneath the weight of unrealistic expectations, arbitrary timelines, and coming to the realization that their work, and the product itself, may not have any actual value.

We heard stories of working 24 hours straight, missing Christmas parties, and teams going drinking after work to decompress and voice their frustrations to one another. These feelings of unhappiness are cemented when launch day passes unnoticed and without celebration.

Comparing the Journeys: Successful Products

This detailed map of the journeys to create and launch a successful digital product illustrates how the early focus on customer insight and willingness to adapt create initial conditions that serve the team, the organization, and the product well over the course of what is still a challenging process.

An illustrated journey map, showing the highlights and challenges of successful product teams

Empowered product managers are successful product managers

In this journey, we see Product Managers first responding to the question of viability. After receiving the green light from leadership, they take the initiative to do comprehensive research. All our participants in this journey type conducted qualitative customer interviews and market research. Some also did user prototyping, competitive research, and secondary research. Getting a better idea of what the intended customer base needed gave the organization greater confidence that this project was worth the time and money. 

Additionally, Product Managers that aligned their goals with user needs had an easier time creating realistic and viable solutions that, when met with the light of day, received positive feedback from the customer base.

Moving from early research into the planning phase—a high point in the journey—we saw Product Managers taking pleasure in laying down the groundwork: planning the scope, time, and effort. They also made sure to get consensus from executive leadership and the product team on requirements and milestones. In later phases of the project this early alignment paid off when the Product Manager could push back on any newly wanted features that were not originally agreed upon and that did not fit into the scope or timeline.

You can see from the journey map that the next phase had a slight drop when the plan had to grapple with reality. This usually came in the form of needing to pivot after receiving negative customer feedback or realizing that having more of a minimum viable product (MVP) mindset was needed.

Customer centricity makes all the difference

Customer-centric organizations and those with supportive executive leadership usually saw the best results from this period, needing agreement on scrapping unnecessary features and placing their faith in the Voice of the Customer to lead the product’s direction.

The lowest point in the journey is the build phase: ‘The Crucible’. Participants commonly mentioned having to balance the fear of failure with acting as a communication bridge between executive leadership and the product team. Teams in this journey type began using customer feedback loops as a way to confirm that the work, and the product itself, still had value. This validation proved useful—a sort of fuel—when the team was rushing to launch day and stress was high.

Deadlines were maintained and full feature lists were met because of the time taken early in the project to get consensus and realistically plan the amount of effort needed.

Typically, successful journeys ended in a place where the product was live and had a small set of phased-in customers. There was a feeling of satisfaction for having created something valuable for the customer but also a keen awareness that the product is never complete. In fact, no participant got to this point feeling as if their work was done. The teams were, and are, still adjusting and enhancing the product. Furthermore, we found that most teams underestimated how much work maintenance took post-launch and focused effort was needed to avoid team burn-out. Dealing with all of the association needs to align their work in launching the product across  marketing, sales, legal, and customer support surprised the team and further stretched their worn energies.

Comparing the Journeys: Unsuccessful Products

In contrast, this detailed map of the journeys to create and launch unsuccessful digital products illustrates how a solution-first mindset creates initial conditions that leave the product leader scrambling, adapting, and finally often just giving up.

An illustrated journey map, showing the pain points and challenges of unsuccessful product teams

Overindexing on solutions from the start signals trouble ahead

While successful journeys start with early clarity, unsuccessful journeys begin with uncertainty, opacity, and doubt. The product idea or impetus usually comes directly from leadership and is dependent on power structures within the organization. Many participants on this journey were taking over troubled or legacy projects that needed a reboot. A lot of early time was spent getting up-to-speed and reviewing previous work. In these journeys, leaders were coming in solution-first and pressuring the Product Manager to move quickly and skip qualitative research in favor of secondary research or none at all.

In the planning phase, the Product Manager’s confidence in the viability of the product dropped when they saw that the scope did not match the timeline and the effort to reboot was higher than the organization originally thought. Executives already had revenue goals but no direction on what need or issue the product was addressing. Furthermore, the pressure to rush into the build phase overshadowed getting internal alignment and the lack of customer input meant any and all features were considered necessary for launch.

For these unsuccessful journeys, negative emotions felt during the build phase -‘The Crucible in the Valley of Suck’- were more severe than for their successful journey counterparts.

Straying from an MVP mindset almost certainly spells failure

The lack of MVP thinking and qualitative, deep research impacted this phase of the project in multiple ways. First, both the product teams and executive leadership groups began using ‘Magical Thinking’—with leadership trying to sneak in new requirements and the team trying to do more than was possible before pushing out the overflow. The consequences of those actions were expected: launch day getting pushed back multiple times and Product Managers having to shield their team from highly critical and uninvolved executives that did not understand the delay. Secondly, product teams in this phase started realizing that all their efforts may be for a product that does not actually have any value to the intended customer base. Feelings of disheartenment and frustration start evolving into disappointment and dread.

Launch day arrives for these journeys with a resounding thud. There is no celebration and in some cases, executive leadership completely ignores the launch. Additionally, as with the successful journeys in this phase, the amount of maintenance and support needed post-launch was greatly underestimated. What all this adds up to was rather unfortunate: 80% of our unsuccessful participants left the organization or experienced their product team being disbanded and reallocated.

Digital Product Development Is Hard but It Shouldn’t Be Horrible

The pressure to deliver an exceptional and successful digital product–especially on time and budget–is immense. But the process to get there can be manageable when done properly.

The chance of a successful digital product launch is greatly increased by a culture that emphasizes customer needs and behaviors, is open-minded, willing to learn, and ready to pivot based on customer responses. The overall attitude of an organization has more impact on a product’s outcome than any one product manager. 

Organizations and their leaders need to be willing to let the customer take the lead. Understanding how customers live in the real world, with unmet needs and disappointments—and leveraging that to sustain the product’s value through the ups and downs of the process—reduces the chance of disappointment at launch.

Read our eBook!

We recently revisited this material and published an eBook on the topic, which you can find here.

Download “The Essential Guide to Launching a Digital Product for Experts & Expert Firms”

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