What you should know before you launch your product

The common refrain “We don’t know anything until we launch” is completely false. Here’s why.

At a recent design meetup here in Boston I was talking to a product manager who was anxious about an upcoming release. He was talking about several new features they were adding that they had high hopes for but didn’t know how well people would use them. To sum up his thoughts he said “Well, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens after we release. We don’t know anything until we launch.”

My first reaction was to agree wholeheartedly…it just sounds right. And I have long been fond of this quote by Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. So I agreed with his notion that you can’t know anything until after you release your product.

This product manager isn’t the only one who thinks this way. Every day I hear someone say or write about how you just have to release your product to know anything at all…there is a general ethos that shipping is the only way to know if something is going to work or not. And it’s the way software is going…tools that let us ship faster and faster lead us to believe that shipping is the only crucible upon which wisdom is gained.

What you CAN’T know

Yes, it’s true that there’s a lot you can’t know when you release. Some things are just not predictable until your product actually hits the market and people use/purchase/try it out in a real setting. Here are the big things you can’t know:

  1. You can’t know if your product is going to succeed.
  2. You can’t know if you’ll make lots of money.
  3. You can’t know if you’ll have a high viral growth coefficient.

Each of these things are answered only by the actual market, the group of people who you end up offering your product to. Just like an Olympian can’t know if they’re going to win a medal without actually performing on game day, you can’t know if your product is going to be a success in the market without actually releasing it to the market. But that doesn’t mean the only way to learn anything is by shipping.

What you CAN (and SHOULD) know

There are many things you can…and therefore SHOULD, know before you launch. Most of these things are crucial to the success of your product and therefore greatly affect your success in the market. Knowing these things earlier will help you improve your chances when you do end up launching.

  1. How usable your product is: You can know if your product is easy to use. Not just whether people can use it, but can they use it well. It is easier to use than what they currently have, or is it harder?
  2. How clear your messaging is: You can know if your product is easily understood in the marketplace. This is crucial for new products…even if they are easy to use do people understand what purpose they serve and whether or not they should pay attention to them?
  3. How valuable your product can be: You can know if your product is valuable to someone, not everyone. Do they enjoy using it and find value in it over time? This is essentially what we need to know in order to have a successful product, and it’s possible to find out with a small group before launch.

Not only that, but you can know some of these things before the first line of code has been written. Before you even hire a developer, you can have a working, clickable prototype that gives you confidence you’re heading in the right direction.

So how much can you know? A lot. How confident can you be before a release? Very.

The Basic Tools

With a simple toolkit you can have all of these things.

  1. Clickable mockups. Clickable mockups are interfaces that don’t really work but are clickable and appear to work. You can use these to get a tremendous amount of insight into the value of an interface without ever writing a line of code. We use these very successfully at HubSpot to know if we’re on the right track…just last week we completely changed direction because the clickable prototype we were using just wasn’t the right model, saving a tremendous amount of time down the line. You can easily create clickable prototypes in Adobe Fireworks or with tools like Invision.
  2. Usability testing. Usability testing is the best method to give you specifics about what’s working and what’s not working in an interface. It gives you details that no other method gives you, such as whether an interface element makes sense or whether button text is right. If you believe that details make all the difference then you must usability test. Don’t trick yourself out of usability testing by saying you’ll get plenty of feedback from real users when you launch…while that’s valuable it’s a different type of feedback. Test both clickable prototypes or live software.
  3. Private beta periods. Once you’ve tested clickable mockups and moved on to build the actual software, roll it out in a private beta. You can tell a lot about whether or not people will actually adopt something by giving it to them this way. It won’t tell you much about the finer details like usability testing but private beta testers do give you a good coarse look at usage and anything bigger you might have missed. If you can’t get people using your software in a private beta, then you probably shouldn’t launch.

Usability testing and interface prototyping give you something most people lack when going into a launch: confidence. They can’t say whether your venture will be a success, but they can tell you if people find what you’ve built easy to use and understand. That’s half the battle. And just like an Olympian practices every day for years before they finally step onto the field, you should be testing and prototyping most every day until your product has proven itself ready to launch.

Published: October 31st, 2012