Product development is a lifecycle. It starts when we have our first hunch about a new product, and spans all the way to the day when that product is decommissioned after a long and successful run.
Here’s my framework for the lifecycle of a product or feature, in five phases.
Phase 1: Research
Anyone who works in product development (engineers, designers, product managers, and product-focused entrepreneurs) are passionate about building things. So our inclination is to jump straight to building a solution. But without doing our homework, we don’t have all the information, the context, the knowledge we need to build the right thing. Going directly to building something will almost certainly result in a huge amount of wasted effort.
In research we ask fundamental questions like: who is the user? What problem(s) do they have that we think we can solve? What are they doing today to solve this problem? How do they think about the world?
We don’t ask these questions abstractly or answer them with speculation. Instead, we follow our hunches out into the world and find the type of people we hope to serve, talk to some of them, and try to gain understanding about them and their needs.
Phase 2: Discovery
Informed about our target users and the problem we believe we can solve for them, now we get to what most of us consider the fun part: product discovery.
In this phase, we’ll get to generate ideas by the bucketload, and make them concrete through techniques like wireframing. We’ll create many variations on our ideas and sort through them to find the most promising ones.
We design and build very rough versions of these ideas, called prototypes. We put these prototypes in front of our target users, a process called user testing. This process of prototyping and testing happens extremely quickly: a few days per prototype and user test. Not months, and certainly not years.
While testing with users we ask questions like: Can they understand it? Are they able to use it? Does it get them excited as a potential solution to their problem? Can they see it being a part of their daily life? Would they pay for a finished version?
Most of the time, the answers to these questions will be no, and we’ll go back to the drawing board more enlightened about the problem space and the needs of our users.
After many experiments, we hope to find some prototypes which give us a resounding “yes” to the questions above, something called product validation. This is one of the most exciting moments in product work, and sets us up to enter the third phase.
Phase 3: Delivery
Most product teams skip the first two phases and start work on new products and features here. Skipping ahead is one reason that so many products fall flat in the marketplace. No one cares about the product, because the creators of the product didn’t take the time to care about users and what they need.
But we’re taking a different approach: having done research and discovery, we can begin building the final product with confidence that we’re pursuing a product opportunity that creates real value for real people.
The delivery phase is primarily focused on engineering a scalable, finished version of the product. We probably have a working prototype created during discovery, but prototypes are disposable, so during delivery we engineer a finished product which will scale out to the number of users we expect once we launch.
Delivery also includes figuring out how to explain the product: through documentation, marketing materials, or helping the sales team understand the benefits of the new product. There’s also many logistics for how the product gets into the user’s hands, from rollout (for pure software products) to manufacturing, packaging, and fulfillment (for physical products).
When delivery is done, our product is launched and in the hands of its intended users. Now we let the marketing and sales teams do their jobs to spread the word and get many people to try, use, and buy.
Phase 4: Operation
This is the longest, most labor-intensive, and most important part of the product or feature’s life. Your salespeople are selling it, users are using it, engineers are fixing bugs, support staff is answering questions. All the non-product development functions in the company now take control and make the most of the product or feature’s existence.
The product lifecycle is fractal: you may have launched a new product, but your work as a product person is far from done. Now you’ll be applying this lifecycle to individual features on the product, trying to incrementally increase its value to existing users or help it serve the needs of new users who are adjacent to your existing market.
Phase 5: Sunsetting
A successful product may be in operation for years or even decades. The telegram, one of the most successful technology products of all time, lasted over a century. An unsuccessful product may operate for only a few months. But sooner or later, all products reach the end of their lives.
Sunsetting is the process of gracefully phasing out the product. If we execute well, the remaining users of the product or feature will feel respected and cared for. We’ll help those users find a suitable replacement (usually a newer version of the product) and transition them to that replacement with a minimum of hassle and cost.
Why this matters
Clarity about where a feature sits on this timeline can make a huge difference in our ability to talk about it with our colleagues on the product development team, with other people in the company, with our users, and with investors.
For example: a feature which is in the second phase, discovery, is not yet ready to sell. In fact, it may never ship at all. If you’re a salesperson, you’re setting everyone up for disappointment if you promise the customer a discovery-phase feature, especially if that promise was key to closing the sale.
If you’re an engineer considering refactoring a block of code, knowing if that code is associated with an operation-phase feature (or not) will help you make better decisions about how to handle that code, from test coverage to security audits.
If you’re a potential investor in a company, knowing the difference between a product which is a prototype still in discovery versus a fully validated product in operation may help you make better investing decisions. Most startups are in discovery for their entire product for their first year or more.
Perhaps most importantly, having a shared vocabulary about the product lifecycle will help us answer one of the most common questions: “When will this (product or feature) ship?” The answer is always: when we’re done with delivery. If the product or feature still in research or discovery, the answer is: “Impossible to know; and it might never ship.” If it’s in delivery, we can offer an accurate timeline and make plans for marketing, manufacturing, customer service, and other operational needs for the finished product.
I view the lifecycle of products and features as a timeline with five phases: research, discovery, delivery, operation, and sunsetting. Having a shared understanding and set of terms around this process can help a product development team and the entire product company operate more smoothly.