Five Steps to Avoid the Product Death Cycle and Shut Down the Feature Factory

John’s stomach churned. He just read the retention numbers on the iOS app he recently released. They were bad. Worse than ever before. He gazed out of his office window as if the answers were swirling in the wintery abyss above LaSalle Street. Hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless meetings, and for what?

He just invested the lion's share of his department’s annual budget into a tiny user base that now expected this app to keep working for years to come. How did he get here? He tried to be user-centric, like all the tech gurus crow about in their blogs. He read every App Store review and gave his users exactly the features they asked for! What happened?

This is a common story. Great companies with the right intentions often stumble. They launch an app, and it appeals to a fraction of their target audience. Users churn at a rate much higher than expected. Looking for answers, product owners ask their user base which features are missing. Users are happy to oblige. Executives quickly rally around the proposed feature set as if it is the remedy for everything wrong with the company.

New features are easy to focus on. You can draw them on a white board, scope them out, throw money into building them, and write up a press release about how wonderful they are. Soon the entire company is convinced that the next big feature will suddenly make people want to use the product. Of course that doesn't happen, and it's on to the next big feature. If your organization becomes a feature factory like this, you’re in danger of falling into the Product Death Cycle, spiraling downward until you’ve blown through budgets, burnt out your team, and tarnished your reputation.

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Over the years, we’ve learned that you can’t fix struggling products by simply adding more features. We also know that your users aren’t going to serve up the answers for you on a well designed silver platter. Wise product leaders eschew feature factory thinking and opt for lean strategy and risk reducing experiments. No, the scientific method isn’t as sexy as the shiny new feature. In fact, it's full-on nerdy. Your product will have less bells and whistles, buttons, tabs, and connected iOT devices, but it will enjoy higher engagement and business building retention.

If you’re a product owner at an organization and your job is to improve retention, steal these five points for your next executive presentation.

1. Begin with a strong product vision and SMART objectives.

Jeff Bezos famously said, “be stubborn on vision, but flexible on details.” A weak or non-articulated vision will disintegrate as soon as your product faces headwinds. Your team will drift rudderless, and your product will be at the mercy of whoever blows enough hot air to keep budgets intact.

We find the most successful products are guided by simple, yet powerful vision statements. Amazon’s vision statement is “to become Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” A strong vision statement keeps teams focused but leaves room to maneuver.

Product roadmaps, experience optimization and growth experiments hinge on crisp, timeboxed, and measurable objectives. Business schools teach the mnemonic acronym S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) to craft effective objectives. The important thing is that your engineers, designers, copywriters, and anyone else on your team knows which business objectives this product needs to achieve. Each of them make lots of tiny decisions all day long and you want full business alignment.

2. Learn about your target audience rather than just the niche group using your app.

There is a difference between being customer centric and ceding your responsibility to the customer. Sometimes users can lead you astray. Someone who uses your product might not be the best proxy for someone you have yet to retain. They probably have different needs, pains, or jobs to be done. If the right people aren’t using your products, don’t ask the wrong people for feature ideas.

There are many ways to learn about your target audience. We often begin with qualitative research like interviews or open ended feedback. Next we move to observational methods. Measurable human behavior always provides stronger evidence than what people tell you. One of our product owners loves to explain it by saying “someone will tell you their favorite color is red, but they only buy blue clothes.”

3. Focus your thinking further up the funnel where first engagement occurs.

Generally, the most user interaction in an app occurs within the first three visits. You can expect 80 percent of your users to become inactive after 30 days. The retention curve is steep. To bend it, focus early in the experience. User onboarding, initial messaging, the user’s first experience of real value, and the promise of variable reward upon return are all ripe areas for exploration. Vokal significantly impacted retention for one of our clients’ mobile applications by adding a well-timed push notification soon after a user installed the application.

The good news is that focusing on bending the retention curve is worth it. A study by Bain & Company showed that a mere five percent increase in retention rates helped companies increase profits between 25 to 95 percent. App users retained for the long term are more profitable, more stable, and more likely to evangelize the product, making user retention a wise investment.

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4. Investigate factors like your value proposition, pricing, or positioning.

Consider factors that don’t require writing significant lines of code. Ask yourself if your value proposition is unique, targeted, and compelling. Is your product positioned correctly in your target audience’s mind? Could your pricing model or pricing tiers be mismatched with your prospect’s expectations?

5. Build, prioritize, and test a backlog of hypotheses to move your key metrics.

Experimentation is the key to it all. Round up a smart group of diverse thinkers who know the product and your user segments. Brainstorm a list of hypotheses for how you might move your key metrics. Focus first near the top of the funnel. Analyze your experience for factors that might dilute, confuse, or counter your value proposition. Examine your value proposition itself. Are there better ways to position the solution? Add big ideas and tiny text changes to your list. The idea is to build a huge backlog. Be sure to include no code or low code experiments. Remember, we’re trying to avoid the feature factory.

Next, work with your team to score your backlog using relative effort/cost, business impact, and confidence. This process will give you clarity and a path forward to cycle through experiments.

At Vokal, we specialize in helping brands gather and understand metrics that make a difference in planning the path forward. Where will we go together?