How your Product's Lifecycle is like your Skincare Routine
An analogy that might relate to some and baffle many.
After finally getting done with back to back meetings on a cloudy Thursday evening, I washed my face and applied my Drunk Elephant Sukari Baby Facial face mask. I marveled at how responsible I was and how far I had come since my early days. I had a carefully curated skincare routine, almost like the perfect product suite. It ranged from creams (day/night and now even eye), to face washes, serums, face masks, and even chemical peels. Compare that to my skincare routine when I was younger which consisted of face wash, tinted moisturizer, acne creams, and of course the horrible strawberry face scrub phase. But thankfully a lot of those poorly performing products were disengaged from Tara's Face Co. As they should have. No one in their late 20s should be using a strawberry face scrub. In fact, no one should use a strawberry face scrub ever, but more on that later.
Let's talk about why you’re really here: the absurd title.
Why would product development be like skincare you ask?
Allow me to share a typical product life cycle and the evolution of my skincare routine to draw parallels and highlight similar mistakes we potentially make. And if after that you don't see the similarities, then maybe it's time for you to make some changes to your skincare routine.
The product lifecycle:
A typical product lifecycle consists of 4 phases.
Introductory: At this stage, your net returns are zero to negative. The company is probably spending a lot on advertising to get the word out and build up its user base.
Growth: By this point, net returns are positive and growing each day. Hallelujah! Your product is in high demand and it's time to ramp up your services to meet it.
Maturity: This is the most profitable stage, so exploit the advantage you've worked so hard to build. Especially since the costs of production and marketing have declined.
Decline: This is when the cost of keeping the product exceeds any value that the company gets out of it. A hard but necessary call every company has to make at some point with regards to a product is that of sun-setting, decommissioning, disengaging, retiring, or just plain kick-it-to-the-curbing.
The final stage of the product lifecycle is often not given as much credit as it ought to receive. Knowing when a product's time is up and closing the door at the right time is very difficult. How can you be certain that there's nothing left to be done?
When a product is showing all the signs of decline, a lot of companies often scramble to add additional features to an already bloated product. They waste a ton of time and resources before finally pulling the plug. Resources that they could have spent elsewhere, perhaps in understanding evolving market needs.
The evolution of a skincare routine:
Introductory: This is the stage at which we're first introduced to the world of skincare beyond just soap and water. Hello, Himalayan Neem Facewash (if you ever lived in India you know what I'm talking about). I'm assuming it's Glossier these days.
Growth: As we enter the growth phase here, the quality and variety of skincare products increases. We have a mix of luxury and drugstore products catering to a variety of user needs like dullness, acne, dryness, oiliness, etc.
Maturity: The phase we all want to be at. Where we've perfected the secret sauce and we're GLOWING!
Decline: No one likes this phase. We've outgrown the products that once yielded amazing results. We may have even reached a point where they've become detrimental to us. - Much like a product that's sucking up all your engineering resources through upkeep but not giving the same returns that it once used to. - Now I learnt this the hard way.
The growing popularity of a strawberry face scrub that smelled amazing piqued my interest and was promptly added to my routine. It exfoliated my skin and rubbed off the grime that came from outdoor activities perfectly. At this point when something would work, I wouldn't re-evaluate its position in my bathroom vanity. But as time went by I found my skin worsening. I couldn’t figure out why I was breaking out so terribly. So I invested heavily in all kinds of zit creams, natural remedies and over-night products, over and above what I was already using. This only made things worse, until I finally consulted a dermatologist. (Much like how so many big companies hire external consultants to help examine why their revenues are going down). My dermatologist was able to identify the root cause of my severe skin problems. My skin being sensitive meant that I couldn't use scrubs (I also learn that most people shouldn't). This didn’t add up, how could a product that had been so successful in the past now be the no. 1 cause for harm?
But it was. And getting rid of it, significantly improved my skin condition.
The similarities explained:
There's no escaping decline. At some point, the return in terms of a $ value or user value just starts decreasing. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of companies are guilty of doing what I did and not decommission early. It's easy to believe that this once amazing product, just needs to be tweaked with a few enhancements. But as you go on to build more features over it, you've complicated it so much that even the few users that were on it, are now dropping off. But you're in the weeds and can't see the big picture. So how do you know when to sunset a product and avoid wasting resources?
Track: Duh! Who doesn’t track their products key metrics, Tara? It's really obvious, but trust me when I say this: regularly track your value metrics (eg. users, revenue, downloads) and cost metrics (eg. updates, upkeep, marketing expenditure). Discuss these in weekly or monthly syncs.
Alert: Build in mechanisms at specific thresholds to alert you and your team that costs are rising or value is falling - it could be as simple as an email alert.
Evaluate: Try to identify the root cause yourself by breaking down each part and looking into usage patterns or feedback signals. Look for drop-offs or leverage surveys to capture user sentiment. It's great if you can identify where the bleeding is coming from.
But sometimes, you need an expert with a fresh perspective. So if you need to, hire a researcher or data scientist to help diagnose the problem. And listen to them. That's why they've been hired - don't try to make them think like you.
Revaluate: Just as you re-evaluate the product, re-evaluate your core metrics. Are they still relevant? Is there a better way to measure success?
Act: Once you've been able to isolate the product or feature that needs to go, create a decommissioning roadmap. As sad as that sounds, you have to do it. Whenever adding or removing a feature, always A/B test, inform your users (no matter how few and especially if they rely on your product for their business), and create a resourcing plan. In this case, decide what you'll do with the extra resources. Your A/B tests (and all the data you've been tracking) should give a clear indication of what that is.
Document: The phase we often give the least amount of credit. Saying goodbye to a product is hard and even emotional, especially if you were the one who brought it to life. But don't let it's death be in vain and help others in your company to avoid the same fate. Explain why it failed and what you'd do differently knowing what you know now.
If you're feeling bad, don't! Everyone has to do this at some point. Just as you grow out of using the same cream and face wash. User needs may change, the competition kicks your butt, or the industry you're in becomes irrelevant altogether. A company that handles the end of product lifecycle well is Google. So, it's no surprise that Sundar Pichai has great skin. Here are examples of a few Google products that we bid adieu to:
Picasa (2002 – 2016)
Picasa was a free image organizer and editor that Google purchased in 2004. Google discontinued the desktop program in 2016 to focus solely on its successor, Google Photos. While some desktop users (yours truly included) still mourn Picasa’s loss, the cross-platform support of Google Photos is a huge improvement. Not to mention the superior storage capabilities to its fruity counterpart.
Google Offers (2011 – 2014)
After trying and failing to buy Groupon in 2010 for a reported $6 billion, Google decided to build its own deal-of-the-day-style coupon market, Google Offers, which was was canned after three years.
Thanks for making it till the end. Until next time!
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