The topic for this article came about recently, since one of the applications I worked on 13 years ago (technically speaking, I started working on it 13 years ago, and that particular engagement continued for 2 years), is still actively being used in a facility that I go to almost on a daily basis. I was thrilled to see the product and the application being leveraged, particularly the builds I had actually worked on (since other builds and subsequent releases have ventured into market of course). It immediately made me think of Dieter Rams’ design principles (Longevity being one of them of course), but it also made me think of subsequent Design engagements I’ve been involved in, where the discussion about discontinuing products/applications came to mind. I remembered what prompted those discussions and how those decisions were (and are) communicated to loyal users (hi Adobe, remember all the users who love XD and now have to jump to Figma). For the sake of this article, I also want to touch on a specific type of users (and situations), those who hate-use applications for the lack of other options, or because they’re on a journey with a particular product/solution where they’re invested in it, which deters them from not to starting over in another alternative (and no, this isn’t a dig at Twitter/X). As usual, hopefully this article sparks some interesting conversations on the role of design, the contribution of designers, and how we can continuously improve product design lifecycles.
Discussing LifeCycles, Maturing and the Role of Design. I’m at a point in my career, where I’ve been fortunate enough to have shipped quite a few brand new products/applications, and also have been involved in quite a few redesign endeavors, for products that had been either “shelved/backlogged” or been in the market for a considerable amount of time (and in dire need of a full “re-engineering” process). I’ve also witnessed the sunsetting of a few solutions and how those situations came about. And the role design plays in informing those decisions and interacting in a constructive manner with clients/users. I’ll share a few examples on this particular topic.
The first case was tied to a component of a larger product experience. The decision to stop supporting and enhancing that product experience was due to the rather obvious situation of the device in which that application existed was losing market hold and relevance. I can candidly state this was the case for a Blackberry application. For those of you who don’t remember, in 2011 there were 85 million Blackberry subscribers worldwide (at its peak), and that number started to diminish dramatically as IOS and Android devices took the smartphone world by storm. The decision to stop supporting that part of the product experience was, at least at first glance, non-controversial, since the Product Team, informed by adoption rates, number of downloads, and active software subscriptions/memberships, could attest to the fact that this was a downward trend that wasn’t going to improve. The remaining active market for that arm of application was in Europe, and while the Blackberry version wasn’t going to be shut down, whatever progressive enhancements were being done in its other platforms were no longer considered for that “limb” of the product in particular. It was a passive and rather bland way to tell users: “you need to migrate to other platforms, and get on with the times” (this by the way, is the same tactic Adobe is adopting with its XD product, not removing it from its offerings, but no longer enhancing it). In this case Design and myself in particular, had a role to play, firstly by being aware of the analytics and product usage which shed light on that particular platform footprint. Secondly, by communicating to users how the application was going to be maintained but no longer have parity of features with the other platforms. And this is something that requires some finesse in terms of content writing, but also in terms of product placement and overall strategy. Ultimately you want to position the situation as beneficial for the users, in the sense that while justifying the decision which impacts something that they’re loyal to, provide an alternative in which they can migrate to a situation that is an overall experience improvement and one that does not imply additional costs (at least in the example I’m leveraging, it did not). And while loyal users may be resistant to change, in this case and with the overwhelming movement of the smartphone market, that’s what eventually happened.
A second situation that I witnessed dealt with an application that had also been on the market for a considerable amount of time, where the numbers of new adopters had flatlined. There wasn’t much fluctuation in terms of new users, but Design and Customer Engagement were providing data (both qualitative and quantitative), which indicated the product was stale. There hadn’t been a particularly solid investment in that product and as such, competitors had come into the market and nibbled at the share that was available. The situation that was reflected upon by both Product and Design, honed in on the fact that the product was a logical piece and component of a diverse product suite. Discontinuing such a product would require seeking an alternative within the current offerings or suffer a massive client exodus which could potentially impact the adoption of other tools/solutions in the inventory being offered. The solution after much deliberation ultimately focused on a redesign exercise, one that would rethink the overall product experience and tie it with newer releases from the Organization (in the process further streamline the possibilities for collaboration between products and also amplify the Design System applicability).
Products much like anything in life, have a lifecycle and a period of existence. To Mr. Rams’ point, good Design solutions should be long lasting ones, but also ones that evolve as users habits, expectations, and context also evolve. The goal is not to make solutions into Frankenstein experiences (where you add bits of pieces according to whatever trend appears), but to enhance solutions with aspects that feel like an extension of that experience (an organic growth, for instance, migrating desktop applications to mobile first/responsive solutions). There are of course situations where technologies become obsolete, where the solutions lose its relevance due to a variety of factors, but the goal in those cases, particularly for Designers, should be to devise a strategy of how you communicate the sunset of something, while potentiating the value that lies in moving to something better (and not to pile on the issues with Twitter/X, part of its convoluted storyline has been precisely that, the lack on an understandable value enhancement for users).
Decision making, Not listening to users, and Creating a divide. William Shakespeare wrote: “Few love to hear the sins they love to act.” When it comes to decisions in Product and Design, it’s very tempting for professionals in this field to get a bit self absorbed and assume a situation is just a repetition of something they’ve witnessed before (patterns repeating themselves). This is something I’ve written about in the past (you can read an example here), but making decisions about Product or Features without research and properly understanding what users and clients are saying, is a bit like using a self-driving feature on a road that is still being built, meaning it may go well, but chances are that you’ll find yourself in a hot pickle of a situation pretty soon (hopefully you have Ethan Hunt type of skills and can easily get out of that pickle). I’m not going to discuss the topic of “Instinct” once again (I mentioned this in the article with problematic statements in Design, which I’m guessing wasn’t popular with readers, based on the volume of reading that article had), but I will attest that in my years of working in various products/applications/features, the ones that had a resounding success on the market, were the ones that also tested very well with users. The solutions themselves were informed by their feedback and point of view.
The reason I’m going down this road, is to demonstrate that particular decisions on Product or Features have ramifications that are at times unexpected, but that ultimately always come back to have consequences to product longevity and adoption. Two examples which bring color to the previous statement. These examples are reflective of my experience as a user of products (applications) that are popular and have a considerable footprint on the market. Firstly, Duolingo. This application is the most popular learning language in the world, based on monthly downloads. I’ve been paying the premium tier since I’ve been brushing up on my German language skills for the last 2 years. While I comprehend the product strategy, and the gamification angle that lies at its core (meaning, the creation of a community of sorts with its users), I still can’t understand why the product doesn’t have an option for a user to remove themselves from the gamification aspect of it. If it does have it, I have still to uncover where it is (which in itself is a dark UX pattern, obstruction). It basically locks you into that particular experience, and you’re either in it, or you’re not on the app. Personally, I have no interest in leaderboards and checking other users’ performances, who are the ones scoring better or worse than me (the badges are cute, but just the visual delight they provide would suffice). I’m motivated by a desire to learn, not by a competitive angle. The fact that the product doesn’t allow for a user to bow out of the gaming experience, or for a user to have for instance a game against a virtual buddy that is generated in the app, or even a virtual teacher who creates a weekly program with milestones, amongst an array of more choice driven options, is perplexing to me. In a way, I’ve developed what is known as a hate-use application relationship with this product, where I stay with it because of the time I’ve already spent on it, and not necessarily for the reward or pleasure I get from using it. I’ve also been looking out for other options, because at some point it’s a bit like an abusive relationship, where one side holds all that power, and you’re basically along for the painful ride. This is something that products should avoid: exhausting, minimizing and alienating their clientele.
Secondly, Instagram. Easily one of the most used applications in the world, it’s also one where the problems exist in a sea of controversy that involves the Meta/Facebook experience. The reason I specifically bring up Instagram, is of course its now infamous reputation on giving absolute no feedback to users, independently of the situations in which they find themselves in. Various friends and colleagues have been pushed out of their accounts, due to sophisticated hacking/phishing experiences, with little support from the application/helpdesk in effectively retrieving those accounts for them. I’ve personally recently been locked out for reasons I still can’t fathom (I use Instagram as a gallery for my digital artwork). The fact remains: it’s a product experience built upon withholding the rules of engagement from its users, continuously denying them context to what the infractions are and how they can move past them, or for that matter, from effectively being in control of the experience they have on the app (and yes, I mean specifically the problematic ads, which track users from one platform to another). Is this a product that is on a downward spiral? I’m not one to make assumptions, but as I mentioned earlier, the decisions you make in the product/feature now, are the ones that will haunt and have lasting consequences in the overall longevity of the product (hello MySpace, where have your lessons gone). This is something that products should avoid: lack of response, lack of context, lack of solutions and bullying their clientele.
All product experiences have a lifecycle, just like any human being. And much like any human being, that lifecycle should be supported with enough quality as to not let it (and the products themselves) fall apart. Keeping products alive, should also mean keeping them “on” with enough dignity in terms of what they solve for, the experience of what they provide for their clients/users, that by the time the decision to sunset them comes along, a strategy has already been set in motion for another storyline to be told. This respect is not only towards the product itself, but essentially to the clients and users who have come to depend on it, and have established a relationship with it. It’s true consumers are fickle, but it’s also true that loyal clients are the ones who embark on a journey with your brand and who are willing to go into uncharted waters with you, because they know the brand and the products stand for something, and that ultimately they will be supported in the journey they embark on. Keep telling product stories that are worth telling.
I’ll finish this article with a quote from Mahatma Ghandi on the topic of evolution:
“Be the change you want to see.”
Product Lifecycle, Understanding and Alienating Users was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.