Tactics for Redesigning and Relaunching Legacy Products

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In this talk at ProductTank NYC I recounted five tactics I learned while helping relaunch dozens of digital products over the last decade, and then used to successfully relaunch ICv2.com. ICv2 is a popular trade website for the comic, graphic novel, board game and toy industries.

The goal for the relaunch was a complete design and code overhaul under three constraints:

  1. Time: Neither the designer nor the developer were full-time and Adam, as a board member but not employee of ICv2, also wasn’t full-time.
  2. Real Deadline: Advertising sponsorships were sold around a specific date.
  3. Emotional Attachment: A lot of visitors were attached to the site; it was part of their daily routine, so the relaunch couldn’t be disruptive.

Tactic #1: Mind-Melding

I knew that if I had to constantly triangulate between a busy CEO and a part-time team, that I’d never make deadline. So I spent the first two weeks learning as much about the CEO’s perspective as possible. To do this I built rapid paper and HTML idea prototypes to see how the CEO would react to design and feature changes. After this process, I was able to work with the development team efficiently, without having to check in with the CEO all the time, because I had gained an intimate understanding of the CEO’s perspective.

Tactic #2: Unknown Hunting

It’s important to prioritize unknowns upfront. Even though the team assumed that implementing Google Custom Search would be easy, we prioritized implementing it upfront because no one had actually used it before. We quickly found out that Google Custom Search was insufficient for our needs, and implemented an alternative solution.

Tactic #3: Wrapping Paper Principle

It’s easy to say ‘no’ a lot when you’re working toward a hard deadline. But people’s ideas, even though they’re wrapped in poor execution, can hide brilliance. I call this the ‘wrapping paper principle’ – if you think hard about where people’s ideas are coming from and discard the ugly wrapping paper you can find a useful gift inside the box.

Tactic #4: Sleepwalker Management

Sleepwalkers, as you can read about more in this article, are people who’ve been visiting a website for so long it becomes habit. I knew that, given ICv2’s 20-year history, there were a lot of sleepwalkers stumbling about. So to make sure the relaunch wasn’t disruptive, I adopted a checklist:

  1. Evolve, don’t reinvent: It’s easy to reinvent a product from scratch, but avoid that temptation as it can be disruptive to long-time visitors.
  2. Maintain look/feel: Use similar colors and styling to make people still feel at home
  3. Test if you have time: Some people put out beta versions in advance or launch new versions to partial audience segments.
  4. Extra redundancy to avoid downtime: Downtime is the worst possible thing to happen for Sleepwalker management. A day or two of downtime can be catastrophic.
  5. Hold some things back: There’s no need to overwhelm visitors with a million changes on one day. Hold features and changes back until later and gradually introduce them.

Tactic #5: No Missing Piece

With relaunches it’s easy to focus too much on the bigger picture and lose sight of the small details that are equally important. I liken this to bringing a board game to someone’s house but forgetting the dice.

Two examples of forgetting missing pieces are not stress-testing code, since new code is often not battle-tested, and not redirecting old links properly.

I’d also advise not having a launch party, and instead have a launch + one month party, since the real work for relaunches often comes in the 30 days after launch!

Conclusion

Happily, I can confirm that the result of this relaunch was a massive success. Traffic went up 15%, the core audience stuck with the site, server costs plummeted, ad sales went up. More importantly, ICv2 now has a sturdy foundation for the future. If you’ve inherited a legacy product, make sure you truly understand it, work out what you don’t know as quickly as possible, and start gradually moving towards a foundation you can use to build something brilliant.

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