We look at how you might pivot a product or sunset a feature to minimise the disruption and upset to your users
Some big names in tech have made some big changes to their products over recent months, with varying degrees of upset to their users and impact on their business. What might they have done differently?
First Twitter. Since its acquisition by Elon Musk, Twitter has variously lifted the ban on controversial accounts, introduced paid subscriptions (Twitter Blue), introduced colour-coded ticks, tinkered with the algorithms, banned links to other social media platforms (only to lift the ban a few hours later), and found a new CEO. This list is far from exhaustive – the changes at Twitter are hard to keep up with unless you follow the company closely. This recent report from Mashable, More than half of Twitter Blue’s earliest subscribers are no longer subscribed, looks at recent data from independent researcher Travis Brown and gives the lowdown on the negative impact that the changes of the past six months have had on Twitter’s user numbers. If subscriptions are to be the future for Twitter, then there is still much work to be done.
Netflix has fared better. When the company began its crackdown on password sharing there was outcry from its customers – and Netflix said that it expected subscriber numbers to drop before they began to grow again. But grow they have – there hasn’t been the mass cancellation of subscriptions that many predicted, in fact the crackdown has driven US subscriber numbers to the highest level in four years, according to a report in Variety and elsewhere. Netflix average daily sign-ups reached 73,000 from May 25-28 2023, a 102% increase from the prior 60-day average.
All of this begs the question: how do you best pivot a product or sunset a feature to minimise the disruption and upset to your users? We talked to some senior product people to find out what they think works to smooth the way.
Change is necessary for growth
Dimos Papadopoulos, Senior Product Manager at theatre group ATG, comments that change is necessary for growth. However, it needs to be handled carefully to avoid alienating users and disappointing loyal fans. He says change via gradual iteration rather than sudden and drastic change is one of the keys to a successful pivot.
During his time at PepsiCo he was tasked with expanding one of his products into the Russian market. This expansion meant a filter overhaul for the already established UK, French and Dutch markets where the product was live and had a loyal fan base. “It is extremely important to understand the new business context and nuances of each market,” says Dimos.
He says that the team conducted thorough research and spent lots of valuable time with superusers and other users. They identified the need for two major changes, with an impact on the entire user base: Some filter buttons needed to be refreshed to include new territorial information and mixed language support, and some of the core product journeys needed to be overhauled so new components could be activated (this, says Dimos, meant a shift in the core product’s user experience).
Product analytics are crucial
Says Dimos: “We decided to develop all features related to the product’s globalisation and launch with a gradual approach while retaining the key value proposition. Firstly we slightly repositioned some filters and added new components in alphabetical order for minimal disruption.” Next they slowly introduced new filters followed by market filter categorisation so users could easily find what they were looking for. “Finally, we added new components within the landing page and introduced pop-up notifications for any changes so active users would understand where to find the buttons and filters they were used to.”
In Dimos’ experience of pivoting products, product analytics and measurement of your north star metrics are crucial at every stage. He says: “They help to keep your product team grounded and identify whether any of the changes have created any disruption or adverse effects on the user experience.”
Sejla Vatres is Senior Group Product Manager at Middle Eastern travel business Seera Group. She was given a newly-started project when she joined the company – to integrate with a third-party reputation management system. Customers already had a point of contact on the platform where they could see some reviews, she says. When they saw any sign that things weren’t working she would document it, research it further, obtain and analyse data, she says. “Six months in, the quality of the vendor was horrible, work had doubled because of this, troubleshooting was hell, the team was frustrated and we were three months late to launch the feature to the customers.”
Keep a clear head and stay structured
In a move that won her praise throughout the organisation, she made the decision to drop the third-party vendor and build in-house. She emphasises that this was not her decision alone, but a joint decision made with tech leads, engineers and designers. Customers – value, usability and experience – and the team were kept first of mind, every step of the way, she says. ”I tried my best to avoid impulsive decisions, and I tried even more than usual to back every opinion with data. I made sure that I and every other stakeholder knew what we were doing and what we were working towards. Pivoting is a unique and more often than not chaotic situation. When there is chaos, we in Product need to keep a clear and structured mind. I would say this is my most important take on this.”
These examples show us the importance of understanding user needs and pain points so that you can minimise disruption before you start working on pivoting a product. They also show the importance of data and analytics, and of backing your opinions with data.
A five-point plan
Dimos has produced a five-point plan for executing a low-stress successful pivot:
Understand user needs and feedback: Collect qualitative and quantitative data through user interviews, surveys, and analytics. This research will guide decision-making and help identify areas for further improvement.
Iterate gradually: Introduce incremental changes, keep the product aligned with user expectations and minimise disruption. Transparent communication about the rationale behind the pivot is key to managing user expectations and gaining their support.
Retain the core value proposition: Identify what resonates with your loyal fan base and keep these elements intact throughout the pivot.
Aim for a seamless user experience: Invest in user-centric design and ensure that the transition is intuitive and user-friendly.
Experiment and validate: Use techniques like A/B testing and user feedback loops to validate new features or strategies before scaling up.
As Mind the Product’s managing director Emily Tate reminds us, pivoting is usually something you do for one or both of a couple of reasons: the thing you’re doing isn’t working, and/or you see really strong signals that the thing you want to pivot to is a bigger opportunity. Says Emily: “If it’s the second one, it shouldn’t be disruptive to your customers because you’re just following the path they’re already leading you to, and will probably be happier when you go all-in on it. If it’s the first one, then I think you just have to accept that you will disrupt customers, but it is the right thing to do.” You might lose some customers when you pivot, but hopefully you’re moving in a direction that will deliver even more happy customers over time.