Product failure stories: How I messed up a release
Let's normalize talking about moments we f*cked up.
When building products we celebrate when things go right, but it’s also important to celebrate when things go wrong.
To err is human — so why not be ok with it? You know it will happen at some point, so instead of putting yourself down for it, know that you can turn it into a win by looking at the situation and learning from it. That’s what product management is, it’s about learning from one’s mistakes.
So with that in mind, I thought I’d share my own product failure story from when I first became a product manager. This isn’t the only time I’ve failed in my career, but it is the one moment that’s stuck with me the most.
Congratulations, You’re a Product Manager!
Ok so first up, I had no idea what a product manager was or what they did. This was circa 2013 and technically, I was called a “Release Manager” and in charge of everything that went into the app. As my CEO at the time described it:
Well you talk to customers and seem to know what they want, so from now on you’re making the decisions around here.
That’s what it felt like at the time. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I had to deliver. Literally, lol.
I learned very quickly that deciding what made it into the app wasn’t just about looking at the JIRA backlog and pointing at things aimlessly. The decision-making process required a lot of thought, talking to customers, and understanding their needs. With that said, we already had an existing backlog with things ready to go, so someone had to take the reigns and start making decisions, and that responsibility landed on me.
Push to Master
On my second “push to master” event, things went wrong.
Our designer had been instructed by the CEO to do a “re-skining” of the app to give it a fresh look and keep in line with the new colors on the website.
That change was snuck into the release and was missed by:
The release manager (me)
The lead developer
The QA analyst
How it was missed by so many people I have yet to figure out. But there it was. A complete re-skinning of the app with bright new colors. Now that doesn’t sound so bad, right?
Let me break it down for you…
Intended Audience: Our intended audience were not every day tech users. They were parents signing up their kids for tennis classes or coaching little league on the side. The most exposure they had with technology were spreadsheets.
The redesign: The redesign was based on Apple’s Flat Design concept and included bright, bold colors.
You wouldn’t think it would be that big of a deal, but within minutes of the release we started getting complaints from customers about how confused they were and how unusable the app had become.
My CEO looked at me and asked what had gone wrong — and we all just shrugged and looked at each other.
I knew it was up to me to find a solution and quickly.
Finding a Solution
I didn’t know what the solution looked like right there and then, but I did know I didn’t want our entire team to start playing the blame game.
Myself, the designer, lead dev and QA analyst gathered in the meeting room, but the tension was palpable.
I decided that the best way to tackle this was to outline the problems and try to find solutions quickly where possible.
Problem 1: No user testing was done.
Solution: There’s nothing we can do about this now, but we’ll put a pin on this and discuss during the post-mortem.
Problem 2: We couldn’t roll back the entire release, as there were important fixes included.
Solution: Can we come up with a stripped back version of this that resembled the original enough, but still included some new changes that gave it a fresh look?
The answer to that was yes.
The designer and myself came to a quick compromise that still showed off she had contributed to changes and made our CEO happy - but unfortunately it was still not tested with anyone. I decided to call on our support team member, who used the app every day and was an active user. It wasn’t ideal whatsoever, but it’s the best we could do at the time. She was the closest we had to an active user!
Within an hour we had come up with an alternative and pushed the changes live.
Immediately we started receiving feedback from our customers that they were a lot happier with the change and appreciated the quick turnaround.
The reason this moment in time always comes to mind when I talk about failure stories is because I learned a lot of things about product management very quickly.
Write down everything
Log every conversation, every decision, every hypothesis. It doesn’t matter if your CEO asked you to do something- write it down! This will ensure that you can track down what and how decisions were made.
There’s a myriad of great product tools that allow you to do this, do your entire team a favor and make sure you get one!
You are not your user
I’m sure our designer had the best intentions in mind, but the fact of the matter is the redesign wasn’t tested with anyone. Her design was quite modern, but it didn’t suit our target audience.
It doesn’t matter how small you think a change might be, always be testing 👏
Psychological safety isn’t just about ensuring people have room to speak up, it’s also about ensuring people have room to mess up.
Ok, so a mistake was made. So what?
Instead of pointing fingers at each other, it’s important to work as a team to find a solution. True teamwork comes from supporting each other through the good at the bad.
What’s your failure story?
Great post. The "You are not the user" rings true. I even wrote about it here: https://www.prodbistro.com/p/the-product-manager-is-not-the-customer
All too often product managers fall into the trap of believing they are synonymous with "the Customer" and that almost always leads to a bad time.