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How to recognize threats to product development success

Digital product development is inherently complex. Each step, from strategy to prototyping to UX design to UI design, growth and iteration, requires careful coordination and orchestration. With so many moving parts, it’s not uncommon for even the best-intentioned teams to run into roadblocks. False starts, maxed budgets, and miscalculated timelines: these are some of the most common obstacles that throw teams off course. 

The good news? There are almost always warning signs that a project is veering off the rails. By learning to read (and heed) those red flags, you can turn even the most dire challenges into opportunities to correct course—and still achieve your goals.   

Four common product development warning signs (and how to spot them) 

1. Minimal knowledge of the digital space 

If your goal is to create a new digital solution, you need to secure enough expertise around you in digital product development to fully understand how the process should work. This requires more than a surface-level understanding of how digital products are designed and used. You need a detailed understanding of the greater digital ecosphere. 

It is often necessary to outsource some or all of the concepting, design and development work to outside agencies. Development-only agencies are the typical go-to resource, yet that is just one component of the digital product solution. A comprehensive product team can often bring a new digital product to market faster, more reliably and successfully due to the nature of the end-to-end solutions they offer. Unfortunately, not all agencies make for great partners. 

Your ability to pick the right outside partner has numerous ramifications and implications. Doing your due diligence and digital product research upfront gives you better odds of hiring the best fit for your project who can not only deliver but guide you every step of the way.

2. Insufficient oversight 

In their gut, product leads know if and when their projects are meandering. However, if they aren’t able to identify the problem, it can feel impossible to craft a solution. 

If the problem is with the outside agency you’ve hired, it’s tempting, at least at first, to ignore red flags and instead put your faith in the skill set you’re paying (good money) for. If the agency team is frequently missing deadlines and communication is poor, you, again at first, might try to justify this, thinking they are hard at work resolving the issue/s at hand or that they have expertise you don’t. 

Sometimes, even when faced with numerous delays with no real insight into the causes, many product leads choose to continue pushing the boulder up the hill. That’s how projects fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy: “We already spent so much on this, we have to make sure this works with the team we have in place.” However, continuing to send good money after bad catches up, usually when executive leadership starts adding up the ballooning development costs.  

3. Prioritizing the lowest cost approach 

The irony is, a blown development budget is often the result of taking an overly frugal approach to product development at the outset. Cost is a real constraint in digital product development, but counting pennies is not the best way to create a breakthrough digital product (or even an effective one). 

Too many project leaders learn the hard way the lesson of choosing the cheapest product development vendor option. Frequently, you end up getting what you pay for—a low-quality, buggy app—if you get anything at all. Many such product development projects never reach the finish line. And many more probably shouldn’t be allowed to.   

4. Product failure mode warning signs 

How do you know if it’s time to pull the plug and start fresh? Product development projects in danger of failing exhibit many of the same warning signs. Be on the lookout for the following red flags from your outside agency:

  • Every request is met with an immediate “yes”  
  • Inconsistency in assigned team personnel 
  • Constantly shifting project timelines
  • Missed deadlines
  • Numerous budget increase demands
  • Continuous, unresolved product technical problems
  • Things that were working are suddenly now broken

There are almost always a few unforeseen hurdles in a long-term development project, but when there are consistent red flags, and your intuition tells you that something isn’t right, listen and take action. 

Finding a product team that fits your project

If you’ve ever played poker, you understand the value of folding a bad hand. Recognizing when you’re in a losing situation saves you a considerable amount of money. Knowing when to cut bait on a failing agency relationship or a product development project gone awry can yield similar results. 

If you do decide to pull the plug, it’s imperative that you preserve enough of your budget, retain enough executive support to get another bite at the apple, and learn from your mistakes. 

How can you approach your second chance? If you learned that you don’t have enough product development know-how in-house, focus on building up the expertise you are missing. And, if you’ve been burned by a bad product development agency experience, know that there are better partners out there. 

Look for the following traits to accurately predict a better relationship with a product development agency. 

Consultation and professionalism 

It’s important to ensure your agency team inspires your confidence by demonstrating their professionalism and experience. They must also be able to set and manage your expectations appropriately via clearly outlined plans that provide details and specifics. Your agency partners should also directly address instances when things are not going according to plan. A true digital product partner should be able to guide you through the ups and downs of the development process. 

Consistent communication 

The key to any good relationship is regular and effective communication. Product development projects require no less. Your agency partners must be capable of explaining complex technical concepts in ways that are easy to grasp and digest. And they should be in touch and communicate regularly via standard progress reports and project updates. 

Technical proficiency

Successful product development agencies have well-tested processes that consistently deliver results. Any outside expert you hire should also be able to explain their process, demonstrate technical proficiency and showcase achieved results. Development projects are high intensity. Look for evidence that your product development experts have the mettle to deliver when the pressure is on. 

Don’t ignore product development warning signs 

It takes considerable skill and effort to successfully usher a product development project across the finish line. An unproductive relationship with the wrong digital agency can set your project back beyond repair. 

Thankfully, the reverse is also true. A productive relationship with the right digital agency sets the stage for a smooth, successful project with a comprehensive product development strategy and a strategic product roadmap. The result? An on-time, on-budget, market-friendly product you can be proud of.

Want to learn more about how to bring your digital product idea to fruition? Let’s talk