When it comes to app stability and user experience, the “move fast and break things” approach is a recipe for disaster. To protect brand reputation and to stay ahead of evolving needs and customer expectations, leading Silicon Valley companies’ software engineering teams have adopted phased rollouts, a software development method that involves the gradual implementation of a new feature to a smaller cohort of users at one time rather than all users at once.
Phased rollouts help companies maintain the highest-quality customer experience (CX) for their users while making changes and software updates. When significant features and updates aren’t rolled out to production all at once, the organization’s software engineering team doesn’t have to deal with all the potential implementation issues at once. With phased rollouts, engineering teams catch issues early in the process so they can quickly fix them and resume the rollout of the experiment, which prevents issues from impacting millions of users down the road.
While companies everywhere try to emulate the app development techniques of these Silicon Valley tech leaders, many are unable to achieve successful phased rollouts at scale. What they often don’t realize is that before even implementing a phased rollout approach—whether it be to 5%, 10% or 15% of their user base—there are a few steps that must be taken to ensure success. Below, I’ll walk you through the do’s and don’ts of a successful phased rollout plan.
Do: Release Stability Management
Companies must drive consistently stable app and web experiences in order to succeed in the market today. Therefore, it’s critical to continually monitor the stability of releases throughout development and testing to catch problems early and decide when to roll features out to users. By measuring and monitoring app stability in real-time, release managers inject accountability, predictability and complete peace of mind into the organization. Taking control of release stability management helps engineers deliver stable applications to drive world-class digital experiences.
On top of that, software development teams must constantly improve mobile and web apps with new features and capabilities that better enable users to accomplish what they want to do. These kinds of improvements give companies the competitive edge they need to survive in today’s competitive business environment. In addition, monitoring release stability provides engineering teams with real-time visibility into every issue impacting application stability and CX. This level of visibility is critical for quickly diagnosing and understanding the root cause of errors so that engineers can roll out fixes before users are negatively impacted.
Do: Testing and Early Access
For a phased rollout, engineering teams must run A/B tests and quality assurance (QA) testing. A/B testing (also referred to as split testing or bucket testing) is a method of comparing two versions of a web page or app against each other to determine which one performs better. This includes trying out features like different screenshots, videos and even different app icons to measure which format users like the most.
QA testing ensures that the organization delivers the best products or services possible by detecting usability issues that might not be technical. It tests for any problems that impact the end-user experience, from poor navigation to slow load times or unclear web copy.
With phased rollouts, you must also provide early access to new features for select users to collect feedback and stamp out critical issues before launch. Many software products collect user feedback by including a small checkbox somewhere asking users to help make the software better by sending insights into how they use the application. In addition, social media has become an undeniable avenue for collecting candid user feedback. We’ve all seen it—when a platform changes its interface for certain users before others, users will post on social media sites about whether they are pleased with the new update or not. Historically, there has been backlash when significant changes are made and the company then has to decide whether to keep, change or cancel the new changes to the platform.
As mentioned above, with an app stability monitoring tool, you can see if new features or experiments are introducing new stability issues and make decisions about pulling back or rolling out to a larger subset of users. By conducting testing and allowing early access to only a specific cohort of users, software engineering teams can balance release speed with application stability to create the best experience possible.
Do: Allow for A Staging Period Before Going into Production
As you launch new features, you’ll want to test them in a production-like environment after they go through QA testing. This is called staging, and it has become a popular concept with Silicon Valley companies. Staging is a near-exact replica of a production environment for software testing. Staging is meant to test code, builds and updates to ensure quality under a production-like environment before application deployment.
A production-like environment is similar to when the app is released into production for users, but it’s not public yet. It provides an accurate view of how the update or new feature will operate and look in a production environment to avoid glitches that are only noticeable in production. Staging can include manual tests or, in some cases, engineering teams use automated software testing, which is more costly to implement and may only be attainable for larger enterprises.
In this phase, software engineers should conduct additional tests and experiment with the new features to ensure that these capabilities—when released to production or to the larger user base—will not compromise the app’s stability. The last thing you want is for a new feature to break the user experience.
Don’t: Try to Fix Every Bug or Error as it Occurs
Since engineering teams often don’t have the bandwidth to fix every coding error that should arise, they need to prioritize and fix the errors that impact customers directly in order to protect revenue. Although organizations should have visibility into every error or bug, not all of them are worth fixing. This causes the signal-to-noise ratio that plagues developer efficiency.
This is where app stability management plays an essential role. However, many of the app stability monitoring solutions on the market today can help with identifying errors, but leave it up to development teams to figure out which ones need to be prioritized. Engineering teams have to quickly determine which errors are the most urgent to fix, so they need to have reliable tools such as an app stability and error monitoring platform to provide them with visibility to make these important decisions in real-time.
Phased Rollouts for Progressive Delivery
Phased rollouts allow software engineers to continuously optimize the digital experience, without impacting the whole user base and negatively affecting the brand. Once mastered, phased rollouts can be used as part of a cutting-edge progressive delivery approach to software engineering and development.
A progressive delivery approach includes shipping code (sometimes unfinished code) to a production environment multiple times a day, exceeding many companies’ risk tolerance. In order to do this successfully, engineers must have control over who can ship releases and when, and which users can access certain features and updates at what time. Phased rollouts provide a way to shield the majority of customers from the failures that occur at those rapid release speeds. To ship new software releases faster, engineers have to spend less time on QA and testing, but that doesn’t mean they should be overlooked completely. Then, by delivering the new release to a small subset of users first, you can manage risks more effectively and iterate accordingly.
It’s important to call out that if the engineering team is making minute changes that no users will see or care about, you don’t need to use a phased rollout approach. That said, if it’s a significant cosmetic or operational change, such as updates to the UI, then phased rollouts are crucial. A phased rollout strategy is key for making software or app updates at scale that are necessary for a successful launch in today’s highly competitive market.