One for the forgotten pixels

All the products we create might soon be gone. It’s up to us to make them last.

All the products that I helped create might soon be gone. Disassembled in their look and feel, iterated into different products, or worst shut down all together. Picturing my efforts of the last years disappear feels like losing a bit of myself while burying parts of my professional credibility right with it.

I started to enjoy the thought of how the situation would be different if digital products were made out of stone, not pixels. The stone’s concrete surface would be strong enough to resist seasonal design changes. Their robust structure would be hard to tear down by other product builders. And thousands of years of experience would shrink the uncertainty around why, what and how to build.

Yet, digital products are still made out of pixels — lightweight, easy to rearrange and prone to change their layout every other release cycle.

As product people of the pixel generation we must understand that nothing we create is set in stone. At some point it will all be gone. And while we won’t be able to change this inconvenient truth, it is worth preparing for it in the best way.

How it feels to lose a product

The first step towards making sense of my product loss anxiety was understanding what I was so afraid of losing in the first place. For once, reliving my first product shutdown came in handy:

A couple of years ago, when Quiz Apps were all the rage, the company I was with wanted to participate in the hype. We partnered with a gaming startup to bring a successful northern European game to Germany. I was the product manager responsible for making this happen. The game was one of my first big projects, making it hard to forget the excitement when we launched. The week after the release, I witnessed the app shoot to the top of the app store charts when I was out on a city trip to Amsterdam. I vaguely remember the blossoming trees around the sun filled canals. I do recall, though, sitting near the water playing the game, eager to challenge every new player. One play at a time — I was determined to engage every user myself if I had to.

Fast forward two years and little was left of the engagement of the early days. I had to witness from the outside how the game was taken off the app store.

In-game screenshot showing one of the many game boards. The goal was to have more points from answering questions than your opponent. Reaching the star in the middle ends the game.

Looking back makes me realize that I connected to the product on many levels causing varied, yet always unpleasant, feelings about its shutdown.

User focused product development taught us to obsess about our customers and their well being. Even without this ever-present mantra, I wanted to build something beautiful that people would like. Thus, it felt like losing a part of myself when I had to witness the product go away, which I helped create with so much passion. Like the canvas to the painter, the product becomes our tool to communicate with the people in front of the screen. And for the pixel artists we often aspire to be, it sucks when your digital canvas is taken off display.

Next to my lifeblood, a significant share of my lifetime went into the app as well. It frustrated me to see all my efforts vanish and not paying off in the end. I started to wonder if I should have been doing other things with my time instead, which further amplified my doubt-filled dissatisfaction.

I also felt that closing down the game made me lose some of my professional credibility. We are judged by what we build and achieve. Now, one of my main achievements in the last years was buried in the app graveyard. I felt naked with nothing to show for except some app store pictures of the good ol’ days.

As personal as my product loss story might be, I think I am not the only one with these feelings. When after work drinks with fellow product makers slide on to memory lane, you hear tales of long forgotten products and features — loved by users, success stories for the business, and an epic battle to get released. It’s as if we want to keep our creations alive with our stories. as otherwise they might be lost for good.

Accepting product change

Understanding what I felt was important. To my own surprise, what helped me progress the most, was accepting that there was nothing I can do about my situation. And that this was a good thing.

Product development is driven by two stakeholders with ever-changing needs — our users and our company. It could be a redesign that keeps users experience up-to-date or a new feature aimed at a change in user behavior. If a company is off to enter a new market or fight off competitors, major product changes will come as well. In some cases, a switch in corporate strategy might even lead to switching off the product right with it.

Even though different in its magnitude, products need to change to meet the requirements of users and businesses. And given the increasing speed at which digital businesses evolve, change will come even more frequent in the future.

A third and major driver for change is neither to be found with a product’s audience, nor in the higher ranks of a company’s org chart. It’s us — product people with their agile, lean, and minimum viable way of thinking. Thanks to the likes of Eric Ries, Jeff Gothelf and Jake Knapp, we have been taught to iterate our way to success. State-of the-art product management embraces change to serve users well while keeping risk and initial investment low. In return, this means that either myself or those following after me will and should tinker and evolve what I created. If they didn’t do so they’d be doing something wrong.

A collection of reading material that helps to make products self destruct

With these forces at work, even the best products will need to change constantly to stay successful. While this sounds obvious, I never properly reflected on what it means for the foreseeable mortality of my work. Knowing that change is a prerequisite for product success, helps me to accept this unpleasant truth. Even if it means seeing my own work vanish, I know that it is (hopefully) for the best of the user, the business and the product itself.

Already ancient stoic philosophy put a focus on understanding and accepting what is outside of one’s control. Until today, stoic principles are known for helping leaders and entrepreneurs live a more fulfilling life.

“If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now .” — Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome

Embracing the inevitable helps the stoic to foster strength and happiness without worrying about what cannot be changed. Accepting the mortality of digital products fits right into the stoic mindset.

The courage to reflect

Even though we need to accept that our products will change, there is still a lot we can do to benefit from this situation. For the Stoic, accepting what is outside of one’s control is only half the deal . Identifying what is within one’s control to then improve one’s situation is of equal importance.

So how can we apply this way of thinking to product development? We have full control over our past experiences and memories from developing products. To leverage this work we need to constantly reflect and then extract what can be valuable for us in the future.

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule (…) that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.” — Epictetus

Continuous reflection helps to identify what worked and what didn’t, thus uncovering areas of improvements. Further, the emotional and timely distance to the observed topic aids the discovery of new insights by looking at a situation in a new angle. You might even uncover that you have learned and achieved more than you originally thought. I was surprised by how much I had learned about navigational hierarchies and user flows when I reflected on a recently released feature.

Lastly, reflection aids to develop more abstract ideas, making what you have learned applicable to a wider range of situations. For instance, reflecting on the Quiz App started my thoughts on how to apply ‎the theory of Flow from psychology to product design.

The Experiential Learning Cycle from David Kolb

And this is really what reflection is all about — uncovering what you have learned to later apply it to other products and become better at what you do. Even if the product that provided the learning is all gone, you will start to notice its long lasting benefits.

Over the last year, I have discovered writing to be a helpful reflection tool for me. Education researcher Ulrich Boser also mentions this in his latest book Learn Better when talking about the benefits of explaining a topic to other people. What I write needs to be understandable to the outside world, so I am forced to think and make sense of what confuses me. Also, I need to develop a coherent story for the reader which helps me to connect the dots about the topic myself. Publishing my reflections also makes my progress visible to the outside world, keeping it alive in a new medium.

There are plenty of other tools that can help to reflect and learn, such as regular feedback sessions with coworkers or retrospectives of a project. Even just taking half an hour each month to write down lessons learned from the past weeks is a valuable exercise. Pick the format that best fits you and work your way from there. Essentially the most important thing is to start. Otherwise, you might find yourself with nothing to show for in a couple of years.

To make a product last

I came to accept that short term product perfection is not what I will be remembered for. Nor will it help me improve throughout my career. What will make an impact, is constant reflection on my ephemeral pixel experiences. By using what I’ve learned in past projects, I have control over making my work live on.

While this surely is more work, it helps me to not rely on keeping my products alive by telling stories to others during happy hour. Instead, I can take my time to listen to tales of their fallen products, which tend to be very worth learning from as well.

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One for the forgotten pixels was originally published in The Startup on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.