12 minute read · Published December 21, 2023

Sunsetting a product without (too much) pain for PMs and users

Latest Update May 10, 2024

We all know technology moves fast, sometimes too fast. Apps, trends, and ideas come and go, leaving users, PMs, and designers in constant flux.

In 2023, that feels only so much more real with all of the AI-driven advancements this year. And one can only imagine how crazy 2024 and onwards will be!

In this environment where new apps and features pop up quicker than mushrooms after rain, there's a stark reality many don't often talk about – the lifespan of a product.

Just as quickly as product features appear, they can be gone.

This fleeting existence highlights a critical aspect of product management: the art of knowing when to say goodbye, or in more technical terms, product sunsetting.

Sunsetting a product isn't about abruptly pulling the plug; it's a strategic decision, a graceful bow-out that aligns with the product's lifecycle and market dynamics. It involves phasing out a product or feature that no longer aligns with a company's goals, user needs, or the evolving technological landscape.

In this article, we're diving deep into product sunsetting. Our goal?

To provide you with a comprehensive guide on not just when, but also how to sunset a product effectively, ensuring that this transition is as smooth as a well-aged wine – and speaking of wine, let's remember not every product can become a vintage classic. Sometimes, they're more like seasonal fashion trends – exciting for a moment, but not destined to last a lifetime.

The sun must rise, and (sometimes) the sun must set

The good thing about product development is that many of your features don't need to sunset (which, unlike the actual sun failing to set, is a very good thing!)

But sometimes it's simply necessary to sunset a product to preserve your user experience or core business goals.

But why do companies decide to sunset a product? It's not a decision made on a whim. Several factors can trigger this strategic move.

First, market changes play a significant role. As user preferences shift and new technologies emerge, some products may no longer meet the current market demands. It's like trying to sell floppy disks in an era of cloud storage – the market has simply moved on.

Then, there's user engagement. In an ideal world, every feature we launch would be met with user applause and high engagement. But back in the real world, some features end up like those gym memberships we get in January – full of initial enthusiasm but quickly forgotten. Continuous monitoring of engagement metrics can reveal if a feature or product is truly resonating with users.

Finally, technology inevitably changes over time, and product redundancy is a real thing. With innovation comes the cessation of the need for older existing products.

So when do I sunset a product?

It can still be hard to decipher exactly when and how you should sunset a product feature. Let's talk a little bit more about what data and insights you can use to make the decision.

Criteria for sunsetting a SaaS product

Data, data, data! And, more data!

In the realm of product management, data isn't just king; it's the entire royal court. When it comes to making informed decisions about sunsetting a product, gut feelings and hunches take a back seat to cold hard data.

Imagine trying to navigate a ship in a storm without a compass or a map. That's what trying to make sunsetting decisions without data is like. You need reliable instruments to guide you through the turbulent seas of product management.

Let's talk about key metrics that are essential navigational aids in this journey.

Monthly Active Users (MAUs) and Weekly Active Users (WAUs) are your guiding stars.

They tell you how many users are consistently interacting with your product. A steady decline in these numbers can be an early warning sign that your product might be losing its appeal or relevance.

Revenue trends are another critical metric. They are like the wind in your sails, showing whether your product is moving forward or stalling. A downward trajectory in sales or a consistent failure to meet revenue targets could indicate that the product is no longer financially viable.

But it's not just about looking at these metrics in isolation. The real magic happens when you analyze them together, over time. This comprehensive view helps you understand what is happening and why.

Are users dropping off because of a new competitor on the market, or is it due to a lack of updates and innovation?

Is the revenue decline due to a seasonal trend or a fundamental shift in the market?

Are they consistently requesting help or support through your channels, or are they silently hitting a dead end and falling off?

In summary, data is your most trustworthy advisor in the decision-making process. It helps you cut through the noise and emotions, providing a clear, objective view of your product's performance.

At the same time, data can only take you so far. Sometimes you need to understand your users, and that means going beyond data points and toward conversations and human insights.

Qualitative customer insights paint a more detailed picture

While data gives us the 'what' and 'how' of a product's performance, it's your customers’ feedback that tells you the 'why.' Ignoring customer feedback is like trying to write a novel without understanding the characters – the story just won't make sense.

The voice of the customer is a treasure trove of insights, and harnessing it effectively is crucial. This is where tools for collecting both qualitative and quantitative data come into play. Surveys, for instance, can be powerful instruments. They're like having a direct conversation with your users, asking them what they love, what frustrates them, and what they wish for. And guess what? CommandBar can be your ally here, enabling you to build surveys seamlessly to gauge how users feel about a feature or the product as a whole!

In-app nudges and help offerings also provide a goldmine of insights. They're like a feedback box that users can drop their thoughts into any time they use your product. This continuous stream of feedback is invaluable for understanding user experience in real time, allowing you to spot trends and issues before they turn into bigger problems.

For example, if you set up Copilot, you can analyze where people run into issues with your help docs, identify deadends where people get frustrated and drop out of the system, or find common areas where people request an agent, you can clearly understand exactly how they're using a product feature.

But collecting feedback is just the first step. The real skill lies in interpreting it effectively. It's like being a detective, piecing together clues to uncover the truth. Look for patterns in the feedback – are there common themes or recurring issues that users are highlighting?

Pay attention to both what is said and what is left unsaid. Sometimes, the absence of feedback on a particular feature can speak volumes about its relevance and usefulness. That's where those deadends we talked about come into play. When you're able to see them happen, you can understand what was left un-captured by feedback but did occur.

Remember, customer feedback isn't just about gathering data; it's about empathy and understanding. It's about putting yourself in your users' shoes and seeing your product from their perspective. This empathy can transform how you approach product development and sunsetting decisions.

In essence, customer feedback is the narrative that guides your product's journey. With efficient feedback collection and taking a deep dive into this feedback, you ensure that your product’s story is not just heard but felt and understood. This understanding is key to making informed decisions about whether to sunset a feature or the entire product.

What about $$$ and engineering resources?

There's also the reality that sunsetting a product isn't always about data and user insights. Sometimes, it's a business decision. What does that mean?

Well, a product might have decent feedback, a good CES score, and use cases amongst your users, but if it's extremely costly from either a dollar or engineering resource perspective, you might be sacrificing opportunities to put those resources elsewhere into higher ROI initiatives. Think about it like shipping and unshipping quickly – you have to respond to reality fast!

Let's say in 2022 that you set up a new help center flow that combined your customer support agents and a well-designed knowledge base to assist users with their queries. It got good feedback and your users appreciated the new flow.

However, 3 months later ChatGPT was released, and then several AI-powered support options became available. You came across CommandBar’s Copilot and HelpHub and realized that for a fraction of the cost, you could greatly improve and automate your user's help experience.

In this case, your existing product is getting use and good feedback, but it just doesn't make sense from a resource standpoint for the business. You'd want to sunset this product feature and maximize your resource investment elsewhere.

Wait — don’t let the sun set just yet!

Yes, we just told you why you could set a product.

Yes, there are many good reasons to sunset a product.

Yes, there's probably an opportunity for you to sunset some of your product features.

No, it's not the first thing you should do when you run into an underperforming product!

When contemplating the fate of a product, it's not always a binary choice between keeping it as is or sending it off into the sunset. Sometimes, what your product needs is not a farewell party but a makeover party. Think of it as giving your product a new haircut and wardrobe – it's still the same at its core but with a fresh, more appealing look.

(Video Source)

This is where the concepts of feature enhancements and pivots come into play. Instead of completely shelving a product, consider revamping it.

Maybe it's the user interface that needs a facelift, or perhaps adding new functionalities could rekindle user interest.

Analyze your data and user feedback, and see if there are small or mid-sized changes you can make that could potentially significantly enhance the product. Then, build them, highlight them, and gather feedback

Highlight your feature capabilities

This is where product tours and feature highlights can help. They are like the grand reveal in a home makeover show. Once you've spruced up your product, you need to showcase these changes effectively. Product tours can guide users through new features and updates, helping them understand and appreciate the enhancements. It's saying, "Look at all these fabulous new things our product can do now!"

To be frank, you could also just run product tours even without changes. Perhaps all your users need is a reminder of everything they can do.

Feature highlights, on the other hand, are like putting up signposts that draw attention to specific improvements or features. It ensures that the new and improved aspects of your product don't go unnoticed. It's like highlighting the best parts of the makeover, ensuring that everyone sees and appreciates the transformation.

Finally, make sure you're collecting updated qualitative and quantitative feedback on these changes with survey nudges, and compare it against your old data set.

In general, it's important to approach these makeovers with a strategic mindset. Not every product needs a complete overhaul – sometimes, small, thoughtful changes can make a big difference. It's like knowing whether your living room needs new furniture or just a few new throw pillows (as long as you don't put them on the bed where I'm convinced they're completely useless!)

Before you decide to sunset a product, consider the potential of enhancements and pivots. With CB product tours and nudges, you can reintroduce your revamped product to the world, breathing new life into what was once old. Just remember, the goal is to make your product better, not just different – because, at the end of the day, a good makeover should still leave your product feeling like home, only better.

Why must the sun go down?

Well, it's time to face it. Your feature’s usage analytics and user feedback are dismal, you explored ways to spruce up the product but it didn't move the needle, and you need to allocate resources elsewhere.

It’s time for the sun to set.

Sad, yes. But also, an opportunity to make the right decision for the business and your users in the long term.

That's easy to know internally, but your users might not feel that way initially. If poorly communicated, a sunset can hurt your user's experience and faith in your product. This risks churn and negative reviews.

It's highly important to communicate your sunsetting decision clearly. That means doing much more than just a pop-up on the day the product feature is sunset. It means crafting a clear communication plan that gives months, not days to to your users to prepare for the change.

When it's time to bid farewell to a product or feature, how you communicate this change is as crucial as the decision itself. The key here is transparency and setting the right expectations, both internally within your organization and externally with your customers.

How to communicate a SaaS product sunset

Firstly, let's talk about crafting an effective communication plan. This plan should be as meticulously designed as your product development strategy. It should include clear messaging, timelines, and a detailed FAQ to address potential customer concerns. Even better, you should tailor your communication plan to each specific user persona.

Use targeted nudges in CommandBar to send a tailored announcement to users based on their survey responses or product usage data. This personalized approach ensures that the message is relevant and empathetic, acknowledging how the change might affect each user.

Your broad, public-facing announcement should clearly articulate why the decision was made (remember, honesty is the best policy here) and what users can expect moving forward. Will there be a transition period? Are there alternative features or products? What support will be available during this change? These are the questions your communication needs to answer.

Varied impact

Remember, this is not the end of the world — but, it's also not nothing. Sunsetting a product can send varying ripples across different segments of your customer base. Some users might feel like they're losing an old friend, while others may barely notice the change. It's important to understand and address these varied reactions.

For users who frequently engaged with the sunsetted feature, offer detailed guidance on alternatives or upgrades. Also, be prepared to get frustrated responses. Even when there's better technology or alternatives out there, folks tend to be stuck in their ways and like to do things the way they know to do them. You're presenting them with friction and that's going to provoke anxiety and frustration! Train your team to respond with kindness and empathy, even if folks get a bit upset.

For those less affected, a brief explanation might suffice. Don't overdo it!

If you’re a user-assistance first company using Copilot, you can create targeted responses that activate when users search for or ask about the phased-out feature, providing immediate answers and guidance. It's like having a friendly guide ready to help users navigate through the change.

On the internal front, preparing your team for this transition is vital. Ensure they are well-trained and equipped to handle customer queries and concerns. They should be the embodiment of your communication strategy – informed, empathetic, and supportive. Remember, your team is on the front line of this change, and their preparedness can make a significant difference in how smoothly the transition occurs.

The night is always darkest before the dawn

Let's quickly review the best practices we discussed:

  1. Data-driven decision-making: Use concrete metrics such as Monthly Active Users (MAUs), Weekly Active Users (WAUs), and revenue trends to inform decisions on sunsetting a product. This approach helps to understand not just what is happening with the product, but also why, leading to more informed and strategic choices.
  2. Gather and interpret customer feedback: Collect both qualitative and quantitative customer feedback. Surveys, in-app help, and user engagement tools are essential for gaining valuable insights into user experiences and preferences. Effectively interpreting this feedback is crucial for understanding user needs and pain points, which can guide the decision-making process on whether to sunset a product.
    1. Pro tip: use surveys and CommandBar Copilot to gather better qualitative feedback.
  3. Consider business and resource implications: Assess the financial and resource costs of maintaining a product. Sometimes, a product may need to be sunsetted due to high costs in terms of dollars or engineering resources, despite receiving positive user feedback.
  4. Explore enhancements before sunsetting: Before deciding to sunset a product, consider possible enhancements or pivots.
    1. Pro tip: Employ product tours and feature highlights to reintroduce updated features to users, and collect updated feedback to determine if these changes have positively impacted the product's performance. You can build these in minutes with CB.
  5. Transparent and empathetic communication: Develop a clear, empathetic communication plan that explains the reasons for sunsetting a product and outlines the transition process for users.
    1. Pro tip: Use targeted nudges based on user behavior and preferences, and prepare your team to handle customer queries with understanding and support.

If you follow these practices, you're bound to make better decisions about your product and whether to sunset it or not. The reality is this can be tough and painful, even if you do follow these.

But remember, when the sun sets, it becomes dark (which can be sad!.) But, it's always darkest before the dawn. By being decisive and clear with your product sunset, you can build great new features for your users.

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