Article

10min read

Feature Rollout Plan 101: Create the Perfect Plan for Stress-Free Releases

In modern software development, teams adopting a DevOps methodology aim to release more frequent releases in smaller batches to validate them and test their impact.

This enables teams to reduce the risk of a big bang release that could lead to buggy features that could damage the user experience. This also prevents doing a full rollback and then implementing rollout all over again.

This ultimately means that software organizations are constantly releasing new updates and features to improve their products’ stability and quality and to deliver the best user experience possible.

Having a set plan in place to introduce new features allows teams to roll out releases to gather feedback and optimize accordingly before going for a full release. 

What is a feature rollout plan?

A feature rollout, as the name implies, is when new product features (or updates to existing features) are released to end-users. It’s all the processes that go into gradually introducing a feature to a set of users to test its functionality before deploying to all your users.

Put simply, the main purpose of a feature rollout plan is to keep all teams involved in the development and release of new features on the same page by making it easier to identify what are the key elements of each phase in the rollout.

Failure of efficiently managing the release of these new features could potentially lead to low quality releases and a negative impact on the user experience. This could all severely damage a company’s reputation and competitiveness in a world where customer expectations are at an all time high. In that sense, a solid rollout plan will ensure more adoption of the software by your customers and improved and more organized workflows for all teams involved. 

Therefore, it’s generally recommended to put together a detailed, robust plan early on in the development process and not scramble at the last minute as this plan will require meticulous planning to ensure the successful release of your new features.

Feature rollout process

It’s important to first highlight the steps involved in a feature rollout so teams can effectively incorporate the requirements of each phase into their planning. 

Typically, the rollout process is divided into the following phases:

  • Design and planning – Define your objectives and KPIs, key stakeholders involved, set deliverables and communicate this plan to teams. This includes determining which features to prioritize and release to create the rollout plan accordingly.
  • Develop rollout strategy – Identify your target users whose needs are best addressed with the new feature and determine how you will give them access to your new features- your deployment strategy.
  • Build the feature and manage its progress throughout the development process.
  • Controlled rollout – validate and test your features with controlled rollouts using feature flags, for example.
  • Collect feedback by putting in place a constant feedback loop.
  • Full release – once the feature has been optimized and refined according to the feedback collected, it is ready to be released to all users.

You will also need to identify and anticipate any potential roadblocks and challenges along the way in your planning and address them early on.

As you advance in the rollout process, plan in-house training sessions and a user onboarding strategy as well as proper documentation to support your feature rollout to serve as a guide for users (both internal and external) to understand the feature in-depth and its value proposition.

Therefore, based on the above, your rollout plan should ideally include the following components to make sure your releases go without any hiccups:

  • Main objective and goals for each phase
  • Action steps and the teams involved 
  • Timeframe to provide clarity and set expectations for all teams
  • Metrics to observe
  • Checkpoints to monitor progress and ensure the project stays on track

Best practices to creating the ideal plan

All in all, to have an efficient rollout plan at hand, you can follow these best practices:

Start early

As already mentioned, you need to draw up your plan early, way before the development and deployment stages. For a successful feature launch, you should start working on your rollout plan as soon as the development process kicks off.  

Planning a seamless feature rollout could take months so the earlier you start considering all the elements within your plan, the easier it will be to keep your teams aligned and avoid any mishaps along the way.

Be flexible 

It’s important that your plan allows for enough flexibility and can be adapted throughout the development process. This means your rollout plan shouldn’t be so rigid that it cannot be updated as priorities and timelines continuously shift throughout the software development lifecycle. 

Define a clear rollout strategy

Your rollout plan will revolve around what strategy you’re adopting to roll out your new features. This means you need to determine how you’ll be rolling out your new features and the type of deployment strategy that is best suited to your new feature.

For example, should you choose a small group of beta users to opt in to test your product first to collect feedback and optimize your product before going for a full launch? Or is it better to run alpha testing on internal users first before releasing to real-world users?

Alternatively, you may decide to do a progressive rollout using canary deployment where you start with a small percentage of your users then expand the rollout process gradually until it’s released to all your users.

Set a tentative timeline

Being flexible is not equal to not having deadlines. You need to set a rough timeline of your rollout process with a clear rollout date that your team should target.

Setting a realistic timeline creates accountability by allowing individuals to outline their own responsibilities and build a personal roadmap that defines smaller deadlines leading up to the rollout release.

Set milestones

Setting key milestones in your feature rollout plan can be useful to further keep all stakeholders aligned and in sync throughout the project. This will allow them to clearly monitor as the software goes from one stage of the rollout to the next to track its progress by establishing clearly defined roadmaps for success. 

Keep stakeholders in the loop

As we’ve seen, a feature rollout process requires coordination and collaboration between stakeholders and multiple teams across an organization.

Early on, establish a core team including relevant and key stakeholders from each department to get their input on key decisions in the rollout process and provide them with all the information needed to understand the value of the new feature and to ensure a successful rollout. 

Outline an external communication plan

So you’ve developed and released your new feature but how do you make sure that your target users know about your exciting new releases?

You will need to make sure that you set a communication strategy so that customers know your software release is available. This is particularly important when you’re releasing new changes or updates to your features so customers know you’re continuously striving to improve your products.

Afterwards, you will also have to determine how you will start collecting the feedback you need to reiterate your products throughout the rollout process.

However, as we’ve mentioned in the previous point, make sure that your communication strategy includes all relevant stakeholders, external and internal users, and your  customer-facing teams. Clear and consistent communication is required from top management so that teams are aware of and understand the vision and strategy behind any new feature. 

Why do you need a feature rollout plan?

One of the biggest advantages of a feature rollout plan is that it allows for enhanced collaboration and communication among teams involved in the feature rollout process.

A rollout plan helps keep teams on the same page and move forward towards the same objectives to get your software into the hands of your users. In that sense, feature rollouts usually require the close collaboration of many teams and not just development teams so a plan helps different teams aligned around the same end-goals.

Furthermore, as new features are gradually introduced to users, such a plan enables careful planning. Thus, it gives teams more control over the release process by carefully planning who gets to see the new feature and when. 

We also mentioned the importance of identifying any potential roadblocks in your feature rollout process. A rollout plan can facilitate the discovery of these roadblocks and anticipate them so you can work on removing them so they don’t interfere with the new feature release. Otherwise, you might end up coming across these roadblocks when it’s way too late in the process significantly delaying your release. 

Above all, a rollout plan’s primary purpose is to manage and mitigate any potential risk among which includes a backup plan in case things go awry during the rollout process to minimize negative impact on your user base as much as possible.  

Feature flags: The foolproof ingredient for successful rollouts

There are many ways and strategies to roll out new features, one of which includes the use of feature flags.

Feature flags are a powerful software development tool that allows teams to mitigate risk of release by separating code deployment from release.

This means that teams can hide new features behind a flag and turn them on for certain user segments while keeping them switched off for the rest while they monitor performance and impact on KPIs.

Feature flags, therefore, are an essential ingredient in your feature rollout plans for your teams to have more control over their releases and perform gradual rollouts of new features to gather necessary feedback.

There are many deployment and rollout strategies you can use alongside feature flags including A/B testing, canary deployments and blue/green deployments to test new features before committing to a full rollout.

Your release strategy can also be more specific. For example, you can choose to release your feature to users in a certain country while keeping them turned off for everyone else.

Keep reading: How you can use feature flags for risk-free deployments for a more optimized user experience 

Plan for success

Feature rollout is not a one-time event. Rather, it’s a continuous process that many teams will need to partake in. 

For that reason, releasing and implementing new features can be very stressful.There are a lot of elements and risks involved in the process, which means having a clear plan in place can make the process much easier. 

A well-designed plan is key to providing a structured framework or blueprint to plan and execute the rollout process efficiently and it’s also an indispensable tool when it comes to successful implementation and coordination among teams.

Ultimately, the success of any project will depend on how well cross-functional teams work together towards shared objectives by communicating, defining clear goals, adapting quickly to changes as they occur while staying motivated and productive.

 

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Article

12min read

Rollout and Deployment Strategies: Definition, Types and the Role of Feature Flags in Your Deployment Process

How teams decide to deploy software is an important consideration before starting the software development process.

This means long before the code is written and tested, teams need to carefully plan the deployment process of new features and/or updates to ensure it won’t negatively impact the user experience.

Having an efficient deployment strategy in place is crucial to ensure that high quality software is delivered in a quick, efficient, consistent and safe way to your intended users with minimal disruptions. 

In this article, we’ll go through what a deployment strategy is, the different types of strategies you can implement in your own processes and the role of feature flags in successful rollouts.

What is a deployment strategy?

A deployment strategy is a technique adopted by teams to successfully launch and deploy new application versions or features. It helps teams plan the processes and tools they will need to successfully deliver code changes to production environments.

It’s worth noting that there’s a difference between deployment and release though they may seem synonymous at first.

Deployment is the process of rolling out code to a test or live environment while release is the process of shipping a specific version of your code to end-users and the moment they get access to your new features. Thus, when you deploy software, you’re not necessarily exposing it to real-world users yet.

In that sense, a deployment strategy is the process by which code is pushed from one environment into another to test and validate the software and then eventually release it to end-users. It’s basically the steps involved in making your software available to its intended users.

This strategy is now more important than ever as modern standards for software development are demanding and require continuous deployment to keep up with customer demands and expectations.

Having the right strategy will help ensure minimal downtime and will reduce the risk of errors or bugs so users get the best experience possible. Otherwise, you may find yourself dealing with high costs due to the number of bugs that need to be fixed resulting in disgruntled customers which could severely damage your company’s reputation.

Types of deployment strategies

Teams have a number of deployment strategies to choose from, each with their own pros and cons depending on the team objectives. 

The deployment strategy an organization opts for will depend on various factors including team size, the resources available as well as how complex your software is and the frequency of your deployment and/or releases.

Below, we’ll highlight some of the most common deployment strategies that are often used by modern software development and DevOps teams.

Recreate deployment

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A recreate deployment strategy involves developers scaling down the previous version of the software to zero in order to be removed and to upload a new one. This requires a shutdown of the initial version of the application to replace it with the updated version.

This is considered to be a simple approach as developers only have to deal with one scaling process at a time without having to manage parallel application deployments. 

However, this strategy will require the application to be inaccessible for some time and could have significant consequences for users. This means it’s not suited for critical applications that always need to be available and works best for applications that have relatively low traffic where some downtime wouldn’t be a major issue.

Rolling deployment

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A rolling deployment strategy involves updating running instances of the software with the new release.

Rolling deployments offer more flexibility in scaling up to the new software version before scaling down the old version. In other words, updates are rolled out to subsets of instances one at a time; the window size refers to the number of instances updated at a time. Each subset is validated before the next update is deployed to ensure the system remains functioning and stable throughout the deployment process.

This type of deployment strategy prevents any disruptions in service as you would be updating incrementally- which means less users are affected by any faulty update- and you would then direct traffic to the updated deployment only after it’s ready to accept traffic. If any issue is detected during a subset deployment, it can be stopped while the issue is fixed. 

However, rollback may be slow as it also needs to be done gradually.

Blue-green deployment

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A blue/green deployment strategy consists of setting up two identical production environments nicknamed “blue” and “green” which run side-by-side, but only one is live, receiving user transactions. The other is up but idle.

Thus, at any given time, only one of them is the live environment receiving user transactions- the green environment that represents the new application version. Meanwhile, teams use the idle blue system as the test or staging environment to conduct the final round of testing when preparing to release a new feature.

Afterwards, once they’ve validated the new feature, the load balancer or traffic router switches all traffic from the blue to the green environment where users will be able to see the updated application.

The blue environment is maintained as a backup until you are able to verify that your new active environment is bug-free. If any issues are discovered, the router can switch back to the original environment, the blue one in this case, which has the previous version of the code.

This strategy has the advantage of easy rollbacks. Because you have two separate but identical production environments, you can easily make the shift between the two environments, switching all traffic immediately to the original (for example, blue) environment if issues arise.

Teams can also seamlessly switch between previous and updated versions and cutover occurs rapidly with no downtime. However, for that reason this strategy may be very costly as it requires a well-built infrastructure to maintain two identical environments and facilitate the switch between them.

Canary deployment

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Canary deployments is a strategy that significantly reduces the risk of releasing new software by allowing you to release the software gradually to a small subset of users. Traffic is directed to the new version using a load balancer or feature flag while the rest of your users will see the current version 

This set of users identifies bugs, broken features, and unintuitive features before your software gets wider exposure. These users could be early adopters, a demographically targeted segment or a random sample.

Therefore, you start testing on this subset of users then as you gain more confidence in your release, you widen your release and direct more users to it. 

Canary deployments are less risky than blue-green deployments as you’re adopting a gradual approach to deployment instead of switching from one environment to the next. 

While blue/green deployments are ideal for minimizing downtime and when you have the resources available to support two separate environments, canary deployments are better suited for testing a new feature in a production environment with minimal risk and are much more targeted.

In that sense, canary deployments are a great way to test in production on live users but on a smaller scale to avoid the risks of a big bang release. It also has the advantage of a fast rollback should anything go wrong by redirecting users back to the older version.

However, deployment is done in increments, which is less risky but also requires monitoring for a considerable period of time which may delay the overall release.

A/B testing

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A/B testing, also known as split testing, involves comparing two versions of a web page or application to see which performs better, where variations A and B are presented randomly to users. In other words, users are divided into two groups with each group receiving a different variation of the software application. 

A statistical analysis of the results then determines which version, A or B, performed better, according to certain predefined indicators.

A/B testing enables teams to make data-driven decisions based on the performance of each variation and allows them to optimize the user experience to achieve better outcomes.

It also gives them more control over which users get access to the new feature while monitoring results in real-time so if results are not as expected, they can redirect visitors back to the original version.

However, A/B tests require a representative sample of your users and they also need to run for a significant period to gain statistically significant results. Moreover, determining the validity of the results without a knowledge database can be challenging as several factors may skew these results.

AB Tasty is an example of an A/B testing tool that allows you to quickly set up tests with low code implementation of front-end or UX changes on your web pages, gather insights via an ROI dashboard, and determine which route will increase your revenue.

AB Tasty Demo

Feature flags: The perfect companion for your deployment strategy

Whichever deployments you choose, feature flags can be easily implemented with each of these strategies to improve the speed and quality of the software delivery process while minimizing risk. 

By decoupling deployment from release, feature flags enable teams to choose which set of users get access to which features to gradually roll out new features.

For example, feature flags can help you manage traffic in blue-green deployments as they can work in conjunction with a load balancer to manage which users see which application updates and feature subsets. 

Instead of switching over entire applications to shift to the new environment all at once, you can cut over to the new application and then gradually turn individual features on and off on the live and idle systems until you’ve completely upgraded.

Feature flags also allow for control at the feature level. Instead of rolling back an entire release if one feature is broken, you can use feature flags to roll back and switch off only the faulty feature. The same applies for canary deployments, which operate on a larger scale. Feature flags can help prevent a full rollback of a deployment; if anything goes wrong, you only need to kill that one feature instead of the entire deployment. 

Feature flags also offer great value when it comes to running experiments and feature testing by setting up A/B tests by allowing for highly granular user targeting and control over individual features.

Put simply, feature flags are a powerful tool to enable the progressive rollout and deployment of new features, run A/B testing and test in production. 

What is the right deployment strategy?

Choosing the right deployment strategy is imperative to ensure efficient, safe and seamless delivery of features and updates of your application to end-users. 

There are plenty of strategies to choose from, and while there is no right or wrong choice, each comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. 

Whichever strategy you opt for will depend on several factors according to the needs and objectives of the business as well as the complexity of your application and the type of targeting you’re looking to implement i.e whether you want to test a new feature on a select group of users to validate it before a wider release.

No matter your deployment strategy, AB Tasty is your partner for easier and low risk deployments with Feature Experimentation and Rollouts. Sign up for a free trial to explore how AB Tasty can help you improve your software delivery processes.