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:
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.
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.
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.
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.