The Dark Days of a Product: How Teams Provide Value During the Tough Times
Ryan Frederick | January 5th, 2023
Every product has a dark period and sometimes several. Dark periods are when a product team knows what to design and develop and go about doing it, but the work has yet to be exposed to users in any significant way. The dark periods are challenging.
Product dark periods are when a product team’s commitment and culture are tested. The dark periods are a grind. Even in the fastest-paced environments, product teams will be working on functionality whose value could be more proven. Users still need to be able to use what you’ve designed and created, so the payoff of the effort and time is still unrealized. Some small segments of users should have seen and provided feedback on initial designs and flows, but the broad set of users still needs to be able to engage with the new stuff. During the dark periods, product managers provide tremendous value to the rest of the team.
Product managers must keep the team energized, efficient, and productive during dark periods. Designers will be cranking through user interface assets, designing interactions, and making decisions about workflow. Developers will be knocking out cards. The grind becomes real in the dark days when production needs to be highest, but the satisfaction of use and value is not yet available.
The dark days of a product are akin to writers writing before anyone else reads it, a songwriter writing before anyone else hears it, and a painter painting before anyone else sees it. A product’s dark days are when a product team has to embrace and love the process, and their craft will get very little to no feedback from anyone outside of their team.
A significant portion of a product manager’s work comes during the dark periods when they have to reinforce the why of the work and why the product needs to exist. Why a feature matters. The why of the value to users, the team, and the company. The dark periods ask a product manager to be a coach, cheerleader, and storyteller. The dark periods also take a toll on product managers, however. Product team members have to be able to lift each other and be supportive of product managers too. It becomes part of everyone’s job to be empathetic and supportive during the grind of a product’s dark periods.
The best product companies acknowledge the dark periods and give product teams a chance to reenergize coming out of them. The worst product companies expect a product team to go from one dark period to another. There is no faster way to burn out a product team than to have them grind through one dark period right into another. I have seen companies assign product team members to other teams and have a dark period grind to help another team get caught up and back on track. Although the team members might initially be appreciative of the acknowledgment that they are viewed as saviors for another effort, they will quickly become sapped for energy and patience, immediately moving into another dark period. Product teams need time to recover from dark periods.
During recovery from dark periods, product teams need feedback, however. Not of their specific work and performance, which will come in post-recovery, but of how the product and new features are being received and used and the associated impact. Product managers don’t get the same immediate recovery that other team members do, as they have to analyze and sift through the user feedback and usage data, but at least they are out of the dark period.
As a product firm that helps clients to create and evolve products, the dark periods are particularly challenging for our clients and, thereby, our team. Clients who only sometimes, if ever, create a new or evolve an old product can become frustrated during the dark periods of heavy product production. Irrespective of reviews and demos, clients unfamiliar with the dark periods of product become anxious to reap the value of the work. Impatience increases with every work sprint and product iteration. There is no way to remove the angst of product dark periods entirely.
Clients will feel relief as they review designs and participate in product demos, but their anxiety remains high until their users successfully and satisfactorily use the product. Rightfully so, clients know that what they think matters far less than what their users think. Clients working with a product firm like ours are caught in the middle as part of any product creation journey and the dark periods are the most difficult. Clients have set expectations and are committed to what the product will do and be. The dark periods make clients question whether they set the proper expectations and made appropriate commitments.
Product dark periods will cause product teams to question just about everything. This can be beneficial and harmful. A healthy level of questioning helps to confirm and validate the design, architecture, and user experience choices. An unhealthy level of questioning during dark periods can cause a product team to become paralyzed and indecisive around minutia that doesn’t matter. Product dark periods can send weak product managers and teams into thrashing and chaos, while strong product managers and teams leverage the time to become reassured.
A product’s dark periods are never-ending. The dark periods should get less frequent and smaller as a product evolves and matures, but there will still be times when a new version or release is consequential enough that the dark period grind becomes real again. The best product teams embrace the dark periods. They acknowledge that dark periods big or small, are part of the process. They focus on what they can control, what they are learning, and executing. The more dark periods a product has, means the product has achieved a certain level of success with users, equating to product longevity.
Professional product teams embrace the dark periods. Amateur product teams fear the dark periods. Amateur product teams will get anxious and begin to panic during dark periods causing them to begin infighting, do bad work, and rush. Amateur product teams succumb to the pressure of a dark period by saying things like, “We have to get this out sooner even if it doesn’t work as intended,” or “We don’t need to be that concerned about architecture, scalability, integration capability, data management, security,” “The marketing and sales teams are saying they need this right away,” “We have an OKR, KPI, or another measurement acronym to hit,” and so on. Successful products are often won or lost during dark periods. The easier creation periods of a product’s journey can be performed relatively well, even by amateur product teams. Product teams and product managers earn their stripes during the dark periods- the grind-it-out days that require a tremendous amount of deep work that is exhausting.
Product phases have a significant impact on a product’s dark periods. Prototypes or MVPs have very few, if any, dark periods because the pace of work and validation cycles are shorter. Some of the perspectives of amateur product teams mentioned above are okay during prototyping. When the validity and future of a product are still in question, the aspects of a product that contribute to dark periods, such as architecture, security, and scalability, aren’t relevant yet. When a product evolves to what I refer to as version 1 and beyond, in which users will be expected to be able to use the product on their own, the dark periods for a product will appear, and a product team needs to adjust. I have seen product teams be great at prototyping and awful at version 1 and beyond. Product teams and firms that thrive in the prototyping phase can struggle as the product needs to evolve and mature. The hardening of a product becomes a challenge for product teams with a narrow prototyping perspective. This is only true for some product teams and firms, but it is in many cases. I have experienced this as a client and now as a leader of a product firm. Many new products, whether as part of a startup or an innovation department inside an enterprise company, don’t make it past the prototype phase because the product team isn’t capable of working beyond a prototype. The hardening of a product requires intention and thoughtfulness, which requires a different mindset and skills. A product prototype encounters very few, if any, dark periods, but if a product evolves past a prototype, the dark periods will be ongoing.
A product’s dark periods elicit an odd reaction from users and clients in the case of product firms. Users and clients will focus on what isn’t planned or part of a release. The users and clients could be getting some high-value and desirable functionality but still focus on what isn’t more than they appreciate what is. Product teams often become aware of this user and client discontent during a dark period when users and clients are asking for faster. Once users and clients know what is coming, they treat it as already there. Their thinking shifts to what isn’t and what is next. A product’s dark period is challenging for product managers and product teams because as they are cranking on the inflight work, users and clients have already moved on. Sharing a product roadmap with users and clients is a slippery slope because of the tendency for users and clients to become frustrated with a current work dark period and to begin to fantasize about future goodness. Users and clients who become too enamored with the future goodness of a product’s roadmap will have even more difficulty being patient and understanding during a product’s current work cycle and dark period.
Product dark periods aren’t challenging just for users and clients. Product managers and teams experience it too. It starts with hope for the outcome of the work — the accomplishment of a job well done. The hope fades into resignation that the period will be more challenging and prolonged than initially perceived. The resignation turns into resentment. The resentment is dangerous in the short and long-term if not managed effectively. Product managers and team members can allow themselves to resent the functionality, the work, each other, and the users/clients. Dark periods can harm a product team’s cohesion with each other and empathy with users and clients. If the resentment isn’t acknowledged and runs too deep, a product team may not be able to recover from it and emerge from a dark period with long-lasting relationship wounds that take a long time to heal or that never do. The resentment is typically viewed as burnout, which is part of it, but it can run deeper than temporary burnout. Burnout is an internal dynamic. Resentment is external. Resentment is when we feel we’ve been mistreated. For product teams, perceived mistreatment can come from unappreciative team members, users, and clients in combination with unrealistic expectations and a deep work grind. The resentment product teams can experience driven by doubt too. I doubt whether the work will matter and will be worth it. The product teams that overcome the doubt and resentment of a dark period will become stronger. The experience will bond them.
No product’s dark period is the same as another. The dark periods all take on a slightly different nature because of varied circumstances, timing, and players. Product managers and teams will become more adept at navigating product dark periods. However, if the product team remains together and improves at dark periods over time still gets confronted with changes in the product, business, users, and client landscapes. Sometimes a product team will anticipate a difficult dark period to be pleasantly surprised by it going easier than expected. Other times a dark period that is expected to be low stress and low complication will be anything but. Ah, the dynamics of product creation and evolution. The changing dynamics of a product journey are also why people are product managers, designers, and engineers. If product people knew how things would go, the work and profession would be far less interesting. Exploring the unknown gets product people hooked and keeps us coming back for more. There may not be any greater human endeavor than creating something that others use and value to improve their lives.
Product dark periods are a paradox. They are the essence of why product people do what they do, not despite them. Product dark periods test our skills, our determination, and our professionalism. We are product craftspeople, not when things come easy, but when things challenge us. Most problems around a product get solved during dark periods when product teams are confronted with new information, and unknowns become known. The dark periods exist for product teams to ply their craft to the best of their ability; without the dark periods, product teams would atrophy. Product dark periods aren’t meant to be joyful and easy. Still, they fulfill an essential purpose that provides the professional satisfaction every product person seeks, even if we don’t like it or know it.