Join Morten Rand-Hendriksen for an in-depth discussion in this video Soft and hard launch, part of Mapping the Modern Web Design Process.
- The exact procedure for the launch of a website depends on many factors. Is this a new site on a new domain or a new site replacing an old one? Is the launch of the website considered an event or is it a build it and they will come kind of affair? The list goes on, and the answers to these questions are project-specific, so I can't give you a one size fits all process here. Instead, we'll look at a launch process that can and should be applied to all sites, regardless of scope, size, or location.
It consists of two stages, the soft launch and the hard launch. What exactly these two stages contain will vary, but the basic idea is always the same. The soft launch is a limited access launch for a select group of end users. In the software development world, this would be considered an RC, or release candidate launch. You're happy with the site and confident it will meet expectations, and now you want to test it on the real users before releasing it into the wild.
The key to the soft launch is to limit the number of users able to access the site and collecting and analyzing the data they produce. This could be done in the form of analytics or direct questions through surveys. The soft launch is also the time you give access to the site to the client and all of their employees. Invariably, the client will have second thoughts about the site and will need time to adjust to the new reality of their site. There are also always issues that only appear once the site is live, and they start approaching it like a normal website, rather than a project they've been working on.
By adding the client to the soft launch, you can address these issues before the site goes live to the world and also allow the client and their staff to familiarize themselves with the site in advance of the regular end user. The group of end users, who get early access through the soft launch, could be existing customers, eager fans, family and friends, even media. Announcing the soft launch as an invitation-only prerelease will usually gather a lot of interest and result in a list of users who will provide good feedback.
The tech blog, The Verge, did just such a prerelease of their new responsive design in September of 2014. They initially asked for 50 testers and ended up with several hundred. By making a big deal about the prerelease, and keeping the number of users small, they got focused feedback that could be used to finalize the product before the hard launch. This also showed the final benefit of doing a soft release. When a limited number of users have early access, they will invariably talk about it in social media to their friends.
This should be encouraged, as it is a great way of building hype about the upcoming hard release. Just remember, you're looking for real end users here, not community influencers or trendsetters. Pre- and soft releases have gone very wrong when groups of social media users decide being part of the soft release is a status symbol in and of itself. That's not what you want. Unless something serious is discovered during the soft release, it should be followed by a hard release within a couple of days or weeks.
The hard release is pretty self-explanatory. This is when you push the big red button and take the site live to the masses. To make this process as seamless as possible, I usually do two things. First, I build the site in a publicly hidden folder on the live server, well in advance, to ensure the launch is not hindered by DNS issues. Second, I take the site live early to select collaborators, to ensure everything is working properly across multiple networks.
To do this, I use the combination of IP mapping and redirects. Set an official time for the release, and make sure you hit it, by starting the process in advance. It is amazing how angry clients and end users get if the site does not launch exactly when promised, and without starting the process in advance, even minute changes can cause unwarranted delays. During the hard launch, make sure all hands are on deck and ready to tackle issues. This includes testing, to make sure the site is actually live, fielding panicked calls from the client and confused end users, and creating a feedback loop for tackling issues.
We'll talk more about that last point in the next movie. The main takeaway for the soft and hard launch is the same as always. Make a plan, complete with contingencies, stick to it, and everything should run smoothly.
- Understanding what your users care about
- Creating user personas
- Creating content priority hierarchies
- Testing wireframes and interaction patterns
- Establishing a three-track build process
- Incorporating accessibility principles
- Using content blocks
- Testing and revising your web design
- Optimizing for social media and SEO
- Launching your web design
- Getting feedback from users