How to Adapt Your Digital Product Amidst Many Rapid Changes Brought on by COVID-19
- Digital Transformation /
- Product Strategy /
The Covid-19 pandemic has wrought many things, one of which is a significant weakening of the traditional “stickiness” of the status quo. As a result, a drastically accelerated rate of change has ensued, creating a challenging environment for digital products. As a product owner, in order for your product to evolve and survive in the current landscape, it’s important to understand this phenomenon and the relevant changes that come with it.
Examples of Societal Changes Causing Digital Transformation During Covid-19
The typical friction and resistance associated with large scale change have been severely handicapped, and in some cases have dissipated completely, resulting in a faster rate of change. In other words, the status quo has become a lot less “sticky”, allowing change to occur much faster than we are used to. Some of the changes we’re seeing are the result of trends that had initiated prior to the pandemic and have now simply accelerated. In other cases, changes are the result of entirely new trends borne of circumstances created by the current environment.
Changes in the digital realm in particular are coming at us quickly. Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, mentioned this rapid rate of change in April 2020, noting at that time, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”
Let’s explore some examples of these changes we are seeing (by no means an exhaustive list):
- Work from home – More people are working remotely. Where possible, the shift to remote work has been gaining steam over the last decade, but post lockdown this has accelerated for obvious reasons. A Gallup poll from April 2020, noted that 62% of Americans had worked from home during the pandemic (doubling the number from March). Some companies have taken it a step further, for example, Twitter, who announced a return to the office will be optional for all employees. It is of course impossible to predict the specific post-pandemic work environment, but it seems fair to assume at least a moderate increase in remote work will stick around. A Gartner poll from June supports this idea, noting an expected 18% post-pandemic rise in employees working from home based on its responses.
- Online commerce – The lockdown and social distancing brought about a large uptick in ecommerce. Adobe reports a 55% year over year increase in online sales through July of 2020. Amazon, Walmart, and others were already fueling a move in this direction, but in addition, we see new industries and sectors forced into using digital channels to move their wares – think grocery shopping, restaurants, farms, etc. How likely this model of shopping is to stick around is unclear, it may vary industry by industry and sector by sector, but once again, this is likely an area where people’s habits have changed and this trend will sustain.
- Telehealth – Once again another area that has seen a post lockdown acceleration. In May of this year, McKinsey pegged the rise in telehealth adoption from 11% of US consumers pre-pandemic, to 46% post-pandemic, also noting the number of telehealth patients had grown 50 to 175 times (over the same period). The CDC published a guide to help providers understand the telehealth landscape as a way to expand essential services during the pandemic. There are some likely obstacles this trend will have to overcome before we see sustained adoption outside the pandemic, however. Challenges such as how to accommodate less technically inclined users and integrating the digital and physical care aspects into one cohesive patient experience. But the genie is out of the bottle, people understand the potential convenience of this option now, making it more likely this change sticks around.
- Online communities and experiences – Online community was one of the first uses of the internet, and it too has seen a rise in use forced by our new social environment. Long have there been technologies to support online communities, but the current lack of social contact is breeding new innovations in this area. Artists of all kinds are forced to find new ways to support themselves, many of which are direct to consumers. Events that were traditionally in person are being forced to re-imagine online ways to still occur or move their wares. A Forbes article from May of 2020 noted a 1000% increase in online events. Many service-based businesses, especially small businesses, have had to come up with alternative ways to leverage their core competencies and IP which can be sold online directly to consumers – think physical fitness/wellness, physical goods, education. Post-pandemic, it’s fair to expect a return to in-person social interaction (for some sectors there are significant economic benefits) making the changes from this trend less likely to sustain at current levels. However, some of these changes are prone to stick, particularly those that are low-to-no marginal cost ways for businesses to tap into additional potential revenue streams.
How this environment impacts digital products
Acknowledging the rate of change has accelerated, we can examine the subsequent effects of some of these trends/changes with the goal of recognizing their potential impacts on our digital products. This recognition will play a vital role in deciding how our product evolves.
As an example, let’s walk through two big effects resulting from the changes we see, and how they may impact digital products.
Increased importance of customer experience/user experience
One result of various trends we see is an increasing shift towards digital-everything in our daily lives. Right now we use digital tools (hardware, software) to perform an even larger share of our daily tasks. The usability of these tools is paramount to our ability and satisfaction in using them. Furthermore, when given options, the experience of using them plays a significant role in picking which tool to use. If I am having trouble using your digital product, and there is a competitor that offers the same service with a superior experience, that’s where I’m headed. This idea extends beyond just the interfaces of your product, but to the entire customer journey of how the digital aspects of your product integrate with the overall experience. I cannot stress enough how important this aspect will be to the future of your product, especially for consumer-facing platforms.
This could be considered a meta-effect of several trends shifting people towards digital tools and services, including some mentioned above (remote work, ecommerce). The effects of these trends on digital products cover a few broad categories:
- The users of your existing product – This one wraps back up into user experience, but specifically, here I mean: how does the increased shift online impact the users of your product? Maybe your product is needed now more than ever (Zoom!), or perhaps less (Stubhub). Can your digital infrastructure scale to meet that demand and provide a good customer experience? Conversely, if there is decreased demand can you scale down areas of your infrastructure as cost-saving measures. Furthermore, have changes created opportunities for new customers of your product or other pivots, requiring new features? In essence, how can your product capitalize on the shift towards digital channels?
- Product delivery – This essentially boils down to: do your product delivery team(s) have the infrastructure, tooling, and process, required to successfully continue to deliver while being 100% distributed? Also, a secondary question: will your infrastructure, tooling, and process scale to meet the increased velocity demanded to respond to a rapidly evolving world? These are requirements to keep your product relevant as the landscape continues to shift.
- Product support– A little more abstract, but this one is about recognizing what you don’t currently have, but need, to better support your product. An example here may be the easiest way to illustrate the idea I’m trying to get across. Let’s say your product is a SaaS that provides log aggregation and analytics and you have a 500 person sales staff. The need for your product has not gone away (lucky you!), but the way you sell it has very likely had to shift in meaningful ways. Coming up with new sales strategies remotely is achievable as it likely involves a relatively small group. Retraining the entire staff on these new strategies ASAP is going to be more difficult. What would be really helpful in this instance is an online learning platform to rapidly distribute this information and make sure people get through it. While the learning platform is not the core of your digital product, its purpose and the users it serves are very important to the continued existence of your product.
Again, the above are just two examples meant to demonstrate the kind of critical thinking required. There will be changes and subsequent impacts more directly relevant to your product, which you need to recognize and consider.
Strategies for Products Adapting to Rapid Changes
Ideally, these analyses have provided some examples of the rapid changes and their impact on products. Next, let’s look at some strategies to handle the current landscape.
- First and foremost, understand your core business. What is your product? What is the vision for it? These foundational aspects of your product must be clear. Plenty have elucidated why, so I’ll not get into that here, but this is both the base of the product and its compass, so it must be clear.
- Next, understand the opportunities and challenges affecting your digital product that have come with the changes wrought by recent trends. We discussed some examples of this above as an exercise. You will need to perform a similar analysis specifically for your unique product. As mentioned before, your product will have its own set of opportunities. It’s important you recognize, acknowledge, and understand those opportunities.
- Thirdly, understand there are often digital tools available to help address or facilitate the changes you’ll need to undergo. Having a tough time working remotely? So many tools to help! Need to get a mobile app to market quickly? You have options to do this. Need to speed up that digital transformation? It is challenging, but with a smart plan of attack, it can be accomplished! The specific tool will depend on which opportunity or challenge you are trying to address, but it’s likely out there. Create selection criteria, survey the landscape, understand the associated level of effort required, and identify the candidate tools to help you rapidly evolve.
- And finally, make a plan (roadmap). If you navigated the previous steps, you should have what you need to create a successful plan. Utilize the output from the previous steps to create a strategic plan that facilitates the evolution of your product, keeping pace with the ever-shifting world around us.
Adapt Your Digital Product in Times of Rapid Change
Change is the one constant, and the current pandemic has sped that inevitable change up. Some of the ways it’s affecting our society are becoming clear, and those, in turn, may affect your digital product. Recognizing those changes and how to evolve will, in a hope we all share, lead to a better future.