In this article, I want to review the many challenges and risks associated with removing a product that is no longer providing value to customers.

Product launches and new features are often accompanied by all kinds of announcements, celebrations, and promotions. However, when a company turns off or removes a product, there is frequently little (if any) communication around it.

Have you ever heard of a product manager or product owner celebrating when their product is permanently removed?  I haven’t.

When a product or feature is no longer needed and should be turned off forever, it is typically just ignored. The product dies a silent death with no formal announcement, either internally or to customers. In these cases, however, the product isn’t really “dead.” The organization hosting the product continues to pay various types of support costs. Perhaps users still report defects and bugs for the product. Many times, product documentation and training continue (both internally and customer-facing), which costs time and resources. 

What is puzzling is that there seems to be some kind of unwritten rule that says it’s better not to discuss a product if it is going to be removed.

Is it time we change the product culture around dying products? 

There are a few potential explanations for this. Perhaps the product owner fears their job security is at risk if they have fewer products to manage. Maybe developers and testers fear that other features will break if any changes are made. Whatever the reason, talking about disabling products and announcing product removals is often a taboo topic in many product organizations.

Instead, should we start embracing the idea that removing unused products that no longer provide value is wise — maybe even admirable?

The Benefits of “Killing” a Product

If this idea seems a bit absurd, please consider a few of the benefits of permanently removing a product:

Support costs: Every product and feature you support has a cost. Even if there is no investment in improving that feature or fixing defects, there is probably still testing, documentation, and training attached to the product.

Distraction: Every topic you bring up in meetings that doesn’t provide value is a potential distraction. Products that your team will never work on again can be a source of needless debates and wasted time.

Investment in new products: In nature, the “circle of life” means that new life follows death. The same analogy can apply to products. When a product dies, the opportunity for a new product to be born arises — perhaps one much more effective and successful than the previous one.

Two Approaches to Product Removal

If you and your team have decided its time to permanently remove a product, there are two possible approaches:

Option 1: Disable the product if you can quickly turn it back on if anyone complains to support. If someone complains, turn it back on and pretend it was just an oversight.

Option 2: Go through the painstaking process of determining if you can remove the feature, get buy-in from all stakeholders, and then communicate the change well in advance. Be prepared to stop and not remove the product if there are risks raised you cannot address.

Which approach is more common in the industry: Option 1 or Option 2?

I recommend Option 2.  Option 1 is high risk, disruptive, and may even be career-ending. Also, it could cause your company to be in breach of contract or in serious legal violation. Don’t take the Option 1 shortcut! It’s really not worth it. 

The Risks of “Killing” a Product

Disabling a product or feature comes with risk. In fact, there are often significant risks. These risks may prevent members of the product team from bringing up the idea of disabling a product for fear of reprisal or ridicule. If you work in an organization that does not reward transparency, this is a very real risk. After all, no one wants to ruin their career over one bad idea that is discounted or derided by their organization.

Below are some common obstacles that may prevent you from turning off a product or feature, along with some tips on how to address them:

Key Customers Are Still Using the Product

This scenario can be difficult to navigate. If you and your team disable a feature that one or two key customers are using and this disrupts their business, it could result in a significant customer relations problem — or even a canceled contract. Before you affect key customers, you need to figure out who is using the product and how often. Find out if there is an acceptable business workaround such as a different report to use or an alternative workflow to follow. In this situation, communication with the customer is key.

The Product Has an Influential Executive Sponsor

Depending on the personality of the sponsor, this can also be a tough scenario to deal with. One option is to identify a different feature that would benefit the executive’s department. You can then approach the executive with the idea of disabling one product and adding this feature. Providing key metrics, such as the amount of time saved for the development team and the affected department, can really help make a convincing case.

Existing Customer Contracts Include the Product

If this scenario applies, first you need to find out if customers are using the feature. If not, you do have some options. First, discuss the idea with your legal department. They may dismiss this idea completely and if so, you need to follow their advice and not make any product changes. Next, you could ask legal counsel to get a signed amendment from the customer in which they agree they no longer need the product. However, this is probably a long shot. Most likely, you’ll need to wait until the customer renews their contract, then remove the product from the legal contract template.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list of reasons why a product cannot be removed. The devil really is in the details here and you have to do your due diligence. Figure out the impacts of disabling a feature first before making a plan to remove it.  And remember that changes that are communicated to all parties well in advance have a much better chance of not disrupting customers.

If your company already embraces removing products as a standard process this, indicates you have a transparent, mature, process-oriented organization.

If announcing product removals is taboo in your company, rest assured that you are not alone. Perhaps it is time to change the product culture around products that are going away. Maybe we can embrace removing products as a beneficial change that saves costs and reduces complexity.

And maybe, it is finally ok to admit and provide formal communication to customers when the time has come for a product to ride off into the sunset. 

About the Author

Craig Dewalt is a veteran technology leader who served 5 years of active duty in the United States Coast Guard. In addition, he has been delivering products as a software developer, project manager, and product manager in financial services, technology, and telecommunications companies. He lives in Mission Viejo, CA with his wife of 23 years and their two children.