There’s a principle in the field of industrial operations called the bullwhip effect, which posits that upstream supply chain variability has an amplified downstream impact. Like the crack of a whip, the energy originating at the handle becomes intensely concentrated by the time it reaches the bitter end. So intense, in fact, that the cracking sound we hear is actually a minor sonic boom.

For me, this has always been an instructive way to think about downstream effects, intended and otherwise. Forces set in motion can have unexpected, and often amplified, consequences.

This came to mind recently when considering the unintended impact of continuous deployment.  

There’s no doubt that Agile practices and the emergence of devops have yielded substantial benefits for modern software development teams. Faster, more frequent release cycles mean accelerated learning and innovation for builders of software. But what about software consumers? The side effect of continuous deployment can be something less positive.

Brace for Impact

Releasing features more frequently can feel like #winning for product teams, but it often creates something like a bullwhip effect on customers. Particularly when features ask for a change in behavior or a shift in workflow, your well-intentioned innovation can feel downright hostile.

A recent Pendo study found that 80% of SaaS product features are rarely or never used. Why? Sometimes these features fail to connect with a user need or are cumbersome, unintuitive, and hard to assimilate into work and life. Other times, the failure to adopt features isn’t a conscious choice: it’s simply an artifact of this onslaught. They’re missed or ignored.

From Features to Experiences

Every product person is taught that the first rule of building a great product is empathy for the customer. The best product managers deeply understand the need they’re solving for, and they feel a deep, abiding urgency to make life easier, perhaps even a little better, for the customers they serve. Continuous deployment is how product teams move faster and inch closer to the ideal by iterating toward a perfect problem/solution match.

But this ethos should extend beyond the delivery of new features to the experience these features enable. By experience I mean the sum of all your interactions with a product, good and bad. The subtle but important point to note here is that even good features can — and often do — create really bad experiences. They do this when they force an unexpected change.

Think of the last time an application you use regularly made a change with the obvious aim to help you, but still ended up hindering your workflow or productivity. Whether the change was ultimately good or bad almost didn’t matter in this moment. Humans are hardwired for familiarity. We create mental maps that guide our behavior by reflex and instinct. When things aren’t as we expect, we tense up, perhaps even retreat. What was meant to be good yields something bad.

And this is for the new features we actually see. Most of them are probably missed in the general busyness of the moment.  

From Continuous Deployment to Continuous Adoption

That’s why product teams need to extend beyond the devops promise of continuous deployment. Instead, they should focus on something you may think of as “user ops.” Here, the goal is to ensure a connected, coordinated cadence between what you deliver and what a user needs. This requires deep insight into what they do, what they say, and what they want. Also important is the ability to stitch together all of this insight with the right series of actions. These might be anything from a shift in your roadmap to a targeted message that lets users know about a new capability they’re likely to appreciate.

This requires thinking differently about how you communicate with users across channels; from broadcast to targeted and from email to inside the product itself. It requires judiciousness in what you communicate and thoughtfulness in when — all with the goal of creating moments of delight, not frustration, as users discover the features you’re rightfully excited about.

When you achieve this rhythm, you create what feels like a dialogue with your users–one that helps software builders and consumers understand each other a little better. In doing so, a relationship forms, which creates fertile conditions for loyalty and advocacy.

It’s time to think beyond continuous deployment. Instead, shift your mindset to continuous adoption. I promise users will appreciate it.

About the Author

Jake Sorofman is CMO of Pendo. Most recently, he spent five years as a VP and Chief of Research at Gartner, Inc., before returning to his startup roots. His writing has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, CMO.com and other business and industry publications.