The Last Goodbye: How To Shut Down A Failing Product

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Kevin Stone is a user experience and product designer based in Bristol UK. He is currently the Head of UX for Coull - a technology company that is reinventing … More about Kevin ↬

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Anyone with an idea could turn out the next Facebook. Technology takes no heed of gender, creed or race, but is reduced down to code and the desire to create. Everyone you meet has an idea for the “next great website or app.” However, there is a harsh reality: many new products fail. But what should you do if your product does fail? How do you close a product with dignity, so that both you and your users leave on good terms? In this article, Kevin Stone will answer this questions.

The true power of the web has always depended on the open nature of its technology. Anyone who’s interested can create a website, and anyone with an idea could turn out the next Facebook. Technology takes no heed of gender, creed or race, but is reduced down to code and the desire to create.

This great power has produced unbounded enthusiasm, and everyone you meet has an idea for the “next great website or app.” Buried within this enthusiasm, however, is the harsh reality that many new products fail. But what should you do if your product does fail? How do you close a product with dignity, so that both you and your users leave on good terms?

This article will cover the key steps you need to take to close a product and outlines how to tell your users that you’re closing. (Note that this article addresses closing a product or service. While that often involves closing a company as well, we won’t address that here).

Sorry, we're closed!
Closed for business.

Who’s Afraid Of Failure, Right?

The closing of a product has a precarious status in the business world. While every publication from Time to Harvard Business Review like to remind us that risk and failure are essential to design and the startup community, very few words are written on the act of closing a product — what it takes, what to consider and what to expect.

Many of us will work on a failing product at some point in our careers. While some of these failures will follow the long, quiet realization that very few people use the product, other situations will require you to proactively stand up, admit that something is not working and take action.

Why products fail has already been discussed, but the key factor determining whether you should leave a product running in the background or close it is the weight of its burden on you.

You would likely want to close a product if it is a burden in one of the following ways:

  • Financial burden. Is the product making money? All products cost money to develop and maintain. Even if your only cost is server hosting, it is still a financial burden. If the product is making less money than it costs, then it is a financial burden.
  • Resources burden. Do you have the staff to ensure good customer service? Users will ask questions, raise issues and initiate support tickets, all of which demand resources. Many of these resources will be in the form of customer support, but they could also require development effort. If a company does not have the people or resources to maintain a positive customer service, then the product is a burden on resources.
  • Technical burden. What will it take to keep the product fully functional? Bugs and usability issues will be discovered and will require planning and development to be resolved. If the company cannot afford the development resources for these issues, then it is a technical burden.
  • Legacy burden. Is the product affecting other areas of your business? Multiple products will often share a code base. If the existence of the product creates more work for other (more successful) products, then it can be considered a legacy burden.

Deciding whether to keep the product alive quietly in the background or close it is a personal and subjective decision. Understanding the financial burden seems simple, but it might not take into account how the product could perform in the future.

This decision is ultimately subjective and will often be based on a combination of the factors above.

“Surely, I Could Just Leave My Product Running, No?”

One appealing option is simply to leave the product running and cease all development and support. This is a common approach with large products or when the company is acquired by another.

When Adobe announced it would no longer develop Fireworks, its public statement made it clear that Adobe would do the minimum possible to support Fireworks in the future:

"While we are not planning further feature development for Fireworks,... we will provide security updates as necessary and may provide bug fixes. We plan to update Fireworks to support the next major releases of both Mac OS X and Windows. As more specific details on the next version of Windows and Mac OS X are made available, we may adjust these plans."

(Note that they state they “may” provide bug fixes but do not guarantee it.)

Such an approach is appealing and seems like the easiest option. You simply tell users that you are not developing the product further and let it run quietly in the background. You hope that users will not be annoyed (because they can still use the product), and you’ve saved yourself from having to explain why you are shutting down a product.

For large products with a developed audience, this might be a viable solution, but the key question is whether this really is a solution or simply a delay of the inevitable?

Even if you do not intend to develop the product further, will users expect you to fix any bugs they find? As with Adobe Fireworks, will you be able to ensure that the product works on new operating systems?

Failing to offer this level of support will breed frustration among users and potentially damage your company’s overall brand and other products?

Assess the burden of each course of action. If you cannot afford the technical or resources burden of leaving a product running, then your best option might be to close the product.

Closing A Product Is Like A Breakup

So, you have decided to close your product. It has proved to be too much of a burden, and your company would be better off without it. Now what?

The relationship between a product and its users is personal. You aimed to make the world a better place, and your users supported you and invested in the product. Regardless of whether the product is free, your users have invested their hard-earned time, effort and support — treat these with respect.

The process you go through will be very similar to that of a personal breakup. You would inform users that you will no longer have any contact with them and that your future will not be shared together.

As in movies, the cliche “It’s not you, it’s me” will be your guiding principle. Your users have supported your product, and you have made the decision to end it. In case you receive any negativity, remember that this is not their fault. Any frustration or anger they express is the result of losing your product, so be prepared for negative feedback, and deal with it gracefully.

Part 1: Planning The Closure

Before you begin closing your product, prepare as much as possible. No matter how well you plan, you’ll get surprises along the way, so be prepared — but also prepare to be flexible.

Outlined below are 10 steps to follow. Every product is unique, so you might have additional requirements, but these will give you a good grounding and make any surprises easier to deal with.

1 To 6 Months Prior To Closure

Step 1: Inform users of the upcoming closure

Your first and most public act will be to inform users that you are closing the product (more details on drafting this communication later). Give users as much time as possible to act on your information, without feeling rushed or panicked.

At the very minimum, give users at least one month’s notice of the closure. If you will be enabling users to export their data (see step 2 below), then double it to at least 2 to 3 months, to allow them to find a suitable alternative and export any data.

The more time you can afford to give, the better. Your users will be sad to see your product close, and any feeling of being rushed will only cause frustration and resentment.

Step 2: Point to the road ahead

What can you do to ease your users’ journey? Can you recommend competing products or enable users to export their data? Even though your product is closing, others might fill the void.

Empathize with your users, if your favorite product was to close, what information would you want to know and how would you like to be treated? Conduct guerrilla usability tests to understand how to make the process as painless as possible. Usability testing is rarely discussed in the context of closing a product, but assuming that your overall view of the user experience and usability remains the same, why wouldn’t you test? You owe it to users to continue providing this level of service.

Readmill next steps
Readmill has a section listing “Next steps for readers” on its website. (View large version)

Step 3: Disable new registrations

As soon as you have announced your plan to close, prevent any new registrations. Traffic and attention might increase following the announcement, but any new registrations would only make communications more difficult and offer little benefit.

Some people will have missed your announcement, too. If they register for your product, you will have the difficult task of informing them that are you closing (hardly a great customer experience).

Step 4: Stop marketing collateral and automated marketing

You probably have web pages or entire websites that promote your product. Their purpose was to drive people to register for or buy your product. This need no longer exists.

Can you use those pages to communicate the upcoming closure? Removing all of the information is probably not necessary because much of it might still be relevant, but its primary purpose has changed from driving registrations or sales to informing and educating about the upcoming closure.

Do you have any automated email marketing that needs to be stopped?

Step 5: Update your support content

If you provide online support, update the information to reflect the closure and to address the new needs of your users. Users will still need assistance in using your product, but you will now start to receive questions about the closure and about any related steps you have suggested for users (see step 2 above).

As in step 2, research the new needs of your users by speaking with them directly, monitoring their success rate on your pages and conducting your own research. By gaining insight into users’ mindset, you will help them through this process and reduce the number of questions you receive.

1 Week Prior To Closure

Step 6: Email a reminder

People lead busy lives and are deluged by information from numerous sources. So, it’s easy for things to fall to the bottom of the pile or be forgotten altogether. Email a reminder one week before closing the product to give users enough time to act, without having to panic.

1 Day Prior To Closure

Step 7: Email a final reminder

This is your last chance to remind users of the closure. Some people might reply that you are over-stating the closure, but overstating is better than people missing out on the communication. Your previous emails might have fallen into a few spam folders.

After The Closure

Step 8: Resolve all finances

Do you owe users money? Once your product has closed, settle any outstanding finances and pay users promptly.

If users pay by subscription, then consider whether you are justified in charging them as the product winds down. Should this period be free? The answer will depend on the type of product.

Step 9: Resolve URLs and email addresses

Do you intend to keep your domain and online web presence? Like Everpix and Readmill, you might wish to offer helpful information on your past and present and set up redirects for any old links users might have saved.

If email addresses are associated with the product, then consider what to do with them. Will you continue to manage them, or will you automate a response that directs customers to more information or to a single email address?

Offering at least one method of contact is crucial, in case users need to access their data or have questions about their account.

Everpix retains its online web presence, giving users the chance to read its story and access their personal data. (View large version)

Step 10: Close any legacy accounts

Do any other accounts feed into or rely on your product? Twitter? Facebook? Other social media accounts? What will you do with them? As with your website, you might choose to keep some of these for historic purposes and to update people on your story, while simply closing others.

If you wish to keep your Facebook page, will you actively monitor and respond to all questions? Not doing so could result in your company being viewed negatively. Don’t leave your other accounts alone simply because it’s easy to do; monitoring and support are still your jobs. If you cannot support these accounts, strongly consider closing them.

The steps above are not exhaustive (and your product might have other requirements), but if you address them before beginning the process, then you will have a strong foundation for dealing with any unexpected issues.

Now that we have tackled the general issues, let’s consider one of the toughest: how to tell users that you are closing?

Part 2: How To Say Goodbye

Letting users know that you are closing is one of the most difficult steps. It requires you to be brutally honest with both yourself and your users, and what you say and how you say is fraught with risk.

To help you craft your message, we’ll cover the key items that you’ll need to communicate. Each item will be unique to your company and your relationship with users, but combined, they should give users a clear understanding of what is happening and what it means for them.

You will need to share this message in two ways: via email and in your product or on your website. You might be reluctant to post the message publicly online, but don’t assume that all users will read your email. if possible, force the message in front of existing users at least once.

Readmill's epilogue
Readmill shared its epilogue on its home page and via email. (View large version)

Tell users what is happening

Your users will want to know exactly what is happening. Be clear and concise, telling them what changes will take place and when will they will happen. Are you closing or being subsumed by another product? What is the timeline for the closure (see above for a sample schedule)?

Google Reader
Google used a pop-up message to announce that it was closing Reader and when it would happen, offering a way to read more information. (View large version)

Explain why this is happening

At the end of any relationship, the person wants to know why it’s happening. Resist the urge to spin a positive story. Maybe you’ve failed to make any money, or perhaps your personal circumstances have changed. Be open with your users.

Regardless of your reasons for closing, the product and the decision are ultimately yours. At no point should you make users feel that they have not done enough.

Slice told users they it was closing its Bookshelf service to focus on other products. While perhaps not the happiest news for users, it was open and honest. (View large version)

Let them know how they will be affected

Now you have told users how and why you are closing, let them know what it means for them. Will they lose their data, or do they have options? Do they have to do anything, or will you take care of everything for them? If it’s a paid service, what will happen with billing?

Everpix Github
Everpix allows users to access all of its business data on Github. (View large version)

Outbox FAQ
Outbox offered customers a dedicated FAQ about its closure. (View large version)

Explain what it means for the company

If you have been open and honest with your users, then they will hopefully understand your reasons and be sympathetic. So, let them know what is happening with the company. People have invested in your product and your company, so let them know how the closure affects them.

Is this the end of your company, or have you been acquired? Are you leaving to pursue your lifelong ambition of joining the circus? Sharing these things reminds users that you are human beings and not just a faceless company.

Verelo informed its users of what is happening with the company and its staff members:

"While Mike made the decision to leave the company a few months ago, I decided to give it my best and push on. We brought on several great people during this time, including the wonderful Vanessa who will be going back to focus on her Jewelry Design business."

Give thanks

Finally, thank your users. No matter how big or how small your user base, they have supported your ambitions, taken this journey with you and sustained your passion throughout.

FindIt’s founders shared this thank-you message:

"All the best from the FindIt team, and may you always find what you are looking for in life. :) Levi, Alex, Ben and Brandon"

You might wish to sign off as individuals or as a company. Neither is incorrect; it simply depends on your relationship with users. Do they know of you simply as a product or as a team trying to make a dent in the universe?

Tone Of Voice

Closing a product is a serious decision. You are admitting that you have been unable to accomplish your goals and that your relationship with users will go no further. So, try to strike a dignified and respectful tone. This is not the time for jokes.

Be open and optimistic, conceding where you’ve failed but not forgetting to celebrate your achievements. You’ve spent countless hours and sleepless nights working on the product, so let everyone know that the decision is difficult and that you love the product as much as they have.

Readmill’s goodbye was heartfelt:

"Readmill’s story ends here. Many challenges in the world of ebooks remain unsolved, and we failed to create a sustainable platform for reading. For this, we’re deeply sorry."

Wibiya’s goodbye directs people to its other products. (View large version)

No One Said It Would Be Easy

If all this seems like a lot to consider, that’s because it is. You will have no doubt taken many weeks or months to decide whether to close your product. The process of caring for your users deserves just as much care and attention.

The task will not be easy. You will have to be frank, and while some will be supportive, others will be angry and upset. Some will claim you’ve let them down, and they are allowed to think this.

The task will be thankless at times, but remember that it’s never too late to delight your users. Show class till the very end, and leave people with the memory that, although you might not have made it this time, you are still fair, dignified and the kind of person they would want to deal with in future.

Dust yourself off and move on to the next challenge. There’s work to be done!

Share Your Thoughts

Have you closed a product or company? What do you wish you had known at the time?

Other Resources

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (al, il, mrn)