The Essential Stages of Product Development Life Cycle: A Full Guide

New products and updates are being released at a much more rapid pace these days. It's no wonder that the global spending on software products is set to reach an incredible $800 billion by 2028! Businesses of all sizes, developers and even solo entrepreneurs are constantly looking to launch products. A key ingredient that separates the products that go on to succeed and those that don't take off is the process. 

We've successfully worked in this space for over 10 years and can vouch that it's important to stick to a well-defined process. Where do you begin?

Here, we'll share the same process that mints all the successful products we see around, no matter if they were created in-house or outsourced. The Twitters, Facebooks, and Whatsapps of this world — name it. All pass through this process. 

This guide is a must-read for you who is looking to bring your product dream into the real world.

Also Read: Advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing software development

What is a product development life cycle?

A product development life cycle is the set of stages used to develop a product that meets user  expectations. Each phase has specific deliverables and milestones associated with it. The timeline of each phase will depend on the nature of the product being developed — while some products may move through these stages quickly, others may require months or even years of development before you can release them for use. The goal is to develop and introduce new products efficiently.

In the context of software development, we talk of the software development life cycle (SDLC). SDLC outlines the stages involved in the creation, deployment, and maintenance of software products. In other words, it provides a structured approach to the development and management of software products.

A structured process is important for several reasons:

  • Meeting needs: A defined process allows developers to gather and incorporate the necessary requirements and feedback from users at each stage of development. This ensures that the final product is user-friendly, and aligned with the needs of the target users.
  • Prevents scope creep: A defined process keeps the development team focused on the agreed-upon features. It also helps prevent the addition of unnecessary or unrelated features, which can lead to scope creep and delays in the project.
  • Risk and cost management: A structured process enables developers to identify and mitigate potential risks early on in the development process. This can minimize or eliminate costly rework or delays later in the project.
  • Quality assurance: Ensures that the product meets the necessary quality standards before it is released.

The product development process: main stages

The lifecycle of software product development follows a widely accepted concept, from the start all the way through to maintenance. Every stage can bring its own unique set of challenges and possibilities that need to be managed in an informed, concentrated manner.

All parties involved in the development should go through these stages, but not just as a formality. You must make sure that what you are creating fits user requirements.

Of course, these stages can differ from project to project, but generally speaking these are the most crucial stages in regard to software product development:

Stage 1: Ideation

The idea stage is initiated by the customer; this may be an organization's executive team that wants to create a new product or feature in-house or outsource the project to a software development firm. It could also be an individual looking to create their own product, or even a software developer who seeks to develop something like an app, SAAS product, or system that can be sold to the public or organizations. The range of possibilities is broad, but it all comes down to whoever conceives the idea and has the funds available for development.

It's here that all the iconic products we see around are born. Some of the greatest products in the world were imagined and created by single individuals who then went on to sell them to big companies. Some were imagined within big companies, some within small and medium companies, and some even by accident. 

Here are some examples of applications that were created by individuals or small groups and later sold to larger companies:

  1. Instagram was created by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger and was later sold to Facebook for $1 billion.
  2. WhatsApp was created by Jan Koum and Brian Acton and was later sold to Facebook for $19 billion.
  3. Slack was created by Stewart Butterfield and his team at Tiny Speck and was later sold to Salesforce for $27.7 billion.

Also Read: What should you consider when purchasing an application?

There are 4 valuable steps under the ideation phase. 

i. Generate ideas using these popular methods

In the modern organization, the process of generating ideas is becoming more open and inclusive. Everyone from the CEO to the lowest-ranking employee is encouraged to contribute. Brainstorming sessions bring together teams who work together to explore different approaches and angles in order to arrive at creative solutions that are both technically feasible and stand out from the competition. This period of open thinking can lead to innovative, interesting and workable ideas.

Some people swear by randomness, but it doesn't always do the trick. Here are a few methods to consider!

Reverse brainstorming

Reverse brainstorming works by mobilizing our natural inclination to more easily identify potential problems than possible solutions. Instead of focusing on how a product can succeed, it encourages us to question why it might fail. 

Follow these steps:

  1. Clearly define the desired outcome or solution.
  2. Identify the current constraints or challenges that are preventing the outcome from being achieved.
  3. Brainstorm a list of potential solutions to these challenges.
  4. Evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of each solution.
  5. Select the most promising solution and develop a plan to implement it.
5 W & H

The 5 W & H method involves focusing on the questions Who, What, Why, When, Where and How when brainstorming. This approach allows you to explore all of the factors that might contribute to your ideas and also narrow down potential solutions. 

Each factor is considered separately, leading to multiple possible solutions which can then be evaluated in terms of their effectiveness and desirability. In addition, asking these questions often leads to creative thinking stores — making it a great method for fresh concepts.

Social listening

Social listening is the process of monitoring social media platforms for mentions of a brand, product, or specific keywords. It can be used to understand how people feel about a particular product or to identify potential issues that need to be addressed. Companies often use social listening to gather insights about their customers, measure the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns, and improve their products or services. 

The act of paying attention to what people are saying on social media can help you to get a sense of what kinds of products or features are in demand, or what problems people are trying to solve..

Apply these tips to extract smart ideas through social listening:

  1. Set up alerts for relevant keywords: Use tools like Hootsuite to set up alerts for specific keywords related to your industry. This will help you stay up-to-date on what people are saying about your industry, and give you a sense of what topics are generating a lot of buzz.
  2. Analyze sentiment: Look at the sentiment of the conversations you're tracking. Are people generally positive or negative? This can give you an idea of what people like and dislike, and help you identify areas where you could potentially improve.
  3. Engage: Ask questions about needs and pain points, and see if there are any common themes that emerge.
  4. Look for gaps: Identify areas where there are unmet needs or problems that are not being addressed by existing products.
  5. Monitor the competition: Keep an eye on what your competitors are doing, and see if there are any areas where they are falling short. This can help you identify opportunities to differentiate your products and offer something unique.
Mind mapping

A mind map is a diagram that visually outlines information. It typically consists of a central topic with branches or lines connecting related sub topics or ideas.

Mind maps are particularly beneficial for visual thinkers and people who learn best by seeing relationships between ideas. 

Start by writing the central idea or topic in the middle of a blank page or whiteboard. Next, add branches or lines that represent different sub topics or ideas, and continue to add more branches or lines as needed. You can also use colors, symbols, or images to help illustrate your ideas or to highlight important points.

There are many software tools available that can help you create a mind map, or you can simply use a simple pen and paper to draw your map by hand. Some examples of mind mapping tools include XMind, Clickup, and MindManager.

Research

The research approach allows developers to examine prior implementations and user feedback, allowing them to identify potential areas of improvement, inform design decisions, and gain valuable insight into the needs of the target user. 

Research helps us to make more informed decisions, so we don't waste time and energy on ideas or solutions that have already been explored and tested.

SCAMPER

The SCAMPER method of ideation was first described by Bob Eberle in his book Games for Imagination Development. 

The acronym stands for:

S — Substitute: What can you substitute to make the product or process better?

C — Combine: What can you combine with the product or process to make it better?

A — Adapt: What can you adapt from another product or process to make this one better?

M — Modify: How can you modify the product or process to make it better?

P — Put to other uses: What other uses can the product or process be put to?

E — Eliminate: What can you eliminate from the product or process to make it better?

R — Rearrange: How can you rearrange the product or process to make it better?

Start by selecting a product or process that you want to improve. Then, go through each letter of the acronym and brainstorm ideas for how you can use each technique to make the product or process better. 

For example, you might substitute a cheaper or more environmentally-friendly material for a more expensive one, combine the product with another to create a new offering, adapt a technology from another industry, or eliminate an unnecessary step in the process. 

ii. Evaluate the ideas

Once you wrap up generating the ideas, try to whittle your list down to a handful of ideas — 10 is an ideal number but depending on your available resources you may have slightly more or less. 

The goal is to discard any ideas that don't fit the user needs or company trajectory, as well as any concepts that may sound appealing but not garner enough investor interest.

iii. Test ideas

By now, you've got a shortlist of the most promising ideas. You came up with this list by discarding those that didn't meet this important criteria: user expectations and business goals.

So now, you want to review each of the ideas on the list. Some experts say you need an MVP at this stage, but you don't have to invest in one right away. The easiest way is to create a resource about your product idea and share it with your target users — they'll give their honest feedback and help you see if a concept can be accepted or not.

Use these questions to guide you:

What is your initial reaction? 

This question helps to reveal how audiences initially feel about the concept while also allowing them to give detailed responses that can help point out aspects that need greater attention. 

If it were to be created, how likely are you to recommend the product to your peers?

The answers given to this question enables you to gain an insight on how effective the concept is at engaging users and capturing their interests. 

Are there any features or benefits you would suggest adding or removing from the concept? 

This can help uncover potential flaws and also provide additional ideas which may even improve on the idea. 

What do you think makes this different from similar products/concepts already existing in today’s market? 

Audiences’ answers highlight unique elements and strengths of the idea over competitors but can also identify areas where improvements should be made for better user experience. 

What features of the concept most appealed to you?

This allows you to understand which aspects resonated best with audiences and why they preferred them over others.

If you were to buy this product, how much would you be comfortable to spend? 

This can be a tricky or easy question depending on whom you are asking. If you are asking someone who has used a product similar to what you are suggesting, then they are likely to get you a quality answer. But if you are asking someone who is hearing about such a product for the first time, they might struggle trying to put a price on it. This is because the standard market pricing is normally taken through a process that considers so many factors, and the ordinary user may not have access to such resources. To make it easier, give price options and let the participants pick a preferred price point. 

Make it easy for the participants to answer the questions by giving them options to choose instead of requiring them to overthink. You can assign anywhere between three to five options to each question. When analyzing the answers, take each question and tally the number of participants that have chosen a particular option then use percentages to rank them.  

Besides these questions, provide room for those participants who want to provide feedback beyond just the questions. This includes providing a text area where one can write freely, provision for attachments including videos and live interview sessions for those who are willing. 

The quality of the results from this exercise will depend greatly on the quality of the participants. So take time to carefully choose who should participate in testing your ideas. 

iv. Pick the best idea

Now you have all the backing to pick out the winning idea for your product… If you conducted all the previous steps correctly, then this should be a fast and simple stage. You may decide to just go with one, or combine the top two or three. 

IMPORTANT: Even ideas that don't win can offer up useful feedback gems that can be incorporated into development — so don't just discard them all at once, there may be something valuable in there!

This is generally the ideation phase. The  next steps can be categorized further to three broad phases namely planning,  execution and post execution phases. The planning phase runs up to stage 3 (Design), the execution phase begins from stage 4 all the way to stage 6, while the maintenance stage forms the post-execution phase. 

Stage 2: Terms and requirements

If the customer wants to outsource the project, then they are going to reach out to multiple software development companies until they find one that they like. They’ll then meet the chosen software development company's product owner or project manager. They will discuss terms, sign a deal and activate the project.

Further Reading: Outsourcing software development vs. In-house development

Even if the product is being created in-house, this is a pivotal stage — whether you're a single developer, an entrepreneur, or a small business.

The customer and the product owner will meet to plan the requirements for the product. Here are some common, basic examples of such requirements.

  • Landing page
  • Registration
  • Login
  • Logout
  • User profile area
  • Account settings
  • Both web and app version of the product
  • Etc.  

They can also agree that new requirements will be evaluated and accommodated as they emerge. 

It is essential to identify all requirements here. Even a single developer, entrepreneur or small business must assemble an extensive list of requirements. This is the key thing to remember in this stage! 

Requirements analysis

In the requirements analysis phase, the developers, product owners and software testers will hold sessions to define each listed requirement and plan it out in finer detail. For instance, under registration, they would need a username field, password field, terms of agreement box with a checkbox to accept the terms and a submission button. The ability to save the details in a database will also be necessary. This exercise will be done for all items on the list.

Once everything has been analyzed and planned accordingly, the product owner will use the defined requirements to generate tickets in a project management system. With that done, let’s move on to the design phase.

Stage 3: Design

In the design stage, we take all the defined requirements and plan the product. This could include aspects such as business rules, the user interface layout, color schemes, what programming languages to use, frameworks, server design, database relationships, architecture of the product, mobile aspects, supported browsers, etc. 

All these items can be categorized into two components: technical design and user experience design. Technical design is usually done by a system architect or engineer, who produces a design document that describes how the product will work in detail. The design document is then used as the basis for creating actual code modules. On the other hand, the user experience design involves taking into account the needs and wants of users, as well as the constraints of the system in which the application will be used. 

The main purpose of a designer is to make the product easy to use, balancing both functionality and visual esthetics.

Stage 4: Development

This is the stage where everything starts to become fun. It starts by the operations team setting the development environment including all the resources required for development work to start.

Developers will start writing the code. Designers will continue planning the user flow. The testers will start building test cases for their test plans — they start to imagine the usability of the application and see how everything flows together. Sometimes while writing test cases they can discover things that don't make sense and help redesign fundamental flaws in the early stages of the product. 

Overall, these are the key roles that will bring this stage to life:

Designers

Responsible for creating visually engaging graphical user interfaces to improve user experience.  Additionally, designers help to develop feature specifications that match business objectives and achieve the desired outcomes from end-users. 

Coders

Responsible for writing the code. They must have an in-depth understanding of computing languages, methodologies, algorithms, data structures, and other programming elements. They also need to have excellent problem-solving skills, since coding often involves evaluating options and coming up with creative solutions. Coders also need good communication ability so they can work effectively with other team members such as UX designers and software testers.

Testers  

Responsible for ensuring that the final product works without detrimental glitches.They take the software through rigorous testing procedures before it is released to the public, reviewing everything from individual components to larger systems. They bring a critical eye to design changes throughout development, working closely with designers and developers to identify any issues that need to be addressed before the product launch. Their attention to detail leads them to uncover key insights about user experience that might otherwise remain unnoticed.

Project manager

Responsible for keeping the team on track, ensuring requirements are being met and communicating progress to stakeholders. Project managers are often the bridge between management, customers, and developers; they must be able to not only recognize potential problems but also develop strategies to solve them. It's up to the project manager to ensure that everyone adheres by the established timescales and standards of excellence. It's a demanding job requiring specific skill sets but it can ultimately make or break the success of the product.

Product owner

Acts as the link between stakeholders and developers. They ensure that all requirements are met and make sure that the results fulfill the needs of all stakeholders involved. It's a huge responsibility which requires a deep understanding of the project demands, its purpose, and the technology employed. At their best, product owners are able to identify potential problems early on in development before too much time or money has been wasted.

Also Read: How to outsource software development

Stage 5: Testing

Why is testing so important? Let's use a simple example — say developers have coded the log in and log out features, but when a user logs out, their session doesn't end. This means someone could get hold of the «logged-out» user's device, click the login button and have access to their account. Now imagine if the product we are working on is a money transfer app for a bank. It'd be terrible if the product is released with this bug — someone could gain access to another customer's account and start transferring their money! That's why it's essential to catch these issues beforehand; even one missing comma in code can disrupt the whole product! 

So, what does a tester actually do during the testing phase? After developers finish coding a product or feature, they invite testers to log in and start executing the test cases they created earlier on. The main objective is to verify that all requirements have been met, make sure all the features are working as expected and identify as many bugs as possible. All errors found by developers are then reported into a bug tracking system, which is then assigned to the developers to rectify the bugs. Once developers are done fixing these bugs, they assign them back to testers to make sure everything is now functioning properly. This continued testing process follows its own lifecycle known as the bug life cycle and it can be lengthy or short depending on the product. The testers must be thorough and utilize test cases and test plans for guidance.

It's impossible to completely eradicate bugs, and we have seen that bug resolution is an ongoing process. So, testing at this level aims to guarantee that the product is suitable for deployment. Will it function once released? Is anything likely to break? Could there be any surprises? These are some of the questions the testers will focus on.

There are two main types of testing: functional and non-functional. Functional testing is more technical and checks the functionality of features, with common subcategories including unit testing, integration testing, system testing, regression testing, user acceptance testing and more.

  • Unit testing: Isolates small sections of code in order to identify any problems
  • Integration testing: A verification of how interconnected components are functioning. 
  • System testing: Checks software as a whole to make sure it works properly and does what it was designed for. 
  • Regression testing: Determines if changes made caused unexpected results or introduced new issues.
  • User acceptance testing: Requires users to assess the product’s features and functionality against their predetermined requirements.

Non-functional testing is anything beyond the functional line — things like scalability, security, availability, mobility and autonomy.

Consider utilizing automation where possible to quicken the testing stage.

Stage 6: Deployment

Once all components are tested, approved and fine-tuned, the product or feature is ready for packaging and shipping. 

The operations team will mirror the staging or development environment that we've been testing in and get them ready for production. They could for example install new hardware such as brand new servers (if not using serverless technology), and have everything scalable for production. This also includes things like setting up the databases for real users, syncing up with the development teams and release managers. 

Before the product is released, it goes through a process called beta-testing. This entails giving a select number of users access to try out the product, so that their feedback can be used to make necessary upgrades and enhancements. Alternatively, you can also choose to make the product available to all users as a beta version, which will give you a more comprehensive range of feedback.

Once they've completed all of these tasks our product will be deployed in the production environment and go live to real users.

Check these items when deploying:

  • Backup: Be sure to create a backup of the entire product or feature prior to deployment, so you can restore it if any errors come up.
  • Business environment: How is the business climate? Are people feeling mostly optimistic about the economy? If you launch a product during an economic downturn in your target market, it could cause you to get off to a slow start and end up with less-than-ideal results.
  • Politics stability: Politics can have an effect on the reception of your product in the market. If the political environment is unstable, then it may be wise to wait until it calms down before launching.
  • License: Ensure that you have the necessary licenses to use and distribute the software.

Stage 7: Support & maintenance

Wow, we've released our product and it's doing so well — we're getting hundreds of thousands of users registering daily! We must make sure we don't disappoint the.  We need to constantly monitor the servers so that more users can use our product without issues. This also means we might need to increase the capacity. Or maybe even improving speed if necessary. Maintenance is a big part of keeping things going — there might be bugs in production, or user emails with issues that we have to look into. That's what maintenance is all about!

The early days are key here, when users’ enthusiasm for the product (or their frustration at it) is very vocal — it’s one of the few times you’ll be able to capture such an accurate snapshot of the user experience. This feedback will prove invaluable in determining how the product should evolve in future iterations or versions – not only solving user issues now but also shaping future features that may otherwise have been overlooked.

More activities that normally characterize the maintenance stage:

  • Bug fixes: Developers fix any issues or defects that are discovered in the product.
  • Updates and patches: Developers may release updates to add new features, improve performance, or fix security vulnerabilities with patches.
  • Performance optimization: The product may be fine-tuned to improve performance and efficiency.
  • User support: Constant support to users who are experiencing issues with the product.
  • Documentation updates: Documentation may be updated to reflect changes.
  • Retirement: The current product may be retired and replaced with a newer version at some point during the maintenance phase.

In summary, these are the stages of the Product Development Process:

IDEATION STAGE

  • Ideation

PLANNING STAGE

  • Terms & regulations
  • Design

EXECUTION STAGE

  • Development
  • Testing
  • Deployment

POST-EXECUTION STAGE

  • Maintenance

Best practices to aid the product development life cycle

Pricing

Choose a pricing strategy that enables profitable sales while considering other important aspects such as scalability.

Documentation

Always provide a clear and concise overview of the product, its features, updates and how it works.

Continuous feedback review

Regularly assess feedback from customer or users and make the changes wanted for long-term success.

Continuous performance optimization

A product that is constantly being optimized will use fewer resources, such as memory and CPU, which can lead to cost savings for the organization. It's also less likely to experience issues or crashes, which can improve its reliability.

Goals

Identify short- and long-term goals as soon as possible; this creates a common understanding of objectives, reduces potential surprises, and ensures alignment over time. It also helps in deciding which sprints should or should not be taken on, preventing conflicts between different departments.

Encourage innovation

Promote ownership of tasks so team members can be proud of their work. Let everyone feel part of a greater cause.

Engage management

The active engagement of the company's top personnel gives clarity on roles, deadlines, financial limitations, and project objectives—all of which play a major role. Moreover, management can supply invaluable guidance related to the overall aims each team is working towards. But for management to get involved at a deeper level, they need to be just as familiar with the product as the development team is.

Knowledge base 

The expert developers need to make all information about the product available to everyone in the organization. Not only should it be accessible, but also reusable. Ask them to create resource centers with detailed information about the entire product. This is especially pertinent when the development team is outsourced, as it may be difficult to get their full attention after they complete the project.

Use agile methodologies

Agile development methodologies, such as Scrum, Crystal, lean software development, and FDD, enable teams to swiftly adjust to changes and deliver working products promptly.

Cost

Keep tabs on the budget and remain within the agreed cost of development, else the project can stall. 

Also Read: Agile compared to traditional software development

Conclusion

We strongly encourage all companies, developers and even solo entrepreneurs to follow this tried and true process to achieve the best results. From ideation to maintenance, each stage here plays a crucial role in the overall success of the product. 

Remember, new requirements will come through. Please start the whole process all over again for each set of new features and requirements that need to be added to the product. 

When resources, make the right improvements to wow your users, give more value, add more interesting features. Focus on what is already working well and build upon it. After all, the users already love some elements of the product – so tailor improvements to their existing preferences and needs to create an even more improved user experience that keeps them coming back for more. 

Don't let feature-creep be the enemy of your success — strike the right balance between more features and better value. Take the time to really understand the users' wants and needs, then incorporate those into unique experiences.

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