Soft Launch VS. Big Blowout – A Design Perspective

Every library gets to experience the excitement of developing or acquiring some new product, technology or service. Once most  of the hard work of design and implementation is completed, the fun part happens – letting it loose on the user community. But what’s the best way to do that? The field of instructional systems design make a real science out of this process, and it can involve everything from developing a budget for a release campaign to using a variety of methods to disseminate information about the new – whatever it is – among the community. But I’d like to consider just two possibilities for the product launch: the soft launch and the big blowout.

You might be asking, “Who cares?” or “What does it matter?” It might not make a difference if we knew exactly how our user community would respond or if we were so convinced that our new product or service was going to be a hit that we didn’t need to care about how we released it to the community. But we typically don’t know, so in the face of uncertainty we need to carefully consider our strategies. It’s a bad idea to leave a new product introduction to chance. Library organizations need to make the most of these opportunties – they come around infrequently.

Apple is a good example of a company that uses the big blowout strategy to powerful affect. They use the MacWorld conference as the place and time to launch their newest and biggest products and software. Steve Jobs’ presentation is considered the highlight of the event, and raises incredible anticipation about what Apple will do next. The iPhone was introduced during a big blowout event, and this was months before it was available. It was a huge hype-generating campaign, and it achieved exactly what it was intended to – massive technophile interest. But there are thousands of other products and services that go public in a different way. Mainstream movies are often first viewed in limited screenings so the producers can guage audience reactions and decide if the first iteration needs revision. They might remake the first scenes or the ending, based on audience reaction.

So what if anything can libraries learn about the relative merits of big blowouts or soft launches. There’s no question that far more buzz can be generated with a big blowout. The introduction of a federated search product or a newly renovated section of the building can generate lots of hoopla. It might even serve as the core of a new branding exercise. But for a new service that might be less well understood, an institutional repository for example, a soft launch may provide more opportunity to get the word out to users who can help to make or break a new product or service. There’s no question that the soft launch is a safer method, because if there is uncertainty about the product or service’s quality the soft launch can allow more opportunity for tweaks.

From a design perspective I tend to prefer the soft launch. While prototyping can help to refine the product or service to the point where it’s ready for the launch, there’s no doubt that a few details were probably overlooked or something obviously in error isn’t being seen; sometimes only the end users can capture those faults. A subtle mention in the library blog or throwing up a link on the home page, along with targeted messages to core stakeholders, makes the soft launch a far less complex process and it keeps the pressure for success at a lower level. None of this activity need preclude a more hyped announcement after the soft launch has accomplished its task.

Does my approach sound too risk adverse? It might be. I can understand why big corporations need big blowouts, and I am not sure libraries can accrue the same benefits. I think there might be better ways and different events to keep the library at the forefront of the user’s mind in a landscape crowded with hype and big announcements. Perhaps the bottom line for making a choice depends on local strategies for designing a better library. Which approach, the soft launch or big blowout, does a better job of fitting into the overall design scheme? From my perspective the soft launch contributes more to the users’ library experience in the long run through better design of library services and practices. There’s no question the big blowout can deliver better on the WoW Factor though, and that’s something to consider. Timing can be a factor as well. I think it always benefits the library to have something significant to announce at the start of a new academic year in order to generate some buzz – and to demonstrate the library is no static operation – but is it worth it to rush the release of something new before it’s ready for primetime? It can be a tough call. What method do you prefer to use at your library?

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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