What are the phases of digital product development?

Scott Batchelor

A complete understanding of the development process is crucial to launching successful digital products. 

Whilst 80% of companies are trying to transform digitally and expand their portfolio of products, only 14% show success. This can be attributed to a lack of understanding of each development phase and the realistic outcomes of each.

Without a basic understanding of the development process, businesses are left trying to decipher confusing industry jargon to understand how development partners would help them achieve success. Because of this, only 10% of digital product ideas deliver value to their end-users. 

What do we mean by digital products?

To put it simply, digital products are those which are only accessible by electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, computers and laptops. They have no physical form and are often a shared resource for massive customer bases.

Mobile applications, websites, PWAs, ERP systems, ebooks and videos can all be considered examples of digital products.

To own a digital product you can either hold the full rights to the original work or code, or you can hold a license to use the software without limits for an allotted amount of time.

Product Development vs Product Design

Product development refers to the complete product lifecycle. 

Technology suppliers who work in product development take businesses through every part of the development process, from the initial market analysis to the iterative improvements made post-launch. 

A key distinction of product development is the creation of a detailed digital product strategy that represents a shared source of truth between the client and supplier. This document, created as part of the discovery phase outlines the vision, direction, priorities, and progress of a product over time. 

Product design refers only to the phase in which the blueprints for a product are created. Businesses undergoing product design should have already completed a thorough market analysis, with a full understanding of what is required for the creation of a successful minimum viable product MVP.

It is worth noting that without the other components of the product life cycle (particularly the market analysis and research phase), the result of any independent product design phase is likely to fail. 

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Agile Product Development

Due to the flexibility, reduced time to market and overall quality of product it offers, many development partners (including ourselves) now opt for agile delivery methods. 

Agile ensures that products are developed iteratively, with full and complete consideration to development rather than just design.

Foundation Sprint

In the Foundation Sprint, a thorough Discovery exercise is completed to answer as many questions as possible, including your business goals, audience profile and competitive landscape. This information is used to define success metrics and target users, guiding both technical and product decisions.

Solution Sprint 

The Solution Sprint is where the details of the product are worked out: What does it look like, how does it make users’ lives easier, and who are the stakeholders that should be involved in working on this solution. Once users, their problems and the high-level concept for your product have been mapped out, product development agencies use this sprint to build process maps, clickable wireframes and refine your product backlog.

Delivery Sprints

Building products users love is an iterative process. Working in 2-week sprints, developers work to deliver against the agreed initial priority items within the backlog. Following dual-track Agile principles, product teams continue to refine the product and backlog as the delivery of the solution begins. This allows user and stakeholder feedback to continuously evolve your product for the better.

Deployment Sprint

Stable. Seamless. Secure. These three things are essential when it comes to deploying software and applications. The Deployment Sprint is where the product is released across several teams and systems to ensure that it is successful. The goal of the deployment sprint is to ensure that we can run the correct processes across development, staging and production environments with an agreed handover process.

What are the phases of digital product development_

Product Launch

This is the phase you've been building up to since Pre-Discovery- you are now ready to unveil your new digital product to the masses. That being said, there are still things to consider: 

First, you need to decide with your supplier whether you want to opt for a private or beta launch before going public. There will always be bugs or unplanned use cases in a first version, and opening your application to a smaller subsection of your audience first can help give your product a stable public launch. It is difficult to win back users after a high-profile launch failure.

During this phase technology partners will also monitor and judge the success of your application against your core business goals and the KPIs set in discovery. This ensures that your product is actively improving the areas it was designed to.

The Discovery Phase

Regardless of whether you opt for agile or waterfall product development, some processes are standard for ensuring fully functional and successful products are created through product development.

Discovery (which is sometimes called Sprint Zero, or the analysis phase) is an extensive research process that precedes every build we undertake. It exists to align expectations, create a thorough understanding of the project and ensure that both parties are aware of the challenges involved in the creation of an MVP. 

It is essential to complete a discovery phase when developing digital products as it provides proof that your idea is fit for the market. In fact, according to the CBI, 17% of all startups fail on the basis that their idea has not been thought out or tested properly.

First, concept analysis is completed to determine how much business potential your idea has. Suppliers test demand, paid model feasibility and long-term value forecasting. This is followed by market analysis, in which a deep understanding of your audience and competitors are built.

Once the background research has been completed, requirements gathering begins. In this part of discovery, features and functionalities are carefully mapped and all of the different tools required to create a fully functioning app are accounted for.

The next phase of Discovery is wireframing. Here, the basic user experience of the app is laid out, allowing you to see where the functionalities of the project lie as well as how they are connected. Once these wireframes have been tested and approved, they are converted into functional UI prototypes.

By the end of the discovery phase, your idea has been market-tested, KPIs have been set and you have seen how, in principle, your application will look and work. This allows you to move into the development phase with full confidence in your project's success.

For a detailed guide on Discovery (and why it’s important) read our full insight here.

The Development Phase

Following the discovery process, suppliers move into the development phase. Using the UI/UX designs and market research from discovery, teams of developers work collaboratively to produce a fully functional version of your application idea.

Depending on the development methodology you agreed during discovery, the team will either work in smaller sprints (generally as part of an agile process) in which you review after each functionality has been built, or you will receive a fully functional V1 App making tweaks once complete (more common in waterfall). 

For a full rundown of different development methodologies, read our insight ‘Lean vs Agile vs Waterfall: Which Project Management Methodology is Best?’

By the end of the development phase, your supplier will have developed the product itself. The source code will be complete and you are almost ready for launch.

The Testing Phase

Before you can take your product to market it is crucial that you properly and thoroughly test it.  

According to research from Jakob Nielsen, User Advocate and Principle of the Nielsen Norman Group, up to 85% of core usability problems can be found by observing just five people using the product

If issues are not rectified prior to launch, your product’s uptake, reviews and overall success are all affected. This has a knock-on effect on your ability to effectively market your new product, establish a concurrent user base and ultimately could cause the product to fail.

At this stage, not only will QA teams test the application for bugs and errors, but the source code will be compiled and made available for internal and external testing.

The testing phase will help flag any errors within the current functionality and ensure that the developer fixes them before launching, giving you the confidence that your MVP is robust and stable. Once the testing phase is completed, the app is made live and available publicly.

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Supporting & Improving Digital Products

Having completed each of the phases of digital product development, you should now have a live app that your target audience has started using. At this point, you will move into the final phase – Support.

However, regardless of how much testing has occurred during the previous phase, there will always be something unexpected that occurs, be it from usage by a very old device, an OS update or a change to the server infrastructure. These issues need to be addressed as they happen to maintain quality of service.

At this stage, you can also go back to your product roadmap from discovery and begin to think about adding additional features. This should always be informed by user research and is a crucial step in ensuring that your product maintains relevancy for your user base amongst a changing marketplace. Additional functionalities will require further design sprints (and additional funding), but some suppliers will be able to guide you through the raise process.

The support phase is built around flexibility. Whether you want a long-term partnership in which your supplier constantly iterates upon your idea, or a service level agreement where only basic maintenance is completed, terms and conditions for ongoing support can be agreed upon prior to starting a contract.

Do You Need a Digital Product Agency?

The digital marketplace provides incredible opportunities. It has massively and consistently grown alongside the availability of personal technology and is now an integral part of the strategy of many businesses. But do you need to work with an agency?

For the vast majority of businesses that do not have the necessity for a full in-house team agencies provide the best option.

Product Development agencies are experienced in launching successful products and already have the resources necessary to ensure budget and time requirements are met and hold a deep understanding of the digital landscape.

For a full run-down on the different options for digital product development, read our insight ‘Your Complete Guide to App Development Costs in 2021


Looking for a delivery partner that will work with you to identify, create and launch innovative technology products whilst providing clear ROI and long-term competitive advantage? Read our case studies or get in touch today.

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