May 1, 2023 | Engineering

Continuous innovation via feature flags in software development

Continuous innovation via feature flags in software development

Picture a jazz ensemble with musicians skillfully weaving together improvised melodies. Much like these artists, software product teams adeptly use feature flags to orchestrate a harmonious development process. Feature flags empower them to experiment, make real-time adjustments, and seamlessly blend new functionality with existing rhythms. In this dance of innovation, they strike the perfect balance, creating a symphony of continuous improvement that captivates users and drives success. 

What is feature flagging? 

Feature flagging is a technique that involves wrapping new features or functionality within conditional statements, allowing developers to turn them on or off at runtime without redeploying the entire application. This method provides product teams with several advantages, including the ability to perform gradual rollouts, target specific user segments, and more effectively manage the release process. 

feature flagging chart

Why use feature flags?

By leveraging feature flags, product teams can deploy code in production to limited audiences, which offers several important benefits: 

  1. Risk mitigation: Deploying features to a small subset of users initially allows teams to identify and address potential issues before rolling out to a broader audience. This approach reduces the risk of widespread negative impact, ensuring that only well-tested and stable features reach most users. 
  2. User feedback: Gaining early feedback from users enables product teams to refine their features and make improvements based on real-world usage. This iterative process helps ensure that the final product meets users' needs and expectations, resulting in a higher-quality user experience. 
  3. Faster time to market: Feature flags allow teams to deploy features more quickly by eliminating the need for lengthy integration and testing phases. By deploying code in production to a limited audience, they can validate functionality and performance in a live environment, shortening the development cycle and accelerating time to market. 

Feature flagging can also simplify and reduce the number of deployment environments required in the software development process. Traditionally, teams use multiple environments (such as development, staging, and production) to test and validate new features before deployment. 

Feature flags enable teams to test and experiment with new functionality directly in the production environment—and in some cases will negate the need for separate staging environments (this is commonly referred to as trunk-based development). 

trunk-based development

Fine-tuning the user experience

While it’s not possible for every team to follow this methodology, eliminating staging and other non-production environments can lead to a much simpler development process and save money on hosting costs. And since staging environments often differ from production environments in terms of configuration and scale, testing in production provides the most realistic and reliable understanding of how new features will perform. 

In perfect harmony, high-performing product teams utilize feature flags like virtuoso jazz musicians, skillfully improvising their way to innovation. This dynamic approach enables them to fine-tune user experiences, mitigate risks, and swiftly bring ideas to life—ensuring their software hits all the right notes in an ever-evolving technological symphony. 

The Conduit: A Product & Tech Blog

Sharing cutting edge ideas, stories, and solutions shaping design, engineering, product, and beyond. View more idea sparks here.

Adam Lutz

Adam is a senior engineering lead in West Monroe’s product experience & engineering practice.

Action is everything. We deliver ideas. We move fast. We create for today, tomorrow, and beyond.

Want to get in on the action? Contact us.​