Have you ever bought a product that you expected to be great, but when you used it you were really disappointed?
I know why this happens. I know because I've built awesome products that nobody wanted. In fact, I've done it enough times to know that when it happens, it usually comes down to the same problem: The product was nothing more than a great collection of features.
Product Features vs. Solutions
- A feature is something the product does.
- A solution is something the customer needs.
When you read those most basic definitions, the gap between builder and customer becomes a lot easier to see. We builders have a tendency to build what we envision. And when we don't check that vision with the customer, we end up with a product that does a lot of very cool things — none of which the customer wants.
That's when you realize that the word “feature” is just a term we use to cover up that mistake. Then you can't unsee it.
Poor Solutions Are Passed Off as Amazing Features Everywhere
I see this happen in marketing messaging all the time. I get emails with subject lines that shout: Try our new golf VR coach!” No, thanks.
Instead of touting this accomplishment for the company, that message should be speaking directly to me. I'm much more likely to open an email that suggests that I might: Take 2.7 strokes off your next round.”
It's not just a consumer-driven issue either. It's in the questions I get from super intelligent entrepreneurs who are doing world-shaking things. They tell me they just announced an incredible new product to a lot of curated, ready-to-buy prospects and got complete silence back. Then I go to their website which describes their product as: “The world's first multi-partitioned SCOOP-based micro server that can output JSON-based crux reports.”
Or something like that — I just wrote nonsense words. (Well, JSON is a real thing.) I even see this “feature-creep” in the advice I see given to startups: “Ask customers what they think of your new feature before you build it.”
I wouldn't bother asking customers and prospects whether or not they wanted a feature. I know I'm parsing here, but because I've seen it go the other way too many times, I would instead ask: “What do you need to solve your problem?”
Avoid Forcing the Customer to Translate a Feature Into a Solution
I've learned from experience that when you put a feature in front of a customer and ask them if they think it will solve their problem, the answer will go one of two ways:
They won't take the time to understand how the feature might solve their problem, so they tell you that it won't.
They will take the time to come to a rudimentary understanding and then tell you whatever they think you want to hear, because translating feature-to-solution isn't their job.
On the other hand, when you ask them what they need to solve their problem, it will force you to consider the impossible — and that's where the money is. When you remove the translation barriers from the question and give them a blank slate, you open doors.
When I first developed Teaching Startup — answers on demand for entrepreneurs — I didn't ask a bunch of entrepreneurs if asking questions and getting answers would make them better entrepreneurs. I hadn't even thought about that, much less built it. (Also, that's already built. It’s called Quora.)
Instead, I asked them what was the most important and valuable part of working with an advisor. Their answers led me to build a lot of things, but one was a set of features that supported an affordable, repeatable, scalable way to capture the value of entrepreneurs’ questions and advisors’ answers. Any one of those features isn't worth talking about. But together, they created a solution that had value.
There are a few more rules in the “don't” category that support that point.
Don’t Just Build a Features Roadmap, Build a Solutions Roadmap Too.
If you keep adding features around a broken thesis, you'll spend a lot of time and money giving customers features they don't want. Create a solutions roadmap that tells the story of the product from the perspective of the customer. It should guide your features roadmap, in that it will prioritize features by how much value they deliver to the maximum number of customers.
Don’t Measure Feature Usage. Measure Customer Success.
If your customers can't live without your product, it doesn't matter if they use it once or hundred times. Don't just track when they use it and for how long. Instead, develop metrics that tell you whether or not they find the product useful. And don't rely on any metric that you can't tie directly back to revenue.
Don’t Get Feedback on Features. Get Feedback on Value.
Going back to our golf VR coach feature, if you're doing a pop-up rating request, don't ask: “How do you like using the VR Coach?”
Instead, ask: “Has the VR coach improved your game?”
Not only are you getting solutions feedback, but you're making the customer reflect on the value of the product. I can quit a slick tool that's fun to use, but I'll be damned if I’m going to quit a tool that's helping me improve.
Don’t Pivot on Feature Feedback. Evolve the Solution.
The last question you shouldn't ask is about the future: “What features would you like to see next in the product?”
I can give you a long list of startups — even established companies — that have wasted time, money and customer credibility trying to shoehorn someone else’s hot new feature into their solution.
With Teaching Startup, for example, I got a lot of advice (not from customers) to add one-to-one video when Zoom was on its way to becoming ubiquitous and before everyone started hating it. I got the same suggestion for a Discord-style server feature. And another one for Clubhouse’s audio social network feature. While all those features are cool, none of them really fit the mission of Teaching Startup, and all of them would go completely against the grain of its value proposition.
I'm perfectly happy to let someone else offer a network of startup advisors that you can hold video sessions with. Until I can find a way to distill value on both sides of that equation — where it’s affordable for the entrepreneur and worth doing for the advisor — that feature doesn't add any value at all.
Instead, ask: “What problem do you have that we're not solving?” Again, the answers may range from crazy to impossible. But there will be at least one in there that will give you the right direction. And there will be a few more that will turn into experiments to attempt.
At the very least, it'll help you create real value for your customers — and keep you from building “fantastic” new features that nobody wants.