More rinsing: Is it a product or a feature?

As we talk about product-market fit or unmet customer needs, we often alight on a different question than ‘is there a problem to solve?’, which is ‘who is the right person to solve this problem?’ and ‘can solving this problem be a point of difference for my business?’.

This can seem like a subtlety but it’s critical.

As you’ll see by looking at the wheels on my car, I have an urgent need for an app that lets me avoid width restrictions (and, perhaps, parking lessons). But this is a feature that I need Waze (or possibly Apple Maps) to implement. It can’t be a whole new app (unless it also, magically, does everything Waze does). In some products, this sort of thing is (usually badly) resolved by plug-ins. But most of the time, it’s a reality which needs to be considered above and beyond CSPAAR, or whatever technique you are using, unless of course, you are building your app with the sole intention of selling it to another firm (e.g. Waze).

It’s about more than just product thinking, there is a related and really important marketing question, about ‘consideration’.

Say you have a well established app for (e.g.) controlling your home central heating. It has all the features needed by consumers to do the basics but you’re the product manager, and you want it to be even more valuable. Someone in senior management has told you that you need to look for ‘synergies’ or to ‘expand your ecosystem’ (and probably, ‘dream big’). Someone with a slightly dead look in their eyes from finance feels sure you can improve your ‘engagement’ or – this is what they really mean – average revenue per user.

So which feature are you adding to your product? Clearly it needs to solve a consumer need. But it also needs to solve a need the consumer will consider you for. So, if you’re the maker of the thermometer app, the seven-day whether forecast is not a good idea – the consumer already knows how to do that in another app. But neither is a tool to work out what proportion of your finances are spent on energy (using open banking, no doubt), or even to search for a cheaper gas supplier.

(Incidentally, if you are reading this, and happen to be the product manager for the Nest app, you need to make the app load in under a second and stay logged in before you tackle any other feature on you back log).

So, we walk a precarious tight-rope in both the early stages of product development – where we need a bundle of features that sit together well, but also form a whole that can stand on its own – and also later on, where we’re adding to an existing product with new features designed to make it better.

On that first point, there is another trap, which I’ve talked about before. If you’re just starting out, 10 mediocre ideas jumbled together is no match for one good idea done well. It’s a very natural instinct if the core idea is weak, to try and bolster it with other stuff but it never works, because the padding actually detracts from the core idea (in terms of focus of the team, user experience, clarity of product proposition). If you feel your idea is too weak on its own, it’s too weak. Keep looking.

The good news is that in most cases, it’s relatively easy to check your plans out before executing them. So long as the ideas are presented in the right way, consumers and businesses will tell you when you’re adding features they wouldn’t really consider you for. You can then decide if you want to challenge that consideration (expensive), or start looking again. With real testing (meaning not focus groups, but testing-as-real) you can find out whether consumer will really install your app or sign up for your site to solve problem X. Make sure you don’t overthink the outcome. It’s easy to convince yourself that a tweak here and a nip there will change the outcome when the problem is a lot more fundamental.