More Features Or Better Usability – The Product Manager’s Dilemma

by drjim on August 15, 2016

Sure, more is better, but would easier be better than more?

Sure, more is better, but would easier be better than more?
Image Credit: Chris RubberDragon

As product managers we are driven people. We want our product to be #1 in its marketplace. What this means is that when our potential customers go shopping, we want them to take a look at our product and see that it is clearly the one that they want – no other product even comes close! However, to get to where we want to be we have to keep making improvements to our product development definition and the big question that we keep facing is what kind of product improvements do our customers really want us to make?

More Features!

Our product is probably not the only solution on the market – if it is, congratulation, you’ve got a monopoly on your hands. What this means for you as a product manager is that you always have to be keeping an eye on your competition. What are they doing? How are they doing it? What features and capabilities are they stressing in both their advertising and their documentation?

There is, of course, another side to all of this feature talk. What do your customers really care about? When you talk with them, is there a set of features that they are asking for? Does your product currently have these features or at least a way to accomplish what they want to do with these features? Guess right and you’ll have something to add to your product manager resume. One of the more impressive software products that is currently available is called Photoshop. This image manipulation program sure seems like it can do just about anything a skilled graphic artist wants it to do.

The problem with Photoshop (from my point-of-view) is simply that it can do too much! It has features on top of features. I’ve tried to learn how to use this complex piece of software several times and each time I’ve given up because it seemed like it was just too much to try to remember. Sure more features will make your product look better in comparison to the other products that are out there, but you have to be careful that your potential customers don’t get a case of “feature overload”.

Better Usability!

Product usability means that when customers use your product they have a better experience. The problem with improving your product’s usability is that the staff that will be working on usability will be the same staff that would otherwise be working on adding new features. This means that there is going to be a cost to adding usability to your product.

When you add a new feature to your product, you instantly have something to brag to your existing and potential customers about. It’s not the same case when you are dealing with usability. Improving the usability of your product is a bit more subtle. If you do it correctly, your existing customers will be thrilled – their lives will have become better. However, your potential customers won’t have any way of telling that you’ve improved your product.

The real power of boosting the usability of your product comes from the word-of-mouth that it will cause. Your existing customers will talk with potential customers and if you’ve got your usability story correct, then they’ll brag about just how easy it is to use your product to accomplish the tasks that they are trying to get done. This is a powerful message that can make your product the one that gets selected when it comes time to make a purchasing decision. The challenge for you as a product manager is that it can be very hard to measure the impact that your usability features are having on your product’s success.

What All Of This Means For You

Product managers are always trying to make their product be the one that is the most appealing to potential customers — this is part of our product manager job description. In order to make this happen, they have two different paths that can go when they are making changes to their product: they can add new features or they can improve the product’s usability.

Adding new features to a product is an easy decision to make. When you add a new feature, all of a sudden your product does something that potentially one or more of your competitors does not do. Improving the product’s usability is a little more subtle. Your existing customers will benefit immediately but your potential customers probably won’t be able to detect the change.

The right answer for a product manager is probably to balance the two different types of changes. Yes, add new features so that you’ll have something to brag about to your potential customers. However, at the same time add some usability improvements also so that the product just keeps getting better and better for your existing customers. Get this mix correct and your product should grow to dominate its market!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: What do you think is the right mix of new features to usability improvements in a release?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

So how do you feel about the snack foods made by the Hostess company: Twinkies, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, etc.? I must confess that these days I get a little overwhelmed when I think about just how rich they are; however, in my childhood I suspect that I ate more than my fair share! The Hostess company has had a rough few years, but now they are back. Their product managers have the task of trying to figure out where the company needs to go now.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Donny August 15, 2016 at 11:27 am

I can’t agree with this one. I just don’t see features and usability as being mutually exclusive.
Focusing on the most important problem to solve – the one identified through careful research, knowledge of the market, and work with target users (both client and non-clients) will determine the most appropriate path. If you spend your time creating the application or service that users and buyers are delighted by, you won’t have a problem selling them on a new, more usable experience.
In fact, treating them as separate has it’s own dangers: In the battle of features vs. usability, features always win when the sales organizations are only capable of selling to feature lists. When features win, you run into the bloat that you talk about with Photoshop. That makes it all the more important to consider improvement to the product as a single prioritizable path, one which carries buyer and user justification to ensure there’s buy-in from across an organization. Then you sell the improved outcome to your prospects and clients.
In 15 years I have never had a problem talking about an improved experience to prospective clients because the focus is on the outcome that solves a problem.

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drjim August 16, 2016 at 9:22 pm

Donny: good points. It can be hard to focus on boosting your usability when you have existing customers clambering for new features just for them.

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