It’s not about the Features.

Over at the On Product Management blog, I came across this post by Saeed on why prioritizing features is not the same as product management. Rightly said, and something that should be drilled into anyone aspiring to a career in product management. In practice, time and again, product development teams (and product managers, with them) get swept away by a focus on features. This is sometimes done to the exclusion of attention on market or customer requirements.

This is not to say of course that product features cannot be differentiators. The iPod’s “flick” to view pictures took the market by storm. Yet, it wasn’t just the flick itself that delighted users – it was the completely new and easy way to view large picture collections. And this – what delights users, and its backward linkage to features is what we sometimes lose sight of.

There are a number of reasons why design/development teams get caught up in feature mania.

One, developers are technical experts who may or may not have been trained to look at market requirements. The role of the technical product manager becomes crucial in helping the team define requirements and avoid development from a purely feature-led perspective. One of the best tools to help developers understand market requirements is to build good use cases that detail how users will interact with the product or software. (Andrew Stellman has here an excellent use case template as well as information on how use cases differ from user stories).

Two, features are controllable, customers are external and difficult. It is human nature to feel more comfortable with things that we can control. Tinkering with features, adding bells and whistles, working on ‘improved’ versions – all these are sometimes substitutes that cannot cover up the fact that a product is no longer relevant to users. In the last 10 years, digital cameras have practically killed the film camera market, and not all the improvements that Kodak tried could do anything to stop the trend.

Three, sometimes, customers add to the confusion on features. One set of customers for an accounting software product requires a faster interface, while another calls for finer reporting options and a third set asks for something completely different. To add to the confusion, the most vocal customers may not necessarily represent the largest market segment. Here is where feature prioritization is needed, and to do this, the product manager needs to work in the frame of customer requirements and the market segments that the company is focused on.

Finally, features sometimes take precedence over everything else, simply because development teams become inward looking and highly attached to their own products. In such cases, the product manager has an uphill task and needs, all the more, to be the objective ‘outsider’ who can act as the voice of the market and bring in the relevant user perspective.

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