The Truth About Features

Jan Milz
Jan Milz
May 20, 2016 · 5 min read

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy taught the following:

An answer does not make any sense without knowing the question.

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The people in the book are quite puzzled getting 42 as the answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything”. And they waited for 7½ million years — the time the super computer Deep Thought needed to compute the answer.

“I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.” — Deep Thought

Developing a feature without knowing the user problem is like hearing an answer without knowing the question.


Talking about features still seems to be a very common practice in today’s product organizations. Ask users, stakeholders or teammates for requirements and you usually get something like: “X is a must have!”, “Building Y would be awesome!”, “Haven’t you thought about building Z?!” or simply: “We need more features to launch.”.

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Feature-Creep is a known problem for mature products. At some point customer satisfaction goes down the more features you add.

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Interestingly innovative products are often described as quite the opposite:

“Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away” — Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Why is Featurespeak so common?

Ohne explanation could be found in what Andres Glusman calls The Malkovich Bias:

“The tendency to believe that everyone uses the web as you do.”

“Users love to scroll!” vs “Users won’t scroll to the bottom!”

“Users like to get inspired” vs “Users want to see everything at a glance”

“User wants a notification for this!” vs “User hates spammy notifications!”

A feature is like a projection

One other reason might be how our brain works: Inside the cerebral cortex the conscious stuff is happening: Cognition, thinking and speaking. The other parts (interbrain, cerebellum) are the unconscious home of emotions and feelings.

The important thing is: The unconscious brain can not talk or think cognitively because of it’s roots in lizards and mammals. But it will evaluate everything, for example against expectations and value systems — which are unconscious, too. And it is much faster and stronger than the conscious mind. You simply have no control. When looking at negative emotions like fear this behavior becomes clearer:

Logically you know that a situation is not frightening and you want to stop this fear but you can’t do anything about it. It is just happening.

A feature works like a projection screen for our unconscious — in the moment we see it we instantly know if it is of value for us or not.

While this might be very satisfying for our brains it does not help when it comes to product development …

Features are not the Product

The problem with features is the following:

“Features are merely a small, fragile part of the product. They are only a few of many thinkable solutions for a user’s problem the product tries to solve “ — Nikkel Blaase

Or to put in other words:

Features don’t work without the product.

What is the product if not a set of features? I recommend reading Nikkel’s post for answering this question.

Features and Learning

With the goal of learning in mind exposing a finished solution to the user is a contribution to waste. In 9 of 10 cases the only thing you are going to learn is that it just does not help which is like zero information. Well, if you learn something at all. I personally shipped dozens of features still having no clue if they are perceived as valuable or not.

It gets even worse: There are successful companies out there providing a solution without having any idea what problem of the user they really solve. The product just sells and they then are adding more features in the hope of growth and survival.

„The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it sells him.“ — Peter Drucker

How can Product Thinking help?

In Product Thinking we clearly divide problem space from solution space. We fear solutions as long as we can. We do not ship features for the purpose of evaluation by users.

We also avoid featurespeak with teammates or stakeholders. What we do is talking about needed impacts on our customers’ lives.

Users do not know their problems consciously. Never ask users for what they want. Instead try to uncover the problem, the moments of struggle, the job to be done.

Only start to build features if the job is crystal-clear.

“It’s not the customers’ job to figure out what they want” — Steve Jobs

Personal Note:

For me avoiding featurespeak has become important since I failed my startup (2007–2009): years of hard but feature-driven work ended as another example of a product no one really needed. A few years later reading “The Lean Startup” really made me cry. The experiences Ries is describing were so resonating with me. I finally understood important things. Some insights I shared in this post.

Jan is an Entrepreneur and Product Guy living with his family in Hamburg, Germany. As a Consultant he helps companies with Product Thinking and SEO. He is looking forward to connect!

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