The Truth About Features

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

Oftentimes users are quite puzzled by features, too. The reason is the same like in the book: they (unconsciously) expected something very different. What they see does not solve any problem nor it helps making progress against a given situation.

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.”.

“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.”

It seems very likely to believe that other’s usage of Twitter, FB, Google, Medium etc. is like yours. Often you even got two opposing opinions like the following:

“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!”

Let the debate begin. There is no truth to be found in here. It always depends on the user who we not are and the situation we are not in.

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.

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.

That might be the main reason why everyone loves talking about features — it is a way to share our unconscious values with other people.

Features are not the Product

The problem with features is the following:

Features don’t work without the product.

This is a one way relation and by embracing this perspective it becomes clear that the feature isn’t really important anymore. A product even may change its features over time. Why bother so much about features at all?

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.

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

On the other hand sometimes (but very rarely) it may happen that a feature becomes the foundation for a new product. A lucky company discovers unexpected usage of a part of the product it never dreamed of. Examples are Flickr, Instagram, Twitter and so on.

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.

“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.



Product Thinker

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store