As you think about your product strategy, the most obvious approach is to try to find ways to one-up your competition on features. At first, the innovations come fast and furious and each one makes a big difference for consumers. After a couple of turns of the wheel though, it gets harder and harder to gain any ground. The increments of improvement get smaller and the feature set becomes overwhelming. The product features that are unique are not significant and the ones that are significant are not unique. In fact, consumers expect all products within a category to have a core feature set that´s pretty much the same and that operate in a similar way.
If you´d like to test my theory, take a look at the dashboard of your car. Really look at it. I bet you´ll see knobs, dials and indicator lights that you´ve never noticed before So what are the odds that the next feature that an automaker adds will really make a difference? Pretty slim. This all adds up to feature fatigue among the customers.
The Math of Product Development
As a conversation starter, let me suggest that the value that a customer places on a product has three components: usability; accessibility; and fun. Usability is the pure function-the feature set. Accessibility is the customer´s ability to get at that functionality. Can they actually use the features that you´ve built into the product. You´ll get more lift from added features if consumers can easily access them. You´d be surprised how often research shows that consumer´s wish lists include many things that are already in the product. And finally, fun is the sum of the intangibles. Does the customer enjoy buying and using your product? As a conversation starter, let me suggestion that the weighting for an average product is about 40/40/20. Yep. I am suggesting that the sum of the feature set is less than half the value of your product. Think about products that have done well including the reincarnated VW Bug and the Apple iPod. The core feature set of the the Bug and the iPod are fairly similar to their peers. The difference is the user experience and the fun factor.
The Miracle of the Minivan
Dodge was really under the gun in the mid-80´s. It needed a hit product in a big way but there wasn´t much room in the traditional segments. They hit a homerun with the Dodge Caravan. Minivans seem passé now having yielded their turf to SUVs but at the time they were groundbreaking. For families with kids they were the ultimate problem solver. You could haul a lot of kids and stuff in an economical package. As the category grew, Dodge kept ahead through additions that didn´t affect the core feature set (body, engine, transmission, suspension, transmission or wheels) but did improve the usability. They added cup holders including ones shaped for juice boxes. Seems simple but that really cut down on the amount of sticky juice flying around the interior. So did adding a second door. And eventually having a button that would close the door when your arms were full. All in all, the minivan has evolved into a product that perfectly matched the needs of its audience. So if minivans are perfect (and in an objective sense they are), why are there so many SUVs on the road?
But Are Minivans Fun?
Nope. And that´s why people started to migrate towards SUVs. If you really take a hard look at today´s best selling SUVs, they are minivans with four wheel drive. The Honda Pilot bears a million times more resemblance to the Odyssey than it does to a true off road vehicle like a Jeep Wrangler. SUVs have matched the functionality and usability of the minivans and trumped them on fun.
Three Core Themes
So how do you gain a competitive advantage? I am going to go back to a three of my core themes: solve real customer problems; think about the "whole product"; get there first. If you are researching new product features, don’t ask the easy narrow questions such as “would you like feature ‘x’?” There’s an infinite demand for anything that doesn’t exist–until someone has to pay for it. Ask the tougher questions. “What bothers you about my product?” ” What would you really like it to do?” Don’t stop with the physical product. Ask about the ways in which your product is sold and serviced. Ask about how your customer feels when they buy and use your product. And finally, ask these tough questions and come up with the answers before your competition does.