The Next Feature Fallacy

yes another episode from ours truly…

For those of you who know me, know that i’m a big time redditer. I mean i’m there almost 30-45 mins everyday. This is what happens when you don’t have social media…

Anyhow. As always I was following a discussion of someone who works in SaaS and said something along the lines of “how building new features will not mean that your customers want to use the entire product”.

I sincerely nodded yes to that as I was reading it. This is something that is so common in tech, especially SaaS. Build features and the customers will come.

Newsflash – they never do! Actually they very seldom do.

In SaaS and the world of product development though, there’s a common trap many of us fall into: the urge to keep building more features when things aren’t quite clicking.

But here’s the kicker: this approach rarely pans out, and the numbers make it painfully clear why.

Let’s talk metrics.

Picture this: a graph that resembles the steep decline of Napoleon’s Grande Armee during his ill-fated Russian campaign. This curve represents the rapid drop-off between attracting a user initially and retaining them over the first month. It’s not a pretty sight. In fact, it’s downright dismal.

Source: Baremetrics

If you throw a trend line over the graph, it’s just the most boring thing you’ve ever seen. Revenue continues to increase month-over-month, but there’s no single point where “everything changed”.

That’s not to say features don’t matter, but progress isn’t made by shipping features, it’s made by solving problems. Like I said, solutions grow businesses, and ultimately solutions are the sum of all parts: features, marketing, onboarding, customer support…the whole shebang.

Consider some typical numbers for a web app:

  • 1000 users visit your homepage
  • 20% sign up
  • 80% complete onboarding
  • 40% return the next day
  • 20% return the next week
  • Only 10% remain after 30 days

After just a month, you’re left with a mere 20 active users out of that initial 1000. Damn, that’s gotta hurt!

Sure, there are exceptions with better figures, often for apps with strong branding or high-conversion referral traffic. But for most, these numbers are the reality check we need.

If you’re immersed in the world of design or development, it’s tempting to believe that investing time, whether it’s a few hours, days, or even weeks, into building something new will be the magic bullet for your business.

Believe me, this is a recurring theme of pretty much most of the SaaS companies that I have worked for so far. Build that feature and watch us lift off… It gives you a sense of progress, a feeling that you’re actively moving forward. However, this can be a perilous mindset because it often leads to neglecting the fundamental issues that truly drive your business forward.

Running a successful business is akin to navigating a complex maze of interlocking mechanisms. It’s not just about churning out new features or products; it’s about fine-tuning every aspect of your operation. Many breakthroughs and successes don’t arise from a deliberate, linear process but rather from stumbling upon unexpected combinations of adjustments.

The Next Feature Fallacy strikes because it’s easy to fall into the trap of building new features that miss the mark. Two common mistakes stand out:

  1. Targeting the wrong audience: Features often cater to engaged users rather than new ones.
  2. Insufficient impact: Boy oh boy am I familiar with this one… Some features lack the punch needed to drive meaningful engagement.

Sure, deep engagement matters, but it’s futile if the features go unnoticed or unused. A “day 7 feature” won’t see much action when less than 4% of visitors make it that far.

So, how do you pick the right features? It starts with understanding the user lifecycle.

Focus on features that maximize reach, especially targeting non-users and casual users. Small improvements at the front end of the curve can have a ripple effect.

Additionally, nail the onboarding process. Set users up for success from their first visit. Whether it’s encouraging social connections or guiding them through setup, the initial steps are critical.

Now, building game-changing features is a high-stakes game, especially in early stages. The resources and risks are significant. But with the right insights and strategy, there’s always a chance the next feature will bend the curve in your favor.

So why a fallacy?

By fallacy I mean a mistaken belief, especially one based on unsound argument or often stemming from flawed reasoning. These beliefs can appear solid and logical during the ideation and creation phases, only to crumble when the product fails, revealing them as mere rationalizations.

Take, for instance, an overly ambitious product plan built without a solid understanding of the market or the needs of potential users – it’s akin to constructing a structure on thin ice.

Now, one might wonder if research could prevent such rationalizations. However, there lies a challenge: all too frequently, user research and market validation inadvertently reinforce existing assumptions rather than challenging them.

Consider the age-old saying, “A person who represents themselves in court has a fool for a client.” This adage rings true in the world of software and technology product development as well. Unless we’re prepared to acknowledge the cognitive biases that can seep into the feature development process and take deliberate steps to maintain objectivity, our research efforts may simply serve to validate assumptions or ideas we’ve already embraced.

The Pareto principle states that a mere 20% of efforts often yield 80% of the results. When it comes to products lacking a clearly defined target audience, users typically engage with only a fraction of the available features. Crafting a more captivating product involves honing in on a concise vision—a vision that excels in its primary function rather than attempting to encompass everything in a mediocre manner.

Outstanding products are characterized by a core set of features that streamline users’ journeys towards their objectives. The finest products resonate deeply with their user base by simplifying their lives. Think Notion, Bear, you get the gist.

However, when features are added without a thorough understanding of the audience, products can succumb to an “identity crisis” or often refered to as “feature bloat syndrome.”

I myself have observed a tipping point where user productivity diminishes as they spend more time navigating through a product overloaded with unnecessary features.

New users grapple with the product, requiring significant time investments to familiarize themselves, while seasoned users stick to their established methods rather than embracing new functionalities.

Embracing simplicity ensures users spend less time deciphering how to operate the product and more time achieving their objectives. Additionally, simplicity reduces the complexity cost over time—maintaining ten features over five years is far more manageable than maintaining one hundred or more.

The way to build truly successful products is to soothe user pain.

So, don’t limit your focus to just tweaking the product. Instead, be vigilant about adjusting every dial and lever across your entire business landscape. By enhancing every facet of the customer experience, you pave the way for sustained, long-term growth that transcends the fleeting highs of individual features or developments.


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