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Ignore the competition

Focusonusersnotcompetitors

I'm so tired of seeing so many products with the same features that nobody wants. It's bad enough to let feature requests from users get out of control, but when we start adding features just because our competitors have them, we're all screwed.

Why do we do it? My guesses are:

1) The Feature Arms Race. We're afraid of falling behind our competitors.

2) We assume that if one of the leading competitors added something, it's something users will want.

3) We assume that potential users will buy off a checklist, and we don't want to come up short in a side-by-side feature comparison.

4) We have a compulsive need to add, since the idea of an upgrade that subtracts features seems counterintuitive.

5) New features are easier to promote than better/working versions of existing ones. Or so we think...

What would happen if we completely, utterly, totally ignored the competition? What if we stopped thinking about competition at all? Perhaps if we devote all of our attention to users (and our own ability to innovate), we'll stop being dragged off into areas that build our feature list, but often at the expense of users. That development time might be better spent.

It's The Feature Arms Race that leads to so much sameness among products!

It's The Feature Arms Race that leads to the bloody kicking and clawing and fighting for market share. The Feature Arms Race is a form of group think, and we all know that design-by-committee does not produce art. We must wean ourselves off the obsession with the competition. If we're constantly trying to one-up them--or even just stay up with them--how does this really serve the users? How does it help the users kick ass if we're so focused making sure our feature lists kick ass? But it's hard to do.

"What if the competition comes up with something really good? Something users really like? "
Then you'll hear about it by staying in close contact with your user community.

"What if potential users do shop off a checklist?"
Then we should be educating them. In the absence of a deeper understanding of what's important and what we need and want, we DO often buy off a checklist--it feels like a better value to get more for our money. But of course the question is... more what? Certainly not usability, since the more features we add, the more danger there is of the dreaded featuritis:

Featuritis_2

If our only "competitive advantage" is by staying one step ahead of The Feature Arms Race, we're vulnerable. In my domain--technical books--if my co-authors and I had completely given in to The Features Arms Race, we would have focused on making sure OUR Table of Contents had as much (or more) "coverage" of topics as the competing books on that topic. (Initially, that's what our editor was asking for.) But it would have come at the expense of the learner. We knew we couldn't help our learners kick ass unless we stopped trying to "cover" (and remember, what the hell does "cover" mean anyway?) the topics that would look good on a feature (ToC) comparison. Given the success of the books, we're so relieved that we resisted the pull to "compete."

I think in many cases, the more you try to compete, the less competitve you actually are.

Still, as much as I like to think I'm all about ignoring the competition, I feel (and often give in to) that pull every single day. So I'm looking for suggestions, thoughts, ideas about breaking the addiction to The Feature Arms Race.


[Note that I made this entire post without mentioning the web app company (name starts with a two-digit number less than 50) whose mission is to avoid The Feature Arms Race. But I was thinking about them the whole time.]

Posted by Kathy on July 23, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

Kathy,

I think this also happens because of fear that we won't match up well in the checkbox chart in a review or that we'll be sitting in a sales meeting with a big, prospective client and they'll ask "Do you do X?" and, instead of talking to them about X and why it might be valuable to them and how what their real issues are, we want to be able to say "Sure, of course we do X."

Removing features ala those Chicago guys results in a product that some love and some hate, meaning that you're losing some segment of the market. That is, of course fine - "all warm bodies" isn't a market segment anyway - but a lot of people are very leery of having anyone hate your product. Of course, that means that no one will love your product either...

And, hey, you have to have something to drive the upgrade, right? (said with a smile of course...)

Posted by: rick gregory | Jul 23, 2006 1:52:51 PM

It's interesting, Microsoft has taken this advice with their next Office suite. From what I can tell, it's a real improvement despite the major UI changes. A lot of users will be confused, but once they climb the user happiness curve, they'll learn to really kick ass. Microsoft, unlike OpenOffice.org, has really tried to innovate (for once?), ignoring much of the competition.

Posted by: Glen C. | Jul 23, 2006 2:24:19 PM

Many of my clients come to me and say, "I want a website like my competitors' sites". It's sometimes hard to convince them that this is the wrong approach.

If their competitors websites were exceptional (read: were built for their users), there wouldn't be much harm in emulating them, but in most industries the average website is so poor that we could easily do better. By focusing on the user, we could achieve a competitive advantage and maybe even make users happy.

Any suggestions for convincing them?

Posted by: David Benton | Jul 23, 2006 4:43:27 PM

And no mention of the company whose name starts with the first letter of the alphabet and denotes round, eatable object?

Posted by: Rimantas | Jul 23, 2006 4:54:22 PM

Great post, Kathy.

I made a recent post in my blog on this subject, and also been thinking a lot about this lately.

http://michael.hightechproductmanagement.com/2006/05/sun_tzu_on_product_strategy_1.html

Here are some of my thoughts:
* Ignoring competition, and focusing on users is pretty much possible only in small companies. In larger companies it is very hard.
* I have worked for one larger company in the past that was really good at this, but they had a very, very strong culture driven by the CEO that focused maniacally on users - and pretty much ignored competition.
* In most companies, there is incredible pressure to follow the competition - from up and down the company.
* At most companies, we first have to educate coworkers and bosses why this is a good thing - before being able to even attempt it. This is far easier said than done.

In summary - this is a very good concept, but extremely hard to practice at most companies.

- Michael

Posted by: Michael - High Tech Product Management | Jul 23, 2006 7:20:16 PM

Sorry the URL got cut off - here it is

http://tinyurl.com/mau6h

Posted by: Michael - High Tech Product Management | Jul 23, 2006 7:21:59 PM

Kathy, excelente Blog. Y muy generosa por usar el "We"

La innovación es expandir las posibilidades a la gente, lo que también se puede interpretar como expandir mercados o crear nuevas categorías de mercado. Pero nosotros estamos acostumbrados a mirarnos el ombligo, creer que vemos y sentimos como los otros, que lo que creemos bueno, es bueno para todos. Ese es el problema, creer que tenemos ojos objetivos.

Felicitaciones y gracias.

Posted by: Jota | Jul 23, 2006 10:03:25 PM

Great post as usual, Kathy. You called it the arms race, I called it the cold war -- same difference ;) If anyone's interested you can read my speech at last year's Web 2.0 conference. I hit on the cold war mentality early in the talk.

Posted by: Jason Fried | Jul 23, 2006 10:51:06 PM

We also need more new features for our sales staff to have "something to sell" and talk about with our customers. More features mean customers get "more for their buck" (ROI). And since very often buyers of the features are not the same people as their users, they often end up with stuff nobody needs.

Another irony is that many releases of the (enterprise) software not only include the features that the competition has, but also the features that the customers already have too. When the standard packages do not provide what users need and they extend/customize them, then they have to redo it all once the same features become standard in the next release. But until that upgrade - we, the other guy and our customers all work on creating (and owning) the same features.

Posted by: Marian Crkon | Jul 23, 2006 11:12:45 PM

I agree with the spirit of your blog entry, but not the analysis. Overwhelming users with complexity is a bad thing, however all we know right now is that features and complexity are correlated, not that features cause complexity.

I had written a paragraph here on using quantitative data to design UI. Specifically I had mentioned Microsoft Word and what Microsoft has learned about the long tail of feature usage in Office. As it turns out, Jensen Harris has already written about the reasoning behind the new UI in Office 2007. Specifically, parts 6 and 7 of Jensen's series discuss how feature usage tracking has determined once and for all what features people actually use.

Removing features one way to simplify interfaces, but it's not the only way. I believe that feature rich software can have a simple UI, and that progress is being made in that direction. Although others might disagree with me on that point, I would urge them to help try to solve the problem before dismissing it as unsolvable.

Posted by: David Weitzman | Jul 24, 2006 12:12:00 AM

Great Post --

I provide an Agile approach to prioritizing product features. Read about it here -- it might be helpful for some:

http://www.shmula.com/158/focus-on-the-customer

Peter Abilla

Posted by: Peter Abilla | Jul 24, 2006 2:08:50 AM

Another reason, they don't have anything new to innovate in their mind and just looking at their competition ... but not thinking of their customers !!

--
Balakumar Muthu
http://i5bala.blogspot.com

Posted by: Balakumar Muthu | Jul 24, 2006 4:28:10 AM

Nice. And, as Clay Christensen has pointed out, when you get your first "hey, where the f*** did you put that?" phone call, better be prepared to be "disrupted."

Posted by: Tom Guarriello | Jul 24, 2006 7:18:23 AM

A focus totally on users is a good, but I think it's important to keep in mind that users often don't know what they want. I have observed that as soon as a program comes out that people like, they immediately start clamoring for features that (1) they probably won't use and (2) already exist in other programs on the market. I.E., they will want you to do scope creep. The problem with that is that adding every feature users' want is a sure fire way of ending up with a program so feature-bloated, that users will start to think about switching to something simplier.

So it is not always a good idea to listen to your users. I think it's much better to focus on the SUCCESS of users in doing the task you want them to be able to do with your program. Ask yourself these questions:

1) Why does my program exist?
2) What will users be able to have/do/be from using my program on a daily basis?
3) How can I make a design that keeps users focused so they will complete their tasks with ease and joy?

A program should focus on the task(s) it's designed for. If users suggest features that fit into the purpose for the program, then certainly think about adding them. But don't be drawn into features that don't make any sense. Create a NEW program for those ;-)

Posted by: Dan | Jul 24, 2006 10:43:23 AM

I read some of the comments above, and I have a few more thoughts ;-)

You need to be careful about discovering the real purpose behind a client request. If a client says: "I want a website like my competitors' sites", ask the client what having that sort of website will allow them to give to their customers? They might say something like: "an exciting, fluid experience". Now you have what they REALLY want, as opposed to simply copying someone else's solution.

This also answers the "Do you do X?" complaint. I would ask: What does being able to do X -DO- for the person? In other words, challenge that the person needs X feature to satisfy their real desire (which usually ends up like something simple like fun, freedom, speed, etc.)

Remember that people are creatures of habit. One thing many fail to realize is that as long as a program does a particular thing really well (i.e. "enough" features to completely cover a particular task) then very often users will AVOID switching to a competitor, even if that competitor has more features. "Bank for the Buck" is only relevant when the user hasn't used any program of that type yet (for example, blogging software). Once a users is "in", as long as the program does what it's trying to do well, then it will take a LOT of features from a competitor for them to switch. (I don't have numbers to back this up, but it seems correct based on what I know about how people work.) The one example I can give is that in many ways, Mac OS X is technically more advanced then Windows. Yet year after year people keep choosing windows because of the appearance of difficulty in changing their ways and using something else.

I think what needs to happen is that customers need to be educated as to the achievements people can make with their program, as opposed to the features it has. In reality, the achievement is what people really want. This is something I picked up from reading sales marketing online. Good sales pitches have a ton of testimonials. People with RESULTS from using the product. I have a feeling if this was put out more, you would discover it's FAR more powerful in convincing people to buy then touting off the features you have over the competition.

Posted by: Dan | Jul 24, 2006 11:06:25 AM

Nice idea, but I don't think it scales.

When there are very few layers between you and your users, this model may work great. Its probably fine when the product costs $100, $1000, or maybe even $10,000.

However, any more than that, and you get the problem where the buyer has no clue about the opinions of the users. The buyer is some bean counter in a dark office, or worse yet a committee! They couldn't care less if the users like it or not, all they look at is a checklist from 20 vendors.

If you don't have a bazillion checkmarks, you don't make it into the top 3, which means you never get to meet your potential customer. Therefore, without the checklist, you never get the chance to educate your users that the checklist is irrelevant.

Once you get a user, then you can focus on them. But if you don't have the checklist, you'll never get a user.

Posted by: bex | Jul 24, 2006 2:09:17 PM

I wrote about this on my own blog, a long time ago. Back in the late 1980s, I attended a lecture by a product manager at a major computer hardware company. He said their most advanced computers were taking 2 or 3 years to design and ship, so the company created a new research division to predict what the competition would be shipping in 2 to 3 years and what features their products would need so they could compete with other vendors' future products. He called it "predictive reaction," in that they were predicting what products and features they'd have to react to in the future. At this point, I realized the company had totally lost their vision.

The only person you have to compete with is yourself. You have to produce the best products you can, and hope that everyone else will struggle to compete with YOU.

Posted by: Charles | Jul 24, 2006 2:45:47 PM

Excellent post. Here's a tip for not focusing on the competition: "Businesses that are built for profit are apt to fail but, businesses that are built for service are apt to succeed".

Posted by: Theodor | Jul 24, 2006 3:30:20 PM

I think point two could be varied as follows--researching what the competition has is easier than actively determining how to help users achieve their goals. If you assume that your competition is doing the user leg-work then point two follows.

Posted by: Brent | Jul 24, 2006 3:59:07 PM

Great writing! In mobile business, Samsung has been produced every concept they can make and want to be 'leader' in every product category. But too much expanded product lines are confusing and cause canibalization among relatives. What a squandering of
company resource!

Posted by: Alf | Jul 24, 2006 5:37:04 PM

My view is that analysts drive this issue. In the enterprise software industry Gartner, Forrester and a handful of other niche (yeah, sorry guys) direct what 50% of customers want.

When it isn't the analysts, its the dumb CIO that is trying to pretend that he is ahead of the curve (either the adoption or the Featuritis) curve. Generally this CIO, who represents the unfortunately large component of poor leadership, believes that he can't go wrong with having all the features, "cos if its all there you just have to plug the bits together, right?".

I have been on the production end of the RFI/RFP response process. You have no option but to fill in the spreadsheet with a 'yes' in every box and an answer that is unfortunately truncated at the wrong moment by the limits of the excel app. You have to, otherwise you don't make it to the next round of selection. I wrote about why I think Sales Engineers should go crazy, and this should have been included as one of the reasons!

The issue is that only the smart vendors work out the level of 'twisting the truth' they can get away with. Some are too honest, and are penalized (in)appropriately.

Play the game boys and girls, as a vendor the marketing hype makes the product. Services fill the gap between what the customer believed they heard and what you should deliver.

Cheers

Phil
Writing about a technology use case in action...

Posted by: Phil Ayres | Jul 24, 2006 10:15:44 PM

Very true about the checklist thing.

The other day I found a feller in Low Yat (Computer/Mobile Mall in Kuala Lumpur), who doesn't really know about micro devices like processor, graphics card and stuff like that. He had some AMD competitive benchmark printouts in his hands and asking for some real hifi system. What I could guess is he just needed a normal desktop for personal use. However, he was asking for AMD Opteron, which is a workstation/server processor. And asking some recommendations about Pentium Xeon, again a server processor.

Same goes for mobile consumers. Most of them want GPRS, Bluetooth, WIFI supported 3G mobiles. No matter they are just gonna make simple calls nothing more, not even a SMS, from their hand sets.

Sometimes customers are like that.

Posted by: Adeel Ansari | Jul 24, 2006 10:37:33 PM

So funny to read you from where i live....Brussels (belgium).

Nice blog, really !

Regards.

Reno

Posted by: reno | Jul 25, 2006 1:18:06 AM

Thought provoking (reinforcing) post. Prominent examples of "me too" product design are OpenOffice, which is desperately trying to outdo MS Office in bloat, and forgetting about what it is really meant for. Or the various instant messengers, e.g. Yahoo bloating its really good IM beyond useful stuff.

My favorite quote on design (not exact and don't remember the source) is "the sign of good design is when you can take nothing more away from it"

As another commenter pointed out, focus on the user and never forget the goal of what you're building.

Only when someone takes a fresh look at what users want, do they come up with something really disruptive. Whatever you say about them, Google's UI's are simple, intuitive and do exactly waht they claim. I've rarely had to consult help, whereas I do that in Yahoo very often.

Posted by: RD | Jul 25, 2006 8:43:08 AM

Some feature wars are driven by the needs of the channel, not users. While some businesses may indeed be able to ignore competition, most cannot ignore the channel.

But, ignoring the competition assumes that you and your customers are the only ones with good ideas. If your competition is worth their khakis, they've probably got a few that you might find inspirational.

Posted by: Scaramanga | Jul 25, 2006 5:13:56 PM

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