Enough With Must-Have Features

Here’s a sentence that always fills me with dread: “We plan to adopt this new approach, just as soon as we launch these must-have features.”  The must-have feature list (AKA catch-up features) has become my nemesis—it’s forever standing in the way of progress. Usually it’s a laundry list of things copied from leading competitors, from user requests, and from customer RFPs. The things that everyone is doing, and that the company believes without which you’re not a true player. You cannot sell a car unless it has lights, a steering wheel, and safety belts, right? 

There are three main problems with this line of thinking: first these so-called “must-have” features suck up a lot of time and resources, and the list is ever-growing. Second, even if you do launch them, you end up with just another me-too product. Third, most of these uninspired features are not must-haves at all; in fact you’ll do yourself a great service if you won’t develop and launch them.    

Over the years products tend to accumulate features, but there’s a usage power-law: a handful of features are used a lot, while most get very little usage if any. I can tell you from experience managing products like Gmail, that many features are nothing more than a liability—they deliver very little value, and they incur a constant cost of maintenance and support. They’re also very hard to deprecate because some small minority of users love them. From the outside it’s hard to tell the good features from the mehs. People demand particular features, just because they can’t imagine an alternative. Company RFPs come full of required features copied from an existing solution, simply because the buyer doesn’t want to leave anyone unhappy. 

The bigger problem is that the “must-have feature” mindset sends you on a race to the bottom—build essentially the same product everyone has (maybe with one unique feature), and try to make it a bit cheaper, or try to market/sell it better. For many business-oriented executives this feels like a completely viable strategy. Inventing new things sounds risky. Having to say no to a customer asking for some arcane feature, an absolute disaster. The Sales-driven company is therefore less innovative—it cannot imagine anything except for what’s already out there. The real Henry Ford misattributed quote could have been: “If I asked my Sales team what they wanted, they would say a faster horse”.  

Truly innovative companies are happy to challenge the status-quo and sacrifice old features in favor of  new ones. Tesla’s cars failed to deliver on a core “must-have”: easy refueling; instead they gave the drivers “charge anxiety”. The first iPhone was missing some ”expected” smartphone features of the time—it came with no keyboard or stylus, and the battery couldn’t last more than a day. Google Docs shunned hundreds of legacy Office features and offered a barebones Web application. After you finish reading this article you’re probably going to use Slack, Trello, or Asana. Products that lack many classic “enterprise-grade” features and yet are extremely popular in companies of all sizes.  

Check out my workshops to learn hands-on how to implement this and other high-impact product management concepts in your company or team.

The products that people and companies truly love have a clear notion of target market, mission, and value-to-customer. They’re not trying to be all things to all people. They’re not aspiring to be a cheaper version of something else.  They aim to address the needs of their target market extremely well in whatever way possible. The product teams behind these products listen attentively to user/customer requests, and analyze competitor products, but the questions are always what’s the underlying need, how important it is, and how can we best address it. Sometimes the answer is to copy a feature (perfectly fine if you did the homework and proved that this is the right solution), sometimes creating your own version of it, and sometimes ignoring the feature/request altogether because you’ve found a better way to address the need, or because you have higher-value ideas to work on.  

That’s perhaps my biggest grievance with the “Must-have” approach. By assuming that something is a must-have you’re likely practicing bad product management. Very few things are truly “must-have”. It’s all shades of grey. Ideas have to be compared to other ideas, on the basis of desired outcomes.  “All competitors have it” and “it’s a top customer request” are signals, but you have to collect other forms of evidence to be convinced. Ideas have to be tested repeatedly and iterated-on to get to something truly useful. 

Even if you’re not aiming to create highly-differentiated products like Tesla or Google, you have to push back against dogma and conventional thinking. There are no easy shortcuts, no “no-brainer” features. Every idea can fail. Our job is to stay skeptical, prioritize, test,  and make decisions based on evidence. I can tell you that doing these things consistently will bring a just end to the concept of must-have features.  

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Photo credit: Tara Winstead

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