Where Do Good Features Come From?

It’s interesting to think about where most people get ideas for new product features. The usual answer I get when I ask Product Manager candidates about this is “I would talk to my customers”. Which is fine, except for the fact that these people are already your customers. That is, they’ve already given you money for your product. Why are you still building features for them? Of course, there are some very valid reasons such as:

  • I want to keep them happy
  • I want to keep them from going to a competitor who just introduced a new feature
  • I want to charge them even more money

Sure, very valid reasons. However, they’re also a bit of a copout. They’re good reasons because they focus on the bottom line, money. New development should equal more money and these reasons all claim to follow that line of reasoning. They’re a copout because they only claim to focus on the bottom line. The truth is that a lot of customers will tell you that :you MUST build this feature for me” and “you SHOULD add this option for me or else they’ll…” well, they’ll do something! However, for the most part, that can be solved through good customer management as opposed to new features. So a product owner who focuses on existing customers is mostly doing it because it’s the easy place to find new feature ideas.

A better place to look is customers who don’t have your product yet, or even better, customers who looked at but then decided not to buy your product. These are the real moneymakers. These are the folks who would have given you money if you had developed feature X or given them function Y. Of course, these are also the people who are hardest to reach exactly because they’re not your customers. So how the heck do we know what they do?

A Few Suggestions

The prospect roadshow – Do you have some good ideas for a features, new functionality or a whole new application? Mock them up, make them look real and then go out there and show them to prospects and any account you’ve lost in the last year. If sales complains, explain to them that this is a great door opener for prospects that wouldn’t have talked to you otherwise. Make sure these prospects understand that you will NOT be trying to sell them. In fact, don’t even bring a sales person with you. Just go out there and show them your cool ideas, then get your honest opinion. You should be asking questions like:

  • How would you use this feature?
  • What kind of value would it provide you?
  • Would this make you more interested in our platform?

And stay away from questions like

  • Why did we lose?
  • What did they have that we didn’t?

You don’t want to sound like a sore loser trying to get them to change their mind. You want to sound like a thought leader trying to get their honest opinion.

Look At Your Competition

Sounds simple but I’m amazed at how many product managers don’t really know what their competition does. I can still tell you the top two features (real time adherence and multi week scheduling) that my biggest competitor had that we didn’t at Blue Pumpkin, and Blue Pumpkin was my first job, 15 years ago. Can you?

Every day you should be trying to figure out what your competitors do that you don’t. You should be trying to sneak into their webinars, sign up for demos and worming your way into their sales collateral. You should know by heart what makes their product better than yours and have a plan both to talk your way around that advantage right now and for how to fill in that gap in the future.

But Still…

And even with all that competitive info and constant roadshows, you’re still only going to find the marginal improvements. You’re going to see the areas your product needs to improve in but these will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. You’ll be designing the next iOS upgrade, not the next iPhone. Why? Because those prospects and competitors are stuck in the same bubbles as you. They’re reading the same publications, talking to the same customers and going to the same conferences. You’re stuck thinking the same thoughts as them which means none of you is going to come up with something revolutionary. For that, you need to reach out.

If you’re in enterprise software, you should check out some gaming conferences. If you’re in media distribution, you should look at Pharma revenue management. If you’re in smart phones you should look at eCommerce. Whereever you are, you need to emerge from your little market and see the bigger picture. Sure, Twitter doesn’t seem like it has anything to do with big Pharma enterprise management but maybe when you see how Twitter sets up their profile you’ll get a really cool idea for user management on your own system. Maybe gaming doesn’t have much to do with media distribution but when you go to that Comic convention maybe you’ll get some grand idea about gamification that you never thought of.

The point is to keep exposing yourself to new ideas. Eventually, one of those ideas will connect with some preexisting knowledge in your brain and that’s when the EUREKA moment comes. That’s when the light bulb really goes off and you come up with brand new products, not just improvements to existing ones.