This is a guest post from roving software entrepreneur, Steve McLeod.
Each feature you add to your software product takes time to implement, adds ongoing complexity, and is hard to get rid of later. So you need to choose wisely when adding new features.
Here are some tips on choosing which features to implement.
Does your product really need new features?
This question might be surprising, but it is an important one to ask yourself. A software product is never completely finished. There is always scope for improvement. This makes it hard to know when to stop working on it.
If your product is mature and has stable revenue, there might not be much opportunity to increase sales. Adding new features would please some customers, but would not be a good use of your time.
Products that should be considered “done” can still have a large backlog. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your product will only be done once all existing feature requests are done.
Your product might have great potential to grow, but not by adding new features. Perhaps you need to improve your sales and marketing efforts. Don’t use your feature request backlog as an excuse to neglect the other important parts of running your product.
It’s okay to ignore your backlog
Feature request backlogs seem to never shrink. Implementing improvements leads to even more feature requests.
Looking at your backlog can be overwhelming. You’ll see feature requests that are years old. There are others that you intended to implement, but never did. It is okay to ignore these.
Don’t feel that the entire backlog consists of promises that must be kept. Some requests are no longer relevant. Some are from customers who no longer need your product. Some are simply not worth the substantial effort.
Keep your grand vision in mind
Prefer to implement highly requested features. But before you do, make sure each feature fits your long-term plans. Ask yourself:
- who is your ideal customer? Is the feature relevant to them? For example, your enterprise customers might be asking for “single sign-on”, whereas you are more interested in working with small businesses.
- will this be an ongoing cost- and time-sink? For example, a particular feature could require HIPAA (a US health industry regulation) compliance, while you have no interest in the extra workload and costs of HIPAA compliance.
- does this proposed feature agree with your marketing angle?
Each new feature has ongoing costs
Remember that each additional feature comes with ongoing costs in support and complexity. Each new feature is an additional place for bugs to hide, adding to your future workload. Take these future costs into account when deciding if a feature should be added.
Features interact with each other, sometimes in unexpected ways. Even one additional checkbox in a settings panel can lead to ongoing confusion.
Be wary in particular of features that require integration with third party products. For example, many a product owner was burned when Twitter turned off some parts of their public API. Another example is my own experience adding support for connecting to customers’ email inboxes. I then found myself supporting not just my own product’s problems, but those caused by customers’ email service provider.
Sales-blockers are high priority
Not all feature requests are equal. Requests for feature A might come only from long time customers of your product, while feature B is requested only by your trial customers. It sounds ruthless, but you should prioritise the feature requested by trial customers.
When running a business, you do need to care for financial concerns. Take into consideration that:
- A trial customer is likely to report a showstopper (for them). When you implement features requested by several trial customers, you are likely to increase revenue.
- An existing customer is likely to report an inconvenience. You probably won’t lose the customer by delaying the improvement they asked for.
- You need new customers to keep your business healthy.
It is important, of course, to care for existing customers. Don’t take this as an argument to ignore existing customers altogether in favour of potential customers.
Identifying and fixing sales blockers as a matter of priority is especially important for new products. It takes time to find the right balance of features a new product needs to meet the demands of the market.
Prefer the easy things, but not always
Let’s say you are deciding which of two features to implement next. Both feature A and feature B have been requested dozens of times. Feature A will take a week’s worth of work, and feature B will take a month’s work. Which one do you do?
Feature A, right? Maybe not.
Feature A is usually the correct choice. But you’ll be repeating this scenario over and over. Your product will gradually gain many relatively trivial features, while never getting the important features you need to create a compelling product.
Sometimes you need to do the hard work to add the features that are difficult to implement.
Listen to your customers…
Your customers are a great source of ideas for improvements to your product. As they use your product they discover what’s missing and what’s poorly implemented.
Therefore make it exceedingly easy for your customers to get suggestions to you. Consider adding a “Suggest an Improvement” link to your support page and to your help menu, if applicable. This makes it clear to your customers that you are actively seeking suggestions. My experience has been that customers notice these links and use them.
A “Suggest an Improvement” link can be as simple as a “mailto” link. A basic dialog or web form also works well. If you are seeking inspiration on how to do this, look at the “Report an Issue” form linked from the Google Chrome’s Help menu.
Another way to get customer suggestions is by asking them via a survey. This is okay, but it requires people to imagine back to when they last used your product. Us humans tend to be pretty poor at recalling things. It is much better to encourage customers to send suggestions as they encounter difficulties, while it is foremost in their mind.
I found collecting and organizing feedback for my own product, Poker Copilot, to be a pain. So I launched a new product to help manage feature requests. It allows your customers to suggest and upvote improvements for your product.
…and not your competitors
You’ve probably already heard that you should “listen to your customers, not your competitors.” I’m repeating it, because forgetting this can be deadly to your business.
Feature-envy leads us to believe we have to add every feature our competitors offer. Like regular envy, it is best to ignore it.
When your competitor announces a new feature, it can be demoralising. You feel you are falling behind and unable to compete. If the feature looks impressive, you’ll be tempted to add it to your product as soon as you can.
But wait. Have any of your customers actually requested this feature that your competitor added? If not, it is probably because it is not all that useful to your customers.
Your competitor might eventually regret adding that feature, as it turns out that only a small but demanding percentage of their customers use it. By not adding it, you could be giving yourself an advantage.
I’ve discovered that customers often learn about the good features my competitors have. They then tell me that they want these features. Only then do I start considering adding them.
Small tweaks versus major features
I just recommended listening to customers. But be careful of only using customer requests as a source for improvements.
Your customers tend to ask for incremental improvements. Customers are more likely to ask for an additional option in a drop-down menu than they are for a innovative new way to view their data.
If you rely on customer suggestions alone, you’ll never get the innovative new features that can make your product something much grander.
Make sure you balance your customer-contributed requests with your own innovative improvements.
Beware of preferring “pet” features
I just argued in favour of choosing innovative improvements. However this comes with a warning. Innovation can be used to justify poor choices. When you are in charge of decisions for your product, you are in danger of choosing improvements that you find interesting instead of those that have a strong business case.
Be careful. You could spend months working on a feature that is not very helpful to your business.
This is the type of feature that only one customer requested, but because it sounds more interesting to you than anything else in your massive backlog of feature requests, you immediately start working on it.
My own experience with this: I added scripting to a product even though no-one had asked for it and my target customer was not the type of person who would be interested in custom scripting. When I announced the scripting feature, not a single person seemed to use it. I eventually got rid of it.
How do you decide?
The tips I’ve offered you in this article come from my own experience. Do you have tips of your own for deciding which features to implement? If so, please add them in the comments below. I’d love to read them!
Steve McLeod runs a small software company in Barcelona, Spain. His products are Poker Copilot, a desktop analytics app for online poker players, and Feature Upvote, a web app that allows your customers to openly suggest and upvote features they want to see in your product.