Building Features Nobody Asked For
Over the last couple of years, several acquaintances approached me for help with an issue they had with their phone. Each time the phone ran some kind of customized Android. Sometimes it was heavily modified. Compared to stock Android the modifications made the user experience worse. That left me puzzled. Why do companies put so much effort into features that end up deteriorating the product?
They don’t do it intentionally - at least I’d hope - but why does that happen? I think I have an answer: They become too disconnected from their users.
The invention of a product usually starts with a problem somebody faces. He or she decides to solve that problem, succeeds, and realizes that the solution could be useful for others.
That is a common founding story most businesses share. The starting point is a useful product. Something that solves at least somebody’s problem.
A Viable Business
Transforming a useful product into a viable business is a different story.
You’d think that people are inclined to spend money on things that bring value. Often they do, but the equation doesn’t always add up. Just look at the next software company. Somewhere it runs a Linux kernel on a crucial system and the only money it spends is for hardware and electricity.
Wait a second. What does that have to do with companies building features and making products worse? Well, the focus shifts from solving problems their customers face to creating a product that sustains their business.
Sometimes this is a deliberate move. An appliance manufacturer might decide to use poor materials to reduce the lifetime of the appliance. Not to save up on production costs, but to make sure that customers will need a replacement.
Sometimes that is driven by greed, sometimes out of necessity. Whatever the case, at least it’s intentional.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there.
After having added several anti features to make a profit, there looms a constant threat: Competition who might create a product that outperforms yours.
That is when a business enters a slippery slope. Conversations shift from “What can we do to make the experience better for this user?” to “What big feature can we build that will set us apart from CompetitorXY?”
Creating the next big feature and solving a customer’s problem can align, but companies should take care to not lose focus on why they created a product in the first place.