The Next Feature Fallacy (or, the case for simple, working systems)

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You released the first version of your product some months ago and it was an exhilarating experience. You went through the highs and lows of launch and had moments of excitement and pride when people started using your product for the first time. the weeks wore on it started to become clear there just wasn’t enough usage. People aren’t using your product as much as you want them to, or as much as your business needs them to.

But it’s OK, you rationalize, this is a long game. This is a hard problem and you’re in it for the long haul. You’ve got some runway left and have a great product roadmap to execute on. You’re building cultural momentum and getting better every day. You’re a better team than you were even last week. You’re listening to your advisors and you’ve asked some customers what features they want and are executing on those. You are optimistic. With this next feature release, your product will be more compelling than ever, it will reach a tipping point, and people will start using it like you know is possible.

This narrative is extremely common. It’s the narrative of the optimistic team leader whose product just isn’t getting the traction it needs to be successful. But...the narrative is a delusion, a fallacy.

Next Feature Fallacy
“The fallacy that the next feature you add will suddenly make people want to use your entire product.”

This is the fallacy that, if not rooted out, will leave you in the same exact position 3 months from now. You’ll still have a lack of engagement (not to mention frustrated/lost customers) but with even more features to make you wonder why it’s not all working yet.

One Weird Feature Away

And you are not alone. We all fall prey to this at some point. Even Google does. In a recent piece on the failure of Google+, the software behemoth’s billion-dollar attempt to create a social network to compete with Facebook, was this money quote:

“The belief was that we were always just one weird feature away from the thing taking off," says (a Google) employee.

Your next feature will not save you. That belief is almost always wrong. If your core product doesn’t work now, it’s unlikely to ever work as-is. If people aren’t using a product’s features it is 99% likely they won’t use those features plus one more feature, no matter how compelling that additional feature seems.

3 Steps to Counteract the Fallacy

We’ve seen this pattern a lot here at Rocket as product teams put their hopes on features that haven’t been built, hoping they will kickstart product usage. Our recommendation is almost always to stop and re-assess; if usage isn’t good enough then it’s always a better use of your time and money to fix the current product instead of adding more features to it. Fix what you have and get that working before adding more features. Here’s how to do it:

1. Talk openly about what's not working

The Next Feature Fallacy is really about being honest about an underperforming product. This is often the biggest hurdle of all...and everyone’s worst nightmare: to admit that you’re not doing as well as you hoped. Note this section from the Google piece:

“Hindsight is always 20/20, but many on the Google+ team claim early data showed the new social network's struggles.”..."It was clear if you looked at the per user metrics, people weren’t posting, weren't returning and weren’t really engaging with the product," says one former employee. "Six months in, there started to be a feeling that this isn’t really working."

Some lay the blame on the top-down structure of the Google+ department and a leadership team that viewed success as the only option for the social network. Failures and disappointing data were not widely discussed.”

It was all right there all along. Engagement was down, the team knew it but they didn’t discuss it and right the ship. It’s easier to hope the numbers improve while keeping a positive spin on things. It’s tougher but prudent to do the opposite. If your metrics show that people aren’t using your current app then the best course of action is to stop hand-waving and talk openly about it.

Several things need to be clear to your team:

  • Your current product isn’t working. This needs to be crystal clear, no hand-waving. Use metrics, qualitative feedback, whatever you need to use to show evidence that it’s just not working correctly. Also, don’t use an outlier like Slack’s growth as the metric to go by...focus on improving your usage metrics incrementally instead of setting unrealistic expectations.
  • A working product is the #1 goal. There are many, many distractions in startups and product building. But everything good follows from a great product so make it clear that is your #1 goal.
  • Their responsibility is a working product. Shipping isn’t enough. Many teams are rewarded for merely shipping, but that’s not the hard part. The hard part is making something people use and love.

2. Stop new feature production

Part of this transition is to simply stop new feature production. Seriously. I know you probably just lost your breath and are nervously laughing and looking around to see if anybody is noticing you sweating. Stop new feature production...that’s heresy! There are so many reasons to keep going. You’ve made promises to others: your board, your executive team, co-workers, customers, friends. You want to keep your team’s momentum and spirits high. You want to make sure all the money you’re paying your designers and developers is building something new. But justifying all of those things is how we trick ourselves into believing the new feature’ve got to stop the actual production line to correct this situation. You’ve got to push the giant red STOP button.

This isn't necessarily all bad. Stopping the production line is also a clear, strong signal that you’re changing your priorities. This is even better than having a heart-to-heart with your team because it suddenly demonstrates change and it magically opens up a lot of room in your sprints to go back and work on existing features. The goal is to get your current features actually working and it is impossible to do that when you’re always focused on new ones. Your team will gain confidence in you for restoring focus. Chances are they all knew that things weren’t right, and you’re just making that explicit and actionable. And long-term they want to have clear goals by which to work, and you’re starting to give that to them now.

3. Redesign your Core Product Loop

We’ve established that your core feature set isn’t working, so the next step is to redesign it until it does work. This might be straight-forward...a reskinning of the UI or revamping your copy, or it might be really involved, like redesigning the entire onboarding experience from scratch.

And you don’t want to just redesign your existing feature set, but your existing product loop. What’s the difference? The difference is that your existing feature set is focused mostly on engaged users, while your existing product loop comprises the broader experience: getting started and using your product.

For a deep dive into some numbers around this check out Andrew Chen’s piece on the next feature fallacy. (I’m grateful that when I initially tweeted about the Next Feature Fallacy Andrew picked up on it and wrote about it from a metrics angle.) Andrew shows how most features do not address the fundamental interaction points that lead to app growth.

To redesign your core product loop well you need to talk with the right people. The best people to talk to are those who have recently made an explicit decision to not use your product. Go after two groups of people:

  • Find people who tried to use it but failed to do so. This is first big product design hurdle...initial onboarding. You’ll understand how the product isn’t living up to the promise your marketing makes. You’ll want to understand the delta between their expectations and their actual experience using your product.
  • Find people who were using it but recently decided to stop using it. This is the 2nd big product design hurdle...ongoing engagement. Maybe your product doesn’t actually solve the problem it purports to solve. Maybe it’s just too hard to use. Maybe it’s not clear how to use it.

These two populations will give you most of the insights you need because they address the two biggest hurdles of software: getting started and staying engaged. One thing to watch out for: When interviewing, if you hear something of the form: “I’ll use/buy your product if you add X feature”, know that this is a nasty instantiation of the Next Feature Fallacy and just isn't true. What is true is that they're not going to use your product, but be careful when people make promises based on features that don't exist. The promises usually don't exist, either.

Remember Gall’s Law

It is helpful to think about products not as a set of features, but as a system that evolves over time. The more features you add, the more complex the system. The fewer features, the simpler the system. As John Gall, whose work on systemantics focused on why complex systems fail, said:

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

Start with a Simple, Working System

The Next Feature Fallacy tricks us into thinking that adding features is the way to increase use. In fact, the reverse is probably many cases removing features simplifies the system enough so that people can understand and use it easier. This might not be a popular idea immediately among your team, executives, or investors, but in the long-term growth is not about how many features you add, it’s about how many people you add. So start with a simple, working system and go from there.

P.S. Written by the guys at Rocket Insights. Thanks for reading! We're just getting started on our product design/dev blog...feel free to email us at with any questions/feedback. Cheers!