Needs. Features. Benefits.

For the last two months I have been acting as a product manager of a large website that sees millions of visitors a day. My task is to increase: everything. Increase registrations, increase paying users, increase understanding etc. There is pressure coming from every direction and so many possibilities that it is difficult to cut through the noise, keep pursuing a direction and make sure it turns out well.

How to decide which direction to take? There are so many options and places that a product can be improved. Where to start?

A good project starts with User Needs, imagines the Features that could exist to solve those needs and defines the Benefits that these features will offer.


In that order. And then:

Examine Assumptions
Assess Risks

It’s really easy and fun to jump ahead and imagine all the cool features you can think of – but if they’re not tied to a need, they may be completely irrelevant.

First of all, we have to figure out who we’re building this for. Who are the people we’re talking to with this product. What do they need? Who are they?

Once you figure this out – by doing research of your target audience or the people who are actually coming to your site – hopefully with the help of a user research team, it’s time to figure out what they need.

Define their needs

    What problems do they face pertaining to your product/idea?
    What do they wish they could do that they can’t currently do?
    What information are they lacking that you might be able to provide?
    How do they currently solve problems pertaining to your product/idea?
    What do they like/not like find helpful/not helpful about their solutions?

Phrase needs in their terms – this will help keep you focused on the end user.

    I want to…
    I need to…
    I don’t want to..
    I want to feel…

This is the time to put yourself in their shoes. Listen to them and imagine how they approach life. Where are their frustrations?

Ok, once that’s over you can finally get into the features – the imaginative stuff – the problem solving that you really want to do.

Imagine Features

    Try to think broadly and openly about multiple ways to solve a need or problem. There is rarely only one way to do something
    The sky is the limit. No idea is too crazy or dumb. This is the time to explore.
    If the thing you were building was human, what would they do to help in this situation?
    If your product was magic – what could it do?

Now it’s time to check yourself. Do these features even make sense? Did you get a little carried away? Before building anything it is important to determine that the features you dreamed up provide real benefit to users when they’re using them.

Define Benefits

    Why does this matter?
    If i’m a user, why do I care that this feature is there?
    What is in it for me (the user) if this feature is built?

Check each feature for its benefit. If you can’t find a benefit that you can believe in, chances are users won’t believe in it either.

Ok, so you’re done right?

Not quite.

Before you start building anything it’s important to examine the assumptions you are making in suggesting a feature, and assess the risks you may encounter if you start working on it.

Examine Assumptions

    What are you basing your idea for this feature on?
    What needs to be true for this feature to work?

Asses Risks

    What problems could you run into if you start developing this feature?
    What unknowns are you dealing with if you start this project?

Once you take an honest look at your feature lists and air out all of the risks and assumptions you can prioritize the features you want to validate and de-risk first.

Without going through this exercise it is easy for feature lists to get out of hand and for Stakeholders and managers to get excited about features that may not add that much value (benefit) to the product you’re building.

This exercise can help ground a product group on the most important features to validate and de-risk. Rather than wasting a lot of time building things to “see what happens,” by prioritizing features based on user needs, benefits, assumptions and risks, a team can learn more, more quickly which will help them build the right things faster.

Which is what everyone wants, right?


About calliewheeler

Callie is an enthusiastic proponent of user centered design and usability research and discovery. Her passions lie in social entrepreneurship and experience design.

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