Feature Death, Next Feature Fallacy & The Build Trap – Why Nobody is Using Your Product & What to Do About It

From Feature Death, Next Feature Fallacy & The Build Trap - Why Nobody is Using Your Product & What to Do About It

What is feature death? Why is nobody using the amazing features you’re making?! Especially if they (the users) asked for them in the first place?! 😳

How can you prevent your features from dying on you?

First of all: don’t make more features.

It’s a trap. The Build Trap, to be precise.

The build trap book cover - feature death cycle

Then, repeat after me (or Andrew Chen of Andreessen Horowitz, to be precise): “The natural state of any new product is that no one’s using it :)”

Product Death Cycle by David Bland
Product Death Cycle by David Bland

And while most product managers think the users need more features to start using their product…the opposite is often true.

In this post, I’ll look at the phenomenon called the “Product Feature Death Cycle”. Feature Death explains why feature usage gradually drops off after the feature launch.

We’ll also look what to do about it. In a sustainable way, without falling into the ‘build trap’ – churning out new features based on feature requests, diluting the product vision, and wasting your company’s resources.

Contents:

  1. The Product Feature Death Cycle – What is It?
  2. Why does Feature Death happen?
  3. Why Should You Fight Feature Death?
  4. How to Prevent Feature Death?
  5. Wrapping it up

TL;DR

For the busy ones among us, here are the main takeaways on feature death from this post!

  • Feature death describes how the usage of a feature temporarily goes up after the feature launch, and then gradually drops over time (sometimes to zero)
  • Some of feature death is normal, as not all of your users need all of your features;
  • But more often than not, feature death is a result of ‘feature bloating’ – building features recklessly, and not paying enough attention to feature adoption and product marketing.
  • The myth of the ‘killer feature’ and believing that all your product problems can be fixed with more features (or the ‘one big thing’) leads to the so-called ‘Build Trap’.
  • The Build Trap leads to spending more and more of your development resources on building and maintaining new features, rather than improving UX and feature adoption.
  • This can make your product and team slower, make your UX more complicated, and overall – add little value for your customers.
  • Don’t outsource your Product Vision to your users – asking your users what features they want usually leads to bad product decisions.
  • Rather than trying to increase the number of features, ask yourself how you can drive more value with the product you already have.
  • Prevent feature death with evergreen onboarding (implementing the new features into evergreen adoption flow), feature adoption experiences, and product marketing.
 

The Product Feature Death Cycle – What is It?

Product Feature Death Cycle - Reforge
Product Feature Death Cycle – Reforge in What is First Time UX (FTUX)

Product Feature Death Cycle is the phenomenon where the usage of a feature temporarily goes up after the feature launch, and then gradually drops over time (sometimes to zero, which is the most depressing.)

The same applies to your whole product: Some people will just check it out and leave. Andrew Chen estimates around 90% of users stop using a new product within 30 days of signup:

Product Usage Dropoff by Andrew Chen

Feature death cycle is normal to some extent – as not all of your users will need to use all of your product. But having features that literally nobody uses may indicate a weak product vision and dangerous feature bloat.

You’re building the wrong features for your users.

Elizabeth Ferrao, Founder of Product Mindset, explained it well in her video (below):

Which is something you can (and should) fix, as it can lead to churn.

Why does Feature Death happen?

Feature death is normal

product vs users
Watching this hamster is just like watching session recordings…

Let’s face it: your users don’t care about your product.

They only care about getting their job done.

They will try to get their job done in the easiest way possible, just like the hamster above.

And since products are rarely built for only one use case, some users will simply not need all of your product features.

100% feature adoption is a pipe dream, but then again – a very low product adoption rate, or having features that nobody uses, may indicate you’re building things nobody needs, spreading yourself too thinly, and wasting your company resources.

Btw. want to improve your product adoption? Join our free course:

It may also mean that you’re not doing your product launches and feature announcements right, and that your users don’t even know you’ve built the features they need (one of our users, Kommunicate – read the case study here– had that problem. Their users kept asking support for features that were already there because the team failed to communicate they are there to the new users that joined after the feature announcement was taken down – a common problem when you don’t have evergreen onboarding.)

This can obviously backfire badly. You don’t want to learn from a churn survey that a user has left you (possibly for a competitor) because they were frustrated that they can’t solve a specific problem they have with your product…just because they haven’t found the feature(s) that would solve it.

User research can only show you design problems, not solutions.

Feature death can be also attributed to bad product decisions. And most of our product decisions are bad.

As Melissa Perri, Product Management Leader and author of the “Build Trap” book said:

“Our design or product decisions are not based on fact, but on our best guesses. Most of those guesses are wrong.”

And the wrong guesses happen especially when you outsource making product decisions to your users.

Being completely user-led in your product design is the easiest way to dilute your Product Vision. Trying to build something that would please everyone may mean you end up with a Homer Simpson’s car:

a product that appeals to everybody
Homer’s attempt to build a car that appeals to everybody…

More on that later.

You focus on building new features, rather than on product marketing & adoption

competing on features

I get it. The “shiny new thing syndrome” is real (hello, fellow Millenials!).

New is sexy. Old is boring.

Marketers prefer to focus on new user acquisition rather than old user retention. Product managers tend to prefer building new features over working on feature adoption.

But more often than not, it’s not more features you need. You need better planning what features to build (and sometimes even what features to remove) and then promote the hell out of the new features – to the right user, at the right time.

This brings me to our next point…

Why Adding More Features Won’t Help – “Next Feature Fallacy” and falling into the “Build Trap”

The Next Feature Fallacy

There is a serious flaw with “Move Fast and Break Things”, and it’s that most companies see this as an excuse to stop analyzing what they intend to build and why they should build it. Those companies get stuck in what I call “The Build Trap“.

– Melissa Perri

Thinking that the next feature will magically transform your product from an unloved ugly duckling to a beautiful swan everyone wants to use all the time is what I mean by ‘The Next Feature Fallacy’.

The Next Feature Fallacy definition by Joshua Porter

This fallacy is perpetuated by the myth of the ‘Killer Feature’. But more often than not, the Killer Feature doesn’t exist.

And the anecdotal evidence of its existence propagated by tech journalists precisely because the sightings of ‘Killer Features’ (just like killer whales…) are so rare that – when they do happen – they are new – is no evidence at all.

The answer to your product adoption problems usually does not lie in ‘not having enough features’. More often than not it’s about the more tedious, less sexy and exiting problems of:

  • poor alignment of the existing product with your existing users: maybe you just don’t have a product-market fit yet. Maybe you need to work more on your product positioning and marketing.
  • poor UX: maybe actually the features are there, but bad UX makes your product difficult and unpleasant to use?
  • poor activation and onboarding: or maybe your onboarding is leaky and people are not using your product because your time to value is forever?

The worst question to ask your users? “What features are missing?”

asking users for feature requests
In-app survey made in Userpilot. But asking such question is asking for trouble…

Flustered by low product usage, a lot of product managers think they just need to ask their users what they want.

But most users don’t know what they want. Or think they want something (and then wouldn’t use it anyway).

Also: when you ask your users what they want in an in-app survey or email, you will get responses from the top 1% of the most active users. And those may have very different needs from the ‘average user’.

Moe Ali explained it well in his LinkedIn post.

Diluting your Product Vision

As a result of trying to please everyone, you will dilute your product vision. The result will be lukewarm at best.

Trying to please everyone usually results in not being really great for anyone. Cue: Steve Jobs:

steve jobs quote

The Build Trap

Chasing the ‘next big thing’ and constantly adding new features to your backlog results in the ‘build trap’.

You end up with a bloated product with lots of features and a very unimpressive adoption rate.

And the more features you build, the more:

  • maintenance problems you have
  • the more complex and user-unfriendly your UX becomes
  • the more engineering power you need to build, fix and maintain your bloated features
  • the less resources you have to work on product adoption – improving your onboarding, feature adoption experiences, and retention strategy

This is exactly what the ‘build trap’ means.

And it can be very costly.

Why Should You Fight Feature Death?

Now, if feature death is to some extent normal, why should you fight it?

Well, as I mentioned above – you want to add value to your users. Not just ship features.

Features that are not used actually deduct value from your product (as they slow it down and make the UX more complicated.)

So unless you’ve determined you made a mistake when making the product decision to build a certain feature in the first place (in which case, you should consider killing that feature actually) – you should focus on improving your feature adoption to prevent the preventable feature death.

How to prevent Feature Death?

“Building a bunch of â€œmissing” features is unlikely to target the leakiest part of the user experience, which is in the onboarding.”

– Andrew Chen, General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz

Right. So we know building new features won’t fix your product adoption problems. What will?

Shift focus from building features to feature adoption

First and foremost – you need to move away from the output mindest and into the outcome mindset.

I know, I know – you got funding and hired a bunch of developers and product folks. Now you need to keep them busy. But being busy for the sake of it will not help you drive more value to your product.

Shift your resources from building new features to:

  • building product experiences to increase feature adoption (you can build them with Userpilot, code-free, actually)
  • experimenting and A/B testing different experiences (this can be done with Userpilot code-free again!)
  • improving your new user onboarding to increase user activation rate
  • fixing any UX issues that cannot be side-stepped with in-app experiences

Invest in Evergreen Onboarding

Another important factor that affects the product feature death cycle is the lack of evergreen onboarding.

By evergreen onboarding I mean onboarding that happens at every step of the user journey, not only at the new user onboarding stage.

user joureny secondary feature adoption

When you don’t have onboarding experiences at later stages of the user journey, the new features you build don’t get noticed after the feature release campaign ends.

This is also why feature death happens. You simply don’t advertise your “new features” to the new users that joined after the “new feature” stops being new. (Shall we officially call it “feature agism”?)

Instead, you could prevent a lot of feature death by implementing tooltips showcasing the feature at a specific point in the user journey, once the user reaches a certain milestone (in-app event):

A secondary onboarding tooltip built without coding in Userpilot
A secondary onboarding tooltip built without coding in Userpilot

This brings me to my last point…

Invest in Product Marketing

Last but not least – you can prevent a lot of feature death by simply promoting your features more, and promoting the right patterns of usage to the right personas of your product, at the right stage in their user journey.

This is a Product Marketer’s job and I can’t overstate how important it is for your product adoption rate.

You need to keep selling the features of your product to your users all the time if you want to prevent feature death.

This involves analyzing your user’s behavior, realizing that they may need to use certain features of your product (that they are not using), and then promoting these features to them in-app.

Wrapping it up

As you see – feature death is to some extent inevitable, but some it is preventable.

The whole point of building features is to drive value to your users, not to keep your developers busy and look like you’ve accomplished something.

If nobody is using the features you’ve built then let’s face it – you have not.

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