Beyond features: crafting apps users love

Learn how an app almost failed by overextending, and how a shift from feature-overload to value-centricity could have turned things around.

Beyond features: crafting apps users love

Imagine pouring your heart and soul into creating an app you believe will revolutionize the way people live, only to find that its impact is diluted by a desire to cater to everyone. This is the story of Tom and his team, who embarked on a mission to create an eco-conscious app for the French market. Their story serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting how focus and strategy trump a sprawling feature list.

Losing sight of the user

Tom had the ambitious goal of building a new app to help the French population adopt a more environmentally responsible lifestyle. So he hired a consulting firm to help him understand the challenges involved in changing a person’s mindset. The consultant’s ensuing report provided a benchmark analysis, a lot of data collected via surveys, and detailed persona and pain point descriptions. Without personally engaging with potential users, Tom used this report to map out a comprehensive feature list for his app.  Confident in his vision, he’s now partnering with a tech firm to help him build it.

The tech firm had been practicing lean for several years. They demanded to meet future users, as they knew that data alone would not be enough and needed validation via real-life examples. Marie, the lead designer, managed to meet three potential users and meeting them she confirmed the consultant’s report.

Happy with their findings, Tom and Marie rushed headlong in brainstorming sessions to complete the existing list of features. Lacking perspective, the development backlog quickly filled up with multiple solutions to the numerous problems that they had observed and discussed with users. This pushed them to design a really complex system which was supposed to do everything! They ended up with three products stuffed into one that took much longer to build.

The team had a great feeling that development was going well, all the more since they tested the product several times with potential users throughout the process. Users provided positive feedback which reinforced the team’s confidence about their upcoming success. But the results weren’t as good as expected: six months after the launch, they were losing 70% of their users before the end of their onboarding funnel. And one costly feature that everybody thought would create great value for users ended up with a mere adoption rate of 15%. Not counting the time they had spent building the system which amounted to several months of a software development team. They had to decommission several modules of the application and rethink the whole design from scratch.

Total immersion in the customer’s world

The crux of the issue lay in the team's approach and their lack of perspective. They managed to meet only 3 potential users, with whom they focused on understanding what the barriers were to adopting more eco-responsible lifestyle habits. This, coupled with the biases introduced by the consultant's report, resulted in a lack of deep understanding of what their users are trying to do, achieve, and their preferences for doing so. They were so engrossed in ticking off features from their extensive list that they lost sight of the essential - solving the most critical problem for a specific user segment. They should have invested more time upfront to understand the primary issue and test their hypotheses with real users from the beginning.

Our cognitive biases often color our perception when we're out in the field talking to customers, as evidenced by Tom and Marie's story. Allowing these biases to skew our field observations is a typical mistake in product discovery. However, the earlier we recognize this, the more proficient we become at uncovering true customer needs and preferences.

One of the most effective ways to overcome our biases is to conduct what we call in lean: “gemba” walks in the client field. Gemba means the “place where value is created”, so in this case it means the places where clients purchase and use different solutions to resolve their problems. Observe customers using tools, including both your products and competitors’, and also without any tools. The aim is to fully understand their real-life experiences, even if it means walking a mile in their shoes. If your product is a software application or service for office work, this means sitting beside the customer at their desk, closely watching them complete a professional task from start to finish, or it could mean watching them in their context as they use a digital app on their phone.

Another crucial practice to really capture customers’ desires and preferences, are Job To Be Done interviews. Stepping away from the product and our intentions for it, the key is to focus on what drives our customers – what are they truly aiming to achieve? What are their specific circumstances as well as their social, functional and emotional constraints which can explain why they are doing this in a certain way? This understanding is pivotal to identifying the problem that our product should solve if we want to foster adoption. It’s about delving deeper into the customer's world, going beyond the surface to grasp their actual needs and aspirations. This shift in perspective is crucial for product success, as it aligns our development efforts with the real value sought by our customers.

The "Job To Be Done" concept, introduced by Clayton Christensen in “Competing against Luck,” centers on the notion that individuals 'hire' a solution to progress in particular circumstances, amidst specific complexities. A well-conducted Job To Be Done (JTBD) interview can reveal rich contextual and personal details that statistical data alone will probably miss. For instance, if we consider JTBD in relation to meat consumption and packaging habits, Marie could have asked customers questions like: During your last grocery shopping trip, what did you buy and why? Which is your favorite store and what makes it your preference? What brings you a sense of pride when you're cooking?

And to delve more broadly than a specific meat consumption habit, she could, for example, have asked users of a competing app on environmentally responsible lifestyle: Why do you use this app? What is your best memory with this app and why?

We encourage you to read this excellent book to find out how to build your own JTBD interviews.

Escaping the feature trap

By combining client gemba observations with JTBD interviews, we can uncover the stable preferences of a particular customer segment. These are the specific criteria customers rely on when searching for a solution to their problem. Identifying these non-negotiable criteria is essential for creating a product that captures their attention and meets their needs effectively. For instance, in the development of Tom’s app, some identified stable preferences included: easy and inexpensive to set up, easy to find.

Tom and Marie's journey teaches a vital lesson: in the quest to build a product people will love, it’s not about having everything, but about doing one thing exceptionally well, and then another, and then another. By focusing on the JTBD, by conducting regular client gemba observations, and by developing a deep understanding of customers’ stable preferences, you can escape the trap of an endless feature list and create a product that truly resonates with its users.