Five ways to stop building website features nobody wants

Recognise this story? You’re sat in a meeting and someone pitches a new feature for your website. It sounds like a great idea, so you build it. Six months later it’s languishing in obscurity, ignored by your users in favour of older tools.

Often this is the result of solutioneering; jumping to a conclusion about what users want without first establishing the nature of the problem your proposed feature will solve – or whether, for that matter, there actually is a problem in the first place.

Work on redundant features represents a drain on your precious time and resources. So here are our to tips for getting new features right (and stopping solutioneering in its tracks!).

Tip one: Classify the feature

When someone suggests a feature (process change, new product, whatever), ask them whether it is a Painkiller or a Supplement. Painkillers address problems you or your users experience regularly – DOIs are a great example of Painkillers in our industry, in that they massively simplified the process of identifying resources online. Supplements create new value or opportunities, and Facebook is a classic example of this: before you discovered Facebook, did you really feel that there was a gap in your life?

If the solution being proposed doesn’t have a defined problem to address, or an opportunity to exploit, then it is neither a Painkiller nor a Supplement, and you have a strong incentive to file it in the “not now” pile.

Tip two: Target your market

There are some theoretically great tools out in the wide world which address needs that exist only in some entrepreneur’s fevered imagination. Targeting for Painkillers is easy – they address problems faced by specific people, at specific times. Even here, though, you can think beyond your existing user group and consider wider applications of your feature. Supplements are much harder to target, but not impossible. Accounts packages, for example, often include digital expenses claims: a Painkiller not only for the finance team, but a Supplement for staff who need to reclaim money from the company. This kind of feature can make the difference between making and losing a sale. No matter how great a feature is, though, if it doesn’t address a need in your target market, it needs to be put to one side.

Tip three: Check the strategic fit

If you have a great feature with clear Painkilling or Supplement properties and obvious targets, you still need to ask what it contributes to your business strategy. There’s no point building short-form authoring collaboration tools if your business relies on single-author monographs!

Tip four: Define, Define, Define

Chances are, if you’ve worked on a technology project then you have heard the term “scope creep”. Before launching into very detailed specification of the new feature, try to put some boundaries around the project. Let’s take the example of a new search alert service. What kind of search are we talking about here? Every article that includes a particular keyword? New content based on semantic user profiling? Articles which cite this? Even once I know that, how much customisation will I allow in terms of alert frequency? What about methods – do my users want email, tweets, something else? Will I provide internal analytics about how many users set up search alerts? If so, what kinds of analytics?

Once you have your definition, your best step is to get out there and speak to users. This has the added benefit of validating your original assumptions about the value of the feature before you sink too much money in the work.

Tip five: Don’t reinvent the wheel

There are only so many ideas under the sun, so it’s possible that someone has already come up with yours. Particularly if you work with an external technology provider, speak to your technical team to find out whether a similar feature already exists, even in a slightly different format.

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