Why Your Product Should Be Needs First, Features Last

As product leaders, the number one issue we see is with the concept of uncovering needs. We all have a tendency to proceed straight to features or solutions because as product leaders, we are problem solvers. But we’re here to ask you to please refrain from this tendency. Instead, pause and take time to articulate a need before jumping to solutions.

The following excerpt is from Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin. 

Earlier in our work, we worked on developing a fitness app and created the persona (a persona is a user archetype created based on your research that represents how someone might use your service, product, site, or brand) Melanie who “won’t travel more than 2 to 3 miles from work or home to work out at a studio.” That’s the need. We could have said, “We need our app to show only fitness classes or studios within 3 miles of the user’s location in the search results.” Which is a possible solution for the need. Sort of. But it shortchanges the wide-sweeping impact of the need we identified.

Instead, if we focus on Melanie’s need, we learn that she needs classes that are close to her home or work. Focusing on her need forced us to change our studio recruiting strategy in the target county to ensure a critical mass of fun fitness classes where the persona (Melanie) lived. It narrowed our studio lead-generation efforts to specific boroughs in the county. Even more specifically, it prioritized our studio recruitment efforts within each borough. If instead we had merely worked to narrow our search results by default, the search results might never have revealed enough classes. We would have had great search tech, but not enough classes in the results to drive usage.

Let’s take it one step further. What if the root cause behind the persona’s need for a 2 to 3-mile limit on distance was that the average traffic patterns in the county meant that a 2 to 3-mile distance equated to a 20 to 30-minute commute during the 5:30-6:30 p.m. rush hour time, a popular exercise time for the Melanie population. And that the 20 to 30-minute commute made it almost impossible to take classes during that hour, unless Melanie left work early. Those search result filters don’t look so great anymore, do they?

The point is, you must explore different ways to address the persona’s need and its root causes before presuming a solution. If you document and communicate needs as features, you’ll defeat yourself before even getting out of the starting gate.

Needs Aren’t Benefits

This mistake is very similar to translating needs directly into solutions. Before we jump into the feeling or benefit the persona wants to achieve, we must look without bias at the insight or need. Don’t get us wrong—the benefit helps you understand what the persona is trying to achieve, but the underlying reason for not being able to achieve that is what facilitates focus and enables action. Focus on the underlying insight or root cause of what you are observing or hearing before jumping to a solution or end benefit.

Why Individualized Needs Are Important

How do you know what to work on first for any given problem–persona combination? Can you and your team agree on a path and stick to it without overturning decisions later? Defining the Problem Statement and the Persona is your north star. That’s your starting point. The prioritized

set of needs corresponding to a specific problem–persona combination gives you the path to a solution that delights the customer, and provides the guardrails for the areas to focus on or avoid when solving for that problem and that persona. It ensures your focus for ideation and feature tradeoffs, whether it be your first version or your next product release.

Needs Enable Confidence in Early Feature Tradeoffs

Doing the Groundwork to identify and prioritize needs surrounding a specific problem for a given persona allows you to quickly say no to certain features or exploration. You can easily justify to leadership why you didn’t pursue a particular feature area with a statement like, “Melanie’s primary needs are X and Y, which is why we focused more on these features and tabled these other features for now.” It keeps the tradeoff discussion out of “opinion land” and solely in “customer-data land.”

Needs Enable Clear Prioritization of Your Time

When you know and agree upon the prioritized set of needs for your persona(s) your team has the permission to focus their time on what matters most. Providing focused ideation time, testing, and iteration around the most important aspects of the solution. Which said a different way, you aren’t spending time on random, broadly scoped aspects of the solution that are less likely to drive delight. It’s the other side of the “saying no” coin.

Needs Enable Faster Time to Market

Because you can confidently make tradeoffs early and test and iterate on only what’s most important to your persona(s) you’re able to avoid the delays that come from endless feature debate, overturned decisions, and designing or testing things that don’t impact the delight of your primary persona(s). This dramatically reduces your cycle times and your overall release cycle.

Needs Minimize and Potentially Eliminates Costly Rework

Finding that you didn’t hit the mark on the most important needs of your persona after you’ve built and released your shiny new experience is painful. Doing all the Groundwork reduces the pain of rework after you release. We’ve all spent a lot of sleepless nights agonizing over something learned soon after release that seemed so obvious and could have been identified early on had we just done the needs investigation and prioritization.


If you like what you see, there’s more where that came from. Pick up Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin from Amazon.

Product Rebels is a product management training and coaching firm run by long term product executives for companies like Intuit and Mitchell International. We have trained over 200 companies, small and enterprise level, in the skills and frameworks that help product management leaders and product managers deliver kick-ass customer experiences. We have a passion for finding efficient ways of infusing customer insight into everything product teams do in pursuit of experiences that customers love …and that drive growth.  Join us in the Product Rebels Community on Facebook or the Product Rebels Community on LinkedIn.

Take a look at our very practical training courses and coaching programs that give you practical tools, frameworks, and support you can use tomorrow in becoming a more effective product leader.  www.productrebels.com

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