Adding Value and The Buddha Nature of Products

One phrase you hear a lot of in product design is “adding value” or “value-add.” As in, “Being able to see their account balance is a value-add for customers.” What this usually means, however, is adding a new feature. “Being able to turn your washing machine on from this PDA would be a value add.”

Lo and behold, value adds can be features no user needs, wants, has asked for, or will even miss if it isn’t there. Value adds can thus actually make products far, far worse.

The problem is that soon you have a product that is loaded up with value-adds and the actual value of the product is lost in a long feature list. The way devices are created these days, it can be fairly easy to bolt on a feature. It can be harder, in fact, to say no. “Yes we can add that, but the real question is should we add that?” Determining where the real value of a product lies, determining the core set of features that must be excellent, then ruthlessly defending them (and refining them until they work well and look beautiful) is the job of the designer and product manager.

What you need to find and protect is what my friend Ryan Freitas called the product’s Buddha Nature. At its core, what should this product be best at? When users think of this product, what is the central feature(s) that should spring to mind? Everything else is distraction, clutter, cruft.

There are two main reasons companies want to add feature after feature onto products. One is “feature parity:” our competitors have this feature, so we have to have it as well. It gives marketers something to sell and put on the side of the packaging. Although, yes, users say they want features, this is a flawed long-term strategy for any number of reasons: features are easily copied, features by themselves rarely create desire for ownership (except among geeks/engineers), one-to-one matching of features doesn’t differentiate your product from the rest of the market, and features alone don’t create a holistic product that is easy to use (and thus decreasing returns of non-broken (just difficult to use) products). The feature parity mindset (let’s +1 everything!), seldom gives you breakthrough products anyway. As Buckminster Fuller correctly noted, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing one obsolete.”

The second reason for “adding value” is a myopic vision about their own product, that it is the only product the user owns and thus should do everything, when in reality, users are much more likely to have a varied ecosystem of devices, each performing a specific set of tasks. I don’t want my refrigerator to also be my dishwasher. While there is a push towards polyfuctionality–this device does everything!–(this is especially true of touchscreen devices with their fluid/unfixed interfaces), my feeling is monofuctional devices in an ecosystem, aka “small pieces loosely joined,” is here to stay and is probably a stronger, wiser strategy to adopt for most products.

So the next time someone wants to “add value” to a product, ask “Value for whom?” If users won’t notice that it is missing, well, then that should tell you that it isn’t valuable to them in this particular product. Find the Buddha nature. Do not speak unless it improves the silence.