Defeat Your Feature Factory by Discovering Strategic Value

by Jared M. Spool

Far too many of us work at a Feature Factory, and it’s miserable. The worst part is we unintentionally did this to ourselves.

The endless pressure on shipping something, regardless of its quality, is demoralizing. So much so that we see our colleagues heading for the exits, and we wonder if we should follow.

The problem is that your organization unintentionally became a Feature Factory. This slow degradation in the working environment was not malicious; instead, it was just a reaction to ever-increasing pressure.

Nobody can see what’s happening until it’s too late. (Which is when the layoffs hit.) Even then, they don’t know why it happened, so it doesn’t stop.

The pressure comes from combined adverse forces from customers, executives, and stakeholders. It’s a metaphorical flywheel, which spins around, amplifying these damaging forces. 

We helped create this flywheel; fortunately, we have what it takes to make it disappear.

We’ll defeat the Feature Factory by identifying what causes the pressure to increase, reversing it, and replacing it with something much better.

How both real and metaphorical flywheels work.

Before we dive into how you’ll stop your Feature Factory and what you’ll replace it with, we need to take a quick diversion on the underlying machinery behind this. First, we need to talk about how flywheels work.

Flywheels date back to before the Industrial Revolution. They are like giant, heavy-rimmed bicycle wheels, except you make the tire out of the heaviest metal you can afford. (Also, the weight is often unevenly distributed across the outer rim, but that’s not important right now. I just put this in to make the physics majors happy.) The extreme weight on the wheel’s outer edge makes flywheels work.

You see, a flywheel takes some energy to get going, but once it starts moving, it keeps moving when you remove the power source. That’s because gravity pulls down on that heavy rim, forcing the opposite side up, only to be pulled down again. The heavier the rim, the longer it will rotate without adding any new power.

This mechanical concept is critical: Flywheels need a powerful investment to start, but they will keep going for a long while even after you cut off investment. In industrial applications, you can power heavy machinery or vehicles this way. There are lots of real-world applications for a flywheel.

Plus, if you add more power, the flywheel will rotate faster. When you cut that power off, it’ll take even longer to slow down. It’s a power investment amplifier, releasing more energy than you initially invested. 

(For the physics majors and mechanical engineers reading this, I know this is a grossly inaccurate oversimplification that suggests some sort of perpetual motion machine, but bear with me. The thought that Newton’s First Law will kick in and the flywheel will eventually stop is not much of a relief when it’s happening to you.)

In business, a metaphorical flywheel can have the same properties: You make an initial investment in your flywheel, and it starts to produce results. However, when you stop investing, the wheel keeps spinning, and the results keep happening.

For instance, you can visualize a successful viral marketing campaign as a flywheel:

  • You give your product to influencers. (The free products are your initial investment.)
  • Those influencers let their friends and family members know how fantastic your product is. 
  • The influencers convince their network to buy your product. Revenue starts coming in from this second wave, giving you a return on your initial investment.
  • The second wave loves your product and recommends it to their network.
  • That group buys the product, generating more revenue without any additional investment.

The flywheel now keeps spinning, producing far more revenue than your initial investment. That’s how a Viral Marketing Flywheel works.

Not all flywheels in business are desirable.

Creating a Viral Marketing Flywheel that drives massive customer growth is fantastic, even when you unintentionally created it. (In fact, it’s pretty tricky to construct one intentionally because you rarely know what will be a big hit with customers. Most attempts fizzle out before the flywheel starts spinning.)

Unfortunately, organizations can also unintentionally develop flywheels that deliver undesirable outcomes. When that happens, they have this spinning wheel throwing off negative energy. That makes things worse. 

In the worst cases, the organization doesn’t realize they’ve developed an undesirable flywheel until it has done too much damage. A heavy, moving flywheel is challenging to stop, so the undesirable effects continue for a long time.

The drive to deliver “something.”

In our world, UX folks join their product and development peers to build and ship products and services. Delivering products and services is critical to an organization’s success. 

Everyone’s goal is to deliver something that customers and users love. We all want them to love our products so much that they will pay handsomely.

The organization invests in building the product. Hopefully, a flywheel will form to produce vast amounts of revenue from that product because customers love it. However, just like intentionally creating a Viral Marketing Flywheel, it’s also challenging to construct a Valuable Product Flywheel that works.

Instead, they accidentally create a different flywheel with undesirable effects.

They create this new flywheel when there is pressure to deliver something — anything — to the market. After all, if you don’t deliver something to the market, there will be nothing for customers to buy, and your organization will not thrive and grow. 

Our metaphorical flywheels need gravity to work, and the urge to deliver something is a powerful force for your organization’s executives and senior stakeholders. They start to see any obstacle to shipping the next release as something they must remove. A ship-or-die philosophy takes hold, and this new flywheel starts its initial spin.

Suddenly, executives and stakeholders see delivering a mediocre-quality product as “good enough.” At the same time, they start to view a high-quality product as an unaffordable luxury. 

This perception is what powers this new flywheel. Welcome to the Feature Factory.

Does this feel familiar?

The Feature Factory Flywheel is born.

The Feature Factory Flywheel starts spinning when executives deem any product “that works” as their definition of “good enough.” Here’s how this flywheel works:

  • Stakeholders lower the product’s quality requirements to make shipping easier because they’re unsure whether delivering a better-quality product would yield better returns. The team releases a mediocre-quality product.​
  • The mediocre-quality product disappoints customers when it fails to meet their needs and expectations. (Have you ever upgraded a loved product, only to discover that the update is worse? That’s what these customers experience.)​
  • Disappointed customers move to a competitor or stop using the product. They cancel their subscriptions or tell others not to buy the product.  Revenue drops.​
  • The executives feel the revenue loss, not realizing the reduced revenue was their doing. They demand the teams immediately ship new capabilities to attract customers back.​
  • Now, the team is more pressured to deliver something new even faster. To deal with this, stakeholders again reduce the quality requirements, lowering the definition of “good enough.”

The flywheel spins faster, and the cycle repeats. 

Nobody likes a Feature Factory, but the flywheel is almost impossible to stop, especially when continually disappointed customers feed the pressure to go faster.

Tactical UX research unintentionally adds power to the flywheel.

It’s sad to report that many organizations don’t conduct user research. Instead, they are forced to guess when something is “good enough” and hope it won’t disappoint the customers this time. They probably guessed wrongly, and customers were disappointed. The flywheel spins faster.

Many teams do conduct user research to learn how to improve their products. They use the tactical methods of usability testing, interviews, and surveys to iterate on designs, making incremental improvements. If they do this well, they’ll delight their customers instead of disappointing them.

However, most teams don’t get the chance to do this well. In some cases, the best they can do is team member usability testing, interviews with peer lead panels, and surveys that hold too much weight in decision-making, which leads to disappointing their customers just a little less. Less is better than more here, but it still adds power to the flywheel.

Unfortunately, while the tactical UX researchers try their best, the executives still want to ship faster. Stakeholders start questioning whether UX research adds enough value and consider eliminating some or all of it.

Stakeholders compel their researchers to do less research and deliver results faster. After all, anything that delays shipping is, at best, seen as a luxury and, at worst, seen as an obstacle the stakeholders must remove. If researchers take too long, stakeholders lose patience and decide to move forward without it.

The quality of the research goes down. Now, when researchers show that a portion of the product “works,” they’re told that’s good enough and hustled off to another portion to focus on.

The researchers now spend less time with their users and, as a result, aren’t learning much about what those users want and need from the product. Knowing less about the users means the team needs to guess more, which leads to more disappointed customers. The flywheel spins faster.

All of this adds a new dimension to the Feature Factory Flywheel:

  • Stakeholders put pressure on tactical UX researchers to conduct less research.
  • A poorer-quality product ships and disappoints customers. 
  • Stakeholders cannot see that customers are disappointed because they’ve reduced the research that would tell them. So, they continue to cut out more research.
  • Disappointed customers drop the product even faster. Revenue continues to fall.
  • Executives see the revenue dropping. 
  • They demand even faster delivery of new features and capabilities that they hope will win customers back.

The Feature Factory Flywheel gains power and spins faster.

Unfortunately, the signal that stakeholders take away from all this is that research isn’t essential, and they can skip it more frequently. Reducing research lowers quality. Since stakeholders have no mechanism to see they’ve done this, they unwittingly increase the flywheel speed.

Nobody intended the Feature Factory Flywheel. However, it’s tough to avoid, especially if you don’t realize what’s missing.

How Tactical UX Research fails your organization.

If all this feels uncomfortably familiar, there is a way out. However, first, we must disassemble what’s happening here.

Tactical UX researchers use techniques focusing on how users interact with a small portion of the product. They test and validate only the immediate functionality the team is trying to ship. 

This tactical approach means the researchers only see a tiny slice of a given user’s overall experience. But the customers find the product’s entire experience disappointing, not just that one piece of its capabilities.

Because your tactical UX research only focuses on what you can change before your next deadline, it fails your organization in two ways: 

First, it doesn’t reveal to your stakeholders what happens when they reduce your product’s quality.

Stakeholders can’t see which product and delivery decisions harm quality and disappoint customers. So, they can’t adjust their strategies to avoid making these detrimental decisions. 

Instead, they interpret the absence of feedback as a strong signal that their previous choices have worked well, so they keep doing them. This reinforcement encourages more detrimental decisions.

Second, nobody in your organization is growing their expertise about your users and your users’ needs.

When your team members don’t grow their expertise about what users and customers need, they have to increasingly rely on guesses about what new capabilities to build. Most of those guesses will further disappoint customers. 

This results in more frequent deliveries of products that don’t match your customers’ and users’ needs. Your organization’s value in the market goes down instead of your products becoming more desirable.

If we can solve these two flaws, we can stop the Feature Factory Flywheel and give the market better-quality products. Delight all the customers! 

Strategic UX Research to the rescue.

Switching our approach from tactical UX research to strategic UX research directly counteracts these flaws. 

This change in how we conduct research lets us directly observe and track when reductions in product quality negatively affect users and customers. Because of its immersive nature, the organization can now speed delivery, not by reducing quality but by making more intelligent decisions that streamline the development process.

Strategic UX researchers focus on developing a comprehensive, shared understanding of customers’ and users’ needs and wants by focusing on the experiences those folks have today. Strategic UX research’s goal is to make every person in the organization the world’s foremost expert in their users and their users’ needs.

To accomplish this goal, researchers spend time “deep hanging out” with customers and users to learn everything about their experiences. They see how users are different from each other. They identify what makes customers happy and what disappoints them. This research gives these researchers deep insights into how their product fits into their customers’ and users’ lives.

Strategic UX research continuously studies customers’ and users’ experiences in parallel with ongoing development, unlike tactical UX research, which studies users’ interactions in discrete, small projects while the product is under development.

This alternative approach makes it easier to detect when a new release has made things worse. It also provides the necessary background to identify potential issues the team can correct before shipping.

This experience-focused approach provides the two missing ingredients needed to fight the Feature Factory Flywheel: a growing understanding of the customers and users and an ongoing mechanism to monitor the product’s quality. It’s a concrete path to slowing down or stopping the flywheel and ending the Feature Factory.

A new flywheel to drive strategic value.

You can’t turn off the Feature Factory Flywheel without replacing it with something else — ideally, a flywheel that produces more value for the organization. We don’t want any temptation to return to the Feature Factory days. 

Fortunately, strategic UX research can provide the power for a new flywheel. 

As your organization cultivates a more in-depth understanding of customers’ and users’ experiences, you’ll uncover many valuable opportunities to turn poor experiences into great ones. You can convert many of these opportunities into groundbreaking innovations that position your organization as an industry and market leader.

Employing strategic UX research becomes a desirable flywheel in its own right: 

  • Ongoing strategic UX research exposes a widespread pattern of sub-optimal user experiences that no competitor currently improves. This discovery reveals a significant untapped opportunity.
  • The research team uncovers that customers would pay handsomely for a product with features that improve their experience. Now, this is a significantly valuable untapped opportunity.
  • Product managers and developers develop the product’s capability in record time because the research shows them precisely what’s needed to deliver this untapped value to the customer.
  • Reduced tactical UX research efforts prove that the new feature does improve the experience and delights customers. (We can reduce the tactical efforts because the ongoing strategic research has informed us more about what our users need.)
  • Word-of-mouth endorsements drive more customers to the product since no competitor comes close to offering comparable benefits.
  • Stakeholders clearly see the connection between the newly discovered capabilities and increased revenue. They now want to conduct more strategic UX research to discover more valuable opportunities.

And the flywheel spins, this time to everyone’s delight. It’s a win-win-win-win for customers, users, stakeholders, and executives. The Feature Factory is no more.

It’s totally possible to defeat the Feature Factory. You only need something better to replace it with. 

That’s where Strategic UX Research comes in. And the result is an improved Strategic Value Discovery Flywheel.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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