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The Next Feature Fallacy: The fallacy that the next new feature will suddenly make people use your product

A few weeks ago, I read this tweet, and found myself nodding my head in vigorous agreement.

For people who love to build product, when something’s not working, it’s tempting to simply build more product. It leads to the launch-fail-relaunch cycle that I alluded to in a previous essay, Mobile app startups are failing like it’s 1999. However, this rarely works, and when you look at the metrics, it’s obvious why.

The metrics behind the Next Feature Fallacy
Let’s go into the numbers. The reason why the Fallacy is true can be described by one simple diagram, which might be described as the most tragic curve in tech:


Screenshot 2015-05-31 19.50.54


The above diagram shows the precipitous drop-off between initially attracting a user versus the difficulty of retaining them over the first month. Perhaps it reminds you of the diagram, popularized by Edward Tufte, of the destruction of the Napoleon’s Grande Armée during his disastrous invasion of Russia. The curve drops off fast- very fast. I’ve seen a lot of real data around this, and believe me, there are very few cases where things look pretty.

Some example metrics for a web app with average (but not great) numbers:

  • 1000 users visit your homepage to check out your product
  • 20% sign up
  • 80% finish onboarding
  • 40% visit the next day after signup
  • 20% visit the next week after signup
  • 10% visit after 30 days after signup
  • After 30 days, 20 users (out of 1000!) are DAUs

This is pretty typical, and you can see the steep drop-off.

And yes, occasionally I’ve seen better numbers than this, for apps that have built a great brand, or are getting most of their traffic through high-conversion referrals. Or the D1/D7/D30 for certain categories, like messaging apps, are often 2-3X higher than what I’m publishing above. But in the main, everyone is a bit depressed about their numbers. I’ve written about the routine mediocrity of these metrics in more detail here: Why consumer product metrics are all terrible.

The vast majority of features won’t bend the curve
These metrics are terrible, and the Next Feature Fallacy strikes because it’s easy to build new features that don’t target the important parts. Two mistakes are often made when designing features meant to bend this engagement curve:

  • Too few people will use the feature. In particular, that the features target engaged/retained users rather than non-users and new users
  • Too little impact is made when they do engage. Especially the case when important/key functions are displayed like optional actions outside of the onboarding process.

These mistakes are made because there’s often the well-intentioned instinct to focus on features that drive deep engagement. Of course you need a strong baseline of engagement, but at its extreme, this turns misguided because features that aren’t often used can’t bend the curve. A “day 7 feature” will automatically be used less than an experience tied to onboarding, since the tragic curve above shows that fewer than 4% of visitors will end up seeing it.

Similarly, a product’s onboarding experience can be weak if there isn’t a strong opinion on the right way to use (and setup) the product. In the early Twitter days, you’d sign up and immediately be dropped onto a blank feed, and a text box to type in your status. While this might let you explore the product and do anything, ultimately this is a weaker design then asking you to follow a bunch of accounts, which is the current design. Understanding that Twitter is meant to be mostly used as a reader, potentially without tweeting much, is a deep insight and a strong opinion that has paid dividends for the product.

Another frame to think about is to make sure a new feature doesn’t assume deep engagement/investment in your product. Let’s introduce the concept of an engagement wall, which exists at the moment that your product asks the user to deeply invest in their product usage, where “behind the wall” means that the feature can only be experienced once the users buys into a product, and engages. An example might be a high-effort, low % action like posting a photo, creating a new project, or dropping files into a folder. In front of the wall means features that create value without much investment, such as browsing a feed, rating some photos, or clicking a link. If you build a bunch of amazing features that are behind the engagement wall, then chances are, only a small % of users will experience the benefits. Adding a bunch of these features won’t bend the curve.

How to pick the next feature
Picking the features that bend the curve requires a strong understanding of your user lifecycle.

First and foremost is maximizing the reach of your feature, so it impacts the most people. It’s a good rule of thumb that the best features often focus mostly on non-users and casual users, with the reason that there’s simply many more of them. A small increase in the front of the tragic curve can ripple down benefits to the rest of it. This means the landing page, onboarding sequence, and the initial out-of-box product experience are critical, and usually don’t get enough attention.

Similarly, it’s important to have deep insights on what users need to do to become activated, so that their first visit is set up properly. For social networks, getting them to follow/add friends is key, because that kicks off a number of loops that will bring them back later on. For a SaaS metrics app, it might be getting a JS tag onto the right pages. For a blog, it might be for them to pick a name, theme, and write the first post so they get invested. Isolating the minimum onboarding process lets you keep the initial steps high-conversion, yet set up their experience for success.

When a product is still early, when you’re searching for and building game-changing features, the resources those features eat through can be massive. The risk that your company takes in building them might be too high, and your team might overestimate the  probability that a feature will meet your expected growth goals for it. There is always a chance that the next feature will bend the curve, but it requires being smart, shrewd, and informed. Good luck.

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