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From Outputs to Outcomes

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Clients approach us to build or redesign products for them when they identify a business opportunity or business need. Often they are facing intense competition from a market that has established product ecosystems and established user behaviours. For these clients, winning and retaining audiences is key to not only success but survival.

They will often enter the market with a pre-defined set of features and then look to scale once in the market. Too often though, we find that clients are driven by what we call ‘next feature fallacy’- the belief that success or survival is only the next one or two features away.

Next Feature Fallacy

It is a fallacy because it reinforces a ‘feature first’ mentality, in which the overall product experience and value of using that product - what audiences actually care about - become secondary. This can often leave companies chasing market parity, meaning that they simply attempt to keep up with the rest of the market. They find themselves having to continually scale in search of success and often in the wrong direction.

While focusing on new features is not inherently bad, it can create an internal mindset that has unintended consequences that are damaging to the business, it can unwittingly inform the way an organisation operates as a whole, and it can shape what a company believes success looks like, often at the expense of audiences. Features become wrongly seen as ends in themselves, rather than the tools or means to help build an experience.

Chasing market parity

When releasing or re-launching a product, it’s often a habit to look to competitors first in order to copy their feature sets as a benchmark. While in sports and VoD products the minimum expectations of users may appear greater because of the highly competitive market, copying competitors will often leave you chasing market parity and never finding unique advantages and differentiators. Companies will always find themselves a feature behind, while struggling to identify their own competitive differentiators and advantages, and failing to address their underlying product problems.

"Powerful like a gorilla, yet soft and yielding like a nerf ball. Finally I have found it…"

Misusing customer feedback

In the instances where they do not find early success (perhaps because of the above), many will then ask their early adopters or target market what features are missing from their product or service. Talking to users and customers is one of the core activities we advocate but knowing the right questions to ask and how to apply what you have learned from them are very important skills.

When you ask users what ‘features’ are missing, you’re essentially asking them to design the product for you rather than understanding their true needs. Shipping those ‘missing’ features will often kick-start a cyclical process coined the ‘Product Death Cycle’ by David Bland.

Experience Rot

A different scenario is described as Experience Rot by Jared Spool. In this case, a company does get its initial value proposition right, with a small set of features - coherent, well conceived and executed - that users love. The problem emerges when the company starts scaling, either for growth, or to capture new market segments. As before, it view new features as the catalyst for success. But often the more features added, the more complex the design solution becomes, diluting the core experience that made the product great in the first place. The quality of the experience decreases as the experience increases in complexity and density.

Pat-Methney-Guitar A guitar built for guitarist Pat Methney by luthier Linda Manzer

An outcome driven business

We instead prefer to encourage our clients and their stakeholders to think about ‘outcomes’ first.

If outputs are the things a team produces (literally out-puts). Outcomes are the things the business, product or user is trying to achieve via that output. Prioritising outputs means we prioritise and optimise for velocity and quantity. Prioritising outcomes means that we prioritise the needs of the business and audience

At any stage of a product lifecycle, outcomes are more relevant than features. Outcomes give measurable success criteria. They reflect the real needs and behaviours of your customers. If outputs are the ‘what’, outcomes are the ‘why’.

To determine the right outcomes we ask questions such as:

  • What is the business trying to achieve?
  • How do your users help you achieve this goal?
  • What are their current behaviours?
  • How can we change or encourage that behaviour?

By thinking in outcomes, we turn our attention to solving customer problems. It stops us prematurely committing to features and gives us a real, tangible way of measuring success and becoming competitive in the market. We can begin to evaluate success in terms of changes in audiences’ behaviours and the impact those changes have on the business. We work more to improve audiences’ experiences, and can pay more attention to achieving our KPIs.

Outcomes change the way we think about output

When shifting focus to solving business and customer problems, an organisation must adapt how it runs its teams, because the most effective route to achieving an outcome is not always by building new features. It may involve marketing campaigns, adjusting pricing plans, performance improvements, new infrastructure or iterating meaningfully on existing features. To this end, the business needs to be aligned to shared missions, and collaboration needs to happen across departments.

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