Agile software development relies on delivering small increments of work that individually deliver value to the customer. By keeping things small, you ensure the team delivers quickly, provides value to the customer quickly, and most importantly receive feedback from the customer on what is working and what is not.
If you are being agile with your feature delivery, you should be moving fast and learning quickly! That is why the feature string is so important.
What is a Feature String?!
Each individual feature should deliver value on its own. But greatness happens when features can string together to form a step function change to the user experience.
A feature string is a grouping of sub-features that come together to deliver that step function change in experience.
An individual add-on feature is one small increment introduced that does deliver value to the customer. It impacts the customer experience, but isn’t a game changer. You could introduce an add on feature, and not every customer could notice it.
Here is an example of the difference between individual add-on features, versus a feature string:
Recently, my girlfriend and I rented a car to escape an overcrowded Chicago city center and get to the suburbs of New Jersey for a few months. I didn’t want to fly because of COVID, so driving the 12 hours seemed like an OK task.
On the way to New Jersey, we were given a 2018 Hyundai Elantra as our rental car. It was nice, clean (especially after we covered everything with Lysol), and did the trick.
When driving there are of course standard features you need. Check out my agile analogy for examples of seemingly obvious car features.
A few “new” features stood out in this Elantra that I hadn’t encountered before. One, was lane alerts. Whenever you go over the dashed white lines in the highway, a small chime plays making sure you’re aware you are in another lane. Sometimes it was annoying, but overall this alert was handy way of making us aware of our surroundings.
Lane alerts are an example of an add-on feature. This feature alone, not a game changer. But it stood out to me and my experience on my 12 hour journey. No doubt as other people rent and drive this same car, many of them wouldn’t even notice this improvement.
Another feature that all cars have these days is cruise control, where you tell the car the speed you’d like to go, and it maintains that speed. Again not a game changer but convenient when you are on a long stretch of road with no traffic.
The way back, and my newer car rental is really where the “feature string” comes in to play.
A few months later on our way back, we were given a 2020 Hyundai Sonata with about 5,000 miles on it. Pretty new, pretty clean, and a comfortable ride. Not only was this car 2 years newer than the Elantra we had on our way to New Jersey, but the Sonata is a slightly higher end model that Hyundai offers than the Elantra.
There were a few features that stood out to me. Not only did the Sonata have a lane alert, but it actually had lane assist, helping guide the wheel so the car stays at the center of the lane on the highway. Now THAT makes a big difference.
Another individual feature offered was adaptive cruise control. It takes cruise control, but allows you to pick a following distance for the car in front of you! So the car will take your speed into account, the speed of the car in front of you into account, and will keep you cars speed at or below the cruise control speed you set. At the same time, it keeps you at a safe following distance for that car in front of you, reducing your speed if the distance gets too close. So cool!
Adaptive cruise control as a feature alone is pretty cool, but when you STRING ADAPTIVE CRUISE CONTROL WITH LANE ASSIST, you get a semi autonomous car that on highways can practically drive itself. This combination of features that come together to form a larger benefit than if you looked at each one individually is a prime example of a feature string.
Of course I kept my hands on the wheel and stayed alert during the drive, but at the end of the 12 hours I was considerably less fatigued than I would have been. Now that is some massive customer value. Less energy and more awareness = a more safe drive.
Why is a feature string so great?
We as Product Managers need to always have our focus, not on the next add on feature, but the feature string. What is the goal post, and how do we get there? Some teams use epics to put features or sub tasks together into a grouping, but the more that you can represent your feature string in your roadmap, the better.
At Nordstrom, I work to do this by leveraging swim lanes. While the horizontal axis is time going from left to right, the different rows shown in the vertical axis ladder up to feature strings. Individual features are displayed on the roadmap, but over time you as a Product Manager should be able to clearly show where you are starting, and where you are going with the feature string.
Take your product from offering basic cruise control, to stringing features together to offer limited self driving capabilities! Think about what your marketing, or sales teams will want to say to your customers. Leveraging a feature string can give you the incremental approach you need to march towards a game changing experience for customers.
Building features iteratively and stringing them together in any industry, automotive, insurance, ecommerce, can have massive benefits.
Think about this in your own role. For me at Nordstrom, how can we combine smaller features on our product page to build the foundation of a beautiful customer experience? How can you do the same in your role?
About the author:
Ben Staples has over 7 years of product management and product marketing eCommerce experience. He is currently employed at Nordstrom as a Senior Product Manager responsible for their product pages on Nordstrom.com. Previously, Ben was a Senior Product Manager for Trunk Club responsible for their iOS and Android apps. Ben started his Product career as a Product Manager for Vistaprint where he was responsible for their cart and Checkout experiences. Before leaving Vistaprint, Ben founded the Vistaprint Product Management guild with over 40 members. Learn more at www.Ben-Staples.com
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