How to pick between features vs. UX

Sometimes it's worth investing into a better user experience. Other times you need to ship new features faster than you improve their usability.

As a designer, it's your job to know how to tell the difference.

When someone in the room is saying, "let's ship it as-is and improve it later," you want that someone to be a qualified designer.

But you're not qualified if you can't recognize when to cut costs.

Features vs. UX enhancements is ultimately about the stage of your market.

There are three market stages of software adoption to consider:

  1. Technology - Product is new and novel
  2. Feature - Competing on critical features
  3. Experience - Competing on usability and niche value propositions

You can identify you market stage by conducting product teardowns of how your competitors are solving the same problem.

You can achieve this by:

  • Taking screenshots of each workflow in the product
  • Recording a video walkthrough of the product
  • Watching a live demonstration of the product

Once completed, you can compile a matrix of competitor details that includes:

  • Critical features
  • Things your team believes they do well
  • Things your team believes they do poorly

To better inform your understanding of your market stage:

  • Discuss the marketshare picture with your RevOps team
  • Discuss customer thoughts on competitors with your Sales and Support teams
  • Talk with your customers about their experiences with competitors

But once you've gathered all of this information, then what?

How to proceed if you're in the Technology Stage

In 2022, we're the furthest away from this market stage than we've ever been. Software is eating the world, and there's at least a rudimentary piece of software for most markets.

But still: if you find yourself here, you're in luck:

  • Little or no competition exists
  • Being wrong is less consequential
  • If there are no competitors now, there will be soon
  • Velocity of features is more important than optimal experience

Example: The first word processor coming to market had limit functionality. It allowed the user to input plain text and line breaks. It wasn't great, but it worked and was the first of its kind to solve a problem that no one else had tackled.

How to proceed if you're in the Feature Stage

The Feature Stage affords the most flexibility in product strategy, but it also introduces the most risk if that strategy is incorrect. This is often indicative of a volatile market with established and emerging competition.

Be prepared to keep a strong pulse on your market:

  • Maintain velocity at scale by building a design system
  • Lots of priority switching between features and enhancements
  • Leverage design sprints for identifying niche market segments
  • Don't overthink UI decisions when creating feature parity
  • Measure how your customers are using your product to identify pain

Example: Word processing became an instant productivity game-changer used across all intellectual labor markets. And while established competitors like Microsoft evolved critical features (Save, Print, Templates, styling toolbars, etc), new players like Google were entering the game and experimenting with features that would grow to become critical (e.g. cloud collaboration).

How to proceed if you're in the Experience Stage

In mature markets, this is often the stage we find ourselves and is also the reason for the rise of the Product Designer and the emphasis on user experience. In this stage, it's not enough that technology simply "work", but it's now being require that it "work well".

Design-informed teams will remain competitive by:

  • Establishing a culture of experimentation to find new market opportunities
  • Evolving a design system that rethinks the holistic approach of the entire product
  • Make room for design iterations to be tested and tweaked before implementation
  • Prioritize user experience over the feature factory

The next time you're about to argue for allocating resources into UX, consider how informed you are about the picture of your market and the dependencies of your company's position.

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