Technology is not better if it does not add value

If you want to be a bad product manager, market the technical superiority of your product. Customers want innovative products, and since you are using the latest technology innovations in your product, you are bound to succeed. This shows you are progressive and ahead of the curve, so there is no danger of your customers being left behind with obsolete technology. People may not realize how the technology makes your solution is better than your competitors, but that’s just because the marketing people don’t understand it and can’t explain it well enough.

If you want to be a good product manager, realize that technical superiority only matters if it provides value to your customers. Whether your solution is “better” than the status quo or the competition is a judgment made by the market, not by your engineers. Technological innovation is worthwhile when it can be translated into benefits for the customer.

New technologies always have benefits, and they almost always have side effects as well. Technologists often only focus on the benefits of the technology, and either do not consider or do not understand the importance of the consequences. For example:

  • A company may have a new technology that preserves sound quality better than MP3s and produce smaller file sizes than ACCs — qualities that they believe make it the “best” file format to use. However, if it is not compatible with iTunes, then many customers would not regard it as the “best.”
  • A manufacturer of wireless networking wireless networking equipment may provide a way to improve signal strength over long distances, making it desirable for people with home networks in large houses. However, if the technology causes increased interference with other wireless devices (e.g. cordless phones), then many consumers would not see this as a technological advancement.
  • A new battery technology may provide longer battery life for laptop computers, yet cause the battery to weigh more. Is the technology “better” or not? Different customer types will answer this differently. Those who value battery life over weight will appreciate the improvement, obviously. For others, the answer will depend on the extent of the changes. A certain type of customer may put up with a battery which is heavier by 4 oz. if it means an extra hour of battery life, though they may not tolerate a battery which is heavier by 1 lb. if it means only an extra 20 minutes of battery life.

In all three of these examples, the concepts of “better” or “best” technology are in the eye of the beholder. Engineers will often appreciate advancements in technology that can not necessarily be explained or translated directly into customer benefit. While there ultimately usually is some value to the customer, it may require a game of connecting the dots to understand the advantages.

Ultimately, evaluating technological improvements for value requires understanding customer needs, preferences, and problems.

  • In the digital music example, the product manager should know much of the current and potential customer base uses iTunes to manage their music, and whether customers value the benefits of this new technology (better sound, smaller file sizes) over the benefits of iTunes.
  • In the wireless networking example, the product manager should have spent time with customers in their homes, understanding how their networks are set up and what other devices the customer uses. This would help the product manager define the requirements for implementation of a new technology, such as 90% signal strength over 50 ft. and no interference with 900mhz devices.
  • In the battery example, the product manager should understand the different customer types, what attributes they value, and the importance of each attribute relative to each other. Knowing what customer types would value battery life over weight, and what sort of trade-offs they are willing to make, the new technology could be positioned and marketed appropriately for the proper customer segments.

Whenever someone proposes a technological improvement that they content is “better,” product managers need to probe further to understand what makes it better. Why is it superior? How will customers benefit? What are the criteria which customers value, and how will this impact those criteria? Will it improve one criteria at the expense of another? Does this tradeoff add or remove value from the product? By going through this exercise, rather than just accepting the assertion that it is “better,” a product manager can ensure that technological changes are adding value to the product and improving it in the mind of the customer.

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10 thoughts on “Technology is not better if it does not add value

  1. I like the emphasis on focusing on customer value instead of technology value. It is hard to do when a technology makes a segment of a single value stream much more valuable, but not necessarily the whole value stream.

    P.S. Please use a spell checker on your posting.

  2. I am very impressed with paying visit to customer for experiencing the real wireless networking environment.

    I am product enginner for industrial hardware with customers being software or solution houses. I wonder how should I balance between interests of software / system architecture engineers and “end” users which are public citizens – Now I put the later much heavier than the former

  3. Sales reps use the FAB framework. FAB is features, advantages, and benefits. They sell the steak, the benefits. They use features as criteria to answer the questions around parity and difference. They know that advantages are fleeting.

    Advertising seems to get stuck in competitive claims around advantages. Try to market through specifics.

    I once had to sell a framework written on the underlying vendor’s latest technology. That technology was only supported in one point release of the product. Then, it vanished, and with it went our market. The technology was better, but not better enough.

    Technologies, products, services, and vendor operational processes should aim at constraints on current practice. They should either loosen a constraint or remove the constraint. This is where the real benefit of a technology, product, or service can be found.

    We should be encapsulating our technology. It will show up at the user’s level as installation or use requirements.

    When dealing with a technology, move when you must, or span and sublimate–eliminate technology choice by supporting all the vendor specific instances–to expand your market.

    Supporting a technology is a cost. Supporting a technology deeply costs more and may require a dedicated team. Supporting a technology can also drive your release schedule.

  4. I think you can add the wisdom of this post to the one you wrote a while back on adding too many features to a product.

    You see this in many tech products, where over engineered products that are technical marvels, but don’t address consumer needs, lose out to simpler and more user friendly designs.

    The Nintendo Wii and the iPhone aren’t technically more advanced than their competitors, they are just designed in a way that normal users can use the products intuitively without reading a phone book sized manual.

  5. In Guide to Growth, a new book by partners in Christensen’s consulting firm, the authors talk about how putting a lot of features into a product invites competitors with a more focused offer to enter the market.

    It’s more that doing the job and no more is better than more or less features. Features get thrown in without regard to whether they contribute to getting the users real work done.

    Technology is neutral to getting real work done, except in the case of IT work.

  6. As I write in my book “The Product Manager’s Desk Reference,” unless you understand what motivates the “who” (the customer target – not just any customer) and how they “do what they do,” no degree of technology will be worthy of investment.

  7. I like this posting with specific examples for the well known phrase, “Add Value Not Features.” In addition to following this, by also focusing on how a new feature translates to money for the company, a product manager can really maximise the return on investment on new features.

  8. Great post and compelling comments. One additional thought comes to mind: as product managers we need to be tuned in to the market. Whether technology solves the problem is not usually the important question. More important is understanding the problem/market opportunity and finding the best solution. If/how technology gets applied comes after.

  9. One approach to understand what, as Steven Haines said, motivates the “who” and how they “do what they do,” is paying carful attention to how we define product features, the problems the solve and the technology that enables those features.

    This “virtuous triangle” must rest on features as the customer-oriented view of ‘what’ a product can do for the problems that ‘who’ experiences, then defining ‘how’ to satisfy those goals with some specific technology.

    *specific* technology implementation should be brought into the equation only when you understand ‘what’ your product is going to achieve (through its features) for ‘who’

    Justin T. Smith

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