Reconsider your Jack of All Trades strategy

If you want to be a bad product manager, make your product everything for everyone. Who wouldn’t want an “all-in-one” solution? Since different types of customers may have different priorities, rather than trying to decide which customers and which priorities are most important, just meet them all. Sure, there might be a lot of stuff in your product, but that just means that customers will think that it does everything great.

If you want to be a good product manager, make your product solve a specific problem for a specific type of customer. It may sound appealing to make your product attempt to solve every problem for every type of customer, though in most cases, trying to make it everything for everyone usually results in a product that does nothing for no one.

For complex technology products, many options provided are rarely — if ever — used. Additional complexity added to attempt to appeal to different types of users usually just makes the product more difficult to use for those core consumers. Also, when the product does not focus on solving a specific problem for a specific user, it becomes difficult to communicate the benefits to the market. Either the message is scattered — “This fixes all of your problems, no matter who you are!” — or it results in disjointed messages for different target markets.

More important to consider, however, is the fact that consumers may seem to value products which focus on one specific problem over products which focus on many. The article “Jack of All Trades or Master of One” summarizes new research by Alexander Chernev, professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, and suggests that products which specialize are perceived to be superior to others, even on attributes where the products are in fact equal:

Chernev found that a product specializing in a single attribute is perceived to be superior in that attribute relative to an all-in-one product having multiple features. This happens even when the two alternatives are clearly described as being equivalent on that attribute. For instance, consumers expect whitening-only toothpaste to whiten teeth better than toothpaste that both whitens and prevents cavities…. Therefore, when evaluating choice sets comprising both specialized and all-in-one options, consumers tend to consider the overall performance of the alternatives to be equivalent. This leads them to draw two types of compensatory inferences: compensatory devaluation, which lowers the perceived performance of the all-in-one option, and compensatory polarization, which enhances the perceived performance of the specialized options on their differentiating attributes.

Even when two products are in fact equal in a given area, there is the perception that the focused product is superior in that area. For product managers, this means that it may be beneficial to identify the most important attributes to a customer segment and focus the product development and marketing around that attribute, rather than trying to improve and promote “across the board.”

It is worth noting that this study did not take into account price, though a subsequent study (also summarized in Jack of All Trades or Master of One) investigated how price can change and improve perceptions of all-in-one products. Still, all other things being equal (including price), there is good evidence to suggest that focused products are perceived to be superior.

One needs only to look at the proliferation of specialized products in the marketplace to see evidence that this strategy is effective. (After all, if these products were not profitable, would they continue to be produced?) All-in-one cleaners now have stiff competition from cleaners for very specific purposes. “Every pain” medicine is placed alongside medications for every known type of pain. General web portals which can serve many user needs have to contend with start-up web applications which focus on specific, common tasks.

This is not to say that an all-in-one strategy is always bad. Product managers can still choose to pursue an all-in-one strategy; they just must be aware of the impact it may have on the perceptions of customers. Even then, an all-in-one product should be that way because it provides value and solves specific problems for the customer, not just all-in-one for the sake of being all-in-one.

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9 thoughts on “Reconsider your Jack of All Trades strategy

  1. Chernev’s studies were done on brand-centric consumer products (toothpaste, detergent) where the “user experience” consists almost exclusively of brand perception. There is little real difference in the tooth-whitening performance of one toothpaste over another, and even if there were Chernev’s study didn’t examine that. He merely examined the perception of effectiveness for the various “features” of the products. Whether or not one product performed better than another was irrelevant.

    This is an important point, because the *perception of performance* is a far more important factor in user preference with retail consumer products than it is with interactive products, where *actual performance* (i.e., the user experience) is paramount.

    I think using this study to justify design decisions in interactive products is a mistake. Interactive products do not derive their customer perception of value based on their marketing campaigns and bullets-on-the-box like grocery store consumer products do. Toothpaste is largely about brand — are you a Crest family or a Colgate family? For software, this is increasingly irrelevant. This used to be true when we bought software in shrinkwrapped boxes and had only the bullet-point feature promises and the graphic design of the box to make our buying decisions on — but it’s a fast-disappearing strategy in today’s era of user-experiences-that-sell-themselves, where you can use software for real before buying into it. While Proctor and Gamble may differentiate one product from another exclusively on the brand promise, interactive products succeed or fail based on their actual user experiences, experiences that users can feel and touch and make real judgments on.

    That said, I *do* intuitively believe that the conclusion of this post — that having fewer & focused features is better than trying to be all things for all people — is completely correct. The study cited, however, is not the right evidence for it. I would love to see the right evidence presented to show that Microsoft-type feature-bloat is losing ground to the Web 2.0 paradigm of modular, focused excellence.

  2. I agree with the summation of both Jeff and Christopher – however one area has not been considered in this discourse is the very successful and proven plugin model (third-party developers) when there is a sound and solid foundational architecture/platform.

    Mozilla has proved this, Atlassian proves this daily – both REALLY well – not to mention the larger good feel ecosystem they are building in terms of additional business opportunities for plugin developers to hone in on your original point: plugin focus to solve a specific problem.

    But if you take a step back as a PM of the base product – I never think of Atlassian or Mozilla’s base foundational products as the start all end all.

    Their products are GREAT because of the external (and internal) plugin development adding to their product.

    To top it off – everyone benefits:

    customers benefit, the “host application” company benefits (reduced dev, support, and mktg support), and certainly the third party plugin developers benefit.

    Result: Best of breed, and perception of “Jack of all trades” for the host application company (which they rightly deserve by building the host infrastructure).

    Good PMs invest alot into this strategy, I think.

  3. I think the temptation to be everything to anyone is one of the hardest things for a product manager to ignore.

    You think if you add one more feature, you will be able to add more potential interested consumers to your base. And maybe you will, but at the risk of muddying your product proposition for your core consumers.

    Most of the time, it’s not worth the trade off.

  4. I support the argument with a twist. Don’t be everything to every market … not customer. Focus on a particular market and make sure that you provide the features that satisfy that market. Of course if the market wants “everything” then one needs to make some trade-offs. I know this is old, but Apple is a good example. The iPhone is almost an “all-in-one” device – video is an exception. They have done a good job by focusing on a particular segment of the market. They gave up the physical keypad/board!

  5. In response to Paul Banas –

    But if you have a core platform, and evolution is through plugins, it works, and also self-evangelizes since you also open up your product to a larger community of developers, outside of your walls. Brings in silver-lining of free marketing through all those dependent developers and ultimately fans (and their community).

    Whoa! collaborative PM, development, marketing… so cliche – but it really does work in great ways, if the base system supports, and works to develop the rest (the community – which does not happen auto-magically).

    I mentioned Mozilla and Atlassian – how about Apple, if that’s not a great example of success on this model, I do not know what is.

  6. The fitness of an interface is different for every user. Since you are not going to write each class of user an interface of their own, you end up compromising fitness.

    Average functionality is weak functionality. Average meaning is meaningless.

  7. I think there is an important distinction here – there are two product strategies (three if you count ‘low cost’ strategy) – either a ‘focus’ or ‘diversify’ strategy.

    A ‘jack of all trades’ product management approach for a company with a ‘focus’ strategy (i.e. airline manufacturer, oil refiner, software producer) is probably trouble.

    But for a company with a ‘Diversify’ strategy (Convenience store, supermarket, Web portal, stock market, newspaper, etc) this Jack of all trades may not be a bad approach.

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