Needs, features and benefits

I’m currently teaching a lively bunch of budding product managers over at General Assembly.  After each class, I’ve been setting them a blogging task to sum up their understanding of what they’ve learned.  I thought it might be fun to level the playing field a little and open myself up for a little critical retribution.  So here are my musings on the first topic we covered: needs, features and benefits.

Need or want? #

Most of us are pretty good at recognising our needs: a sudden downpour makes us wish we had our umbrella; ominous clicking noises from a hard disk might prompt the need for a timely backup (and a new hard disk, natch).  We may also have latent, unexpressed needs, such as the desire to do a good job, be successful or know we’re on the right track with something.  Needs are the kinds of thing that feel like a yawning gap in our lives, a gap that we would like to fill.

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsMaslow talked about people needing a range of needs from the basic physiological (breathing, food and water etc.) through to ‘self-actualisation’ (creativity, problem-solving etc.)

There’s scope for confusion though – I may want that second slice of baked cheesecake but my spreading girth will attest to the fact that I certainly don’t need it.  So wants are not the same as needs.  One of the challenges of being a product manager is that it’s sometimes difficult to read between the lines of what your (potential) customers want in order to determine what they actually need.

As an example, I’ve been having difficulties getting my car into my snugly-proportioned garage.  As a creative product manager, I thought I could perhaps source and retrofit some kind of complex parking sensor and camera array that would help me park my car with ease.

Or I could just get a smaller car (or a bigger garage).

A good product manager should be able to see through the explicit wants expressed by users and latch onto their implicit needs that they themselves may not be aware of.  You need to know your market better than it knows itself.

So what? #

In contrast with our ability to identify needs pretty easily, people seem to be less good at spotting the difference between a feature and a benefit.  It’s an easy trap to fall into, as demonstrated by most product descriptions and marketing pitches that focus on the features first and perhaps mention a benefit right at the end.  A better approach would be to lead with the benefits.  Occasionally, though, the odd product stands out because its benefits are expressed well and resonate with the potential buyer.

Spinal segmentsAs a great example of this, I was once in a store that sells motorcycle gear.  There’s a brand called Knox that makes safety armour, and in the midst of their display there was a life-sized cardboard model of a human spine.  Arrows pointed to the vertebrae that control movement, breathing and so on.  Then I saw a small advert for their new back protector, which highlighted how it protected each region of the spine.  I quite enjoy moving and breathing (and referring back to Maslow, they’re fairly fundamental needs), so the benefit of avoiding spinal damage is rather a good one in my view.

Using the question ‘so what?‘ is a good way to home in on what the benefit is of something as opposed to what are its features or characteristics.  Essentially, when you get to the point that you can’t sensibly ask the question any longer because the benefit is self-evident, you’re there.  There’s an example in a previous post on the topic.

In comparison, the features of a product or service are means by which it helps the user to achieve the benefits.  So for example, I use Trello to coordinate development teams in different locations in place of the more usual sticky notes:

Benefit (the “so what”)Feature (the “what”)
People don’t need to be in the same room to see the boardbecauseit’s web-based, so people can view it online
People can get using it quickly, a must on short projectsbecauseit’s intuitive and doesn’t require lengthy training
Allows me to use the same tool on different projects easilybecauseit doesn’t impose any specific method or process

So:

  • Needs are the gaps people in your target market have, whether they’re aware of them or not.
  • Benefits are the outcomes of using a product that will fill the gaps people have.
  • Features are the capabilities or characteristics of a product that allow users to realise those benefits.

What do you think?  Have your say on this topic in the comments.

References #

2 thoughts on “Needs, features and benefits

  1. As you say, distinguishing between features and benefits is a fundamental competency for product managers (and product marketers). Another way I’ve seen your “So What?” described is as “ask ‘why?’ five times” or the “5 Whys”. Very useful not just for getting to the bottom of the benefits of a feature, but also for eliminating waste and increasing clarity in all areas of the product process.

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