Matt Kesler

What are “features”?

Your product’s features are measurable, or at least observable, and usually objective – what you product is, like its size and color, and what it does, like if it makes flashing lights or explodes.

Photo copyright 2011 Sony Corporation Of America.

Take a look at something in your pocket – say, your .mp3 player.  Here are some of the features I see when I look at mine:

  • It has a black plastic case.
  • It’s about 70 mm long, 40 mm wide, and 8 mm thick.
  • It can hold 16 MB of data.
  • It has a color display, about 35 mm by 20 mm.
  • It plays audio files – all types that I know of.
  • It plays video files.
  • It has a programmable equalizer.
  • And an FM tuner.
  • It has a Sony logo, and a Walkman logo.
  • It has a headset jack, and
  • Speakers.

These are some of my .mp3 player’s features – all measurable or observable, and objective.

How can you identify and sort your product’s features?

Take a look at your product – or if it’s still in development, look at what you have, like drawings or specifications – and list all the features of your product that you consider important.  Make sure to include those that are “me-too” – the same as every other product in this category – like my .mp3 player’s ability to play video files (since most .mp3 players do that now).  And make sure you also include the features that set your product apart – like the ability to play all audio file types, which some leading .mp3 players don’t do.

Now sort these features into three groups.

First, those that are requirements just to be in the game – features that all of your competitors will be sure to have.  In my example, I would include the plastic case, equalizer, FM tuner, and headset jack in this list.  These are the “un-differentiated” features – the features that don’t set your product apart from your key competitors.

Second, features which may be different from your competitors – better or worse.  For example, the size (70 mm X 40 mm X 8 mm) and capacity (16 MB) of my .mp3 player.  These are “differentiated” features, but not unique.

Finally, list the features you believe are really unique – nobody else has them, and they would be difficult for your competitors to copy.  In the example, the ability to play all audio file types without special software to convert them is unusual and depends on Sony’s technology, so it may be an example of a unique feature compared with other .mp3 players.

A simple competitive analysis

Now focus on those last two lists – the differences between your product and others.  Pick one or two leading competitors – the ones you need to beat – what your customers may view as the “next best competitive option”.  For our example, I’ll use my son’s iPod as the key competitor (though I don’t know enough about the consumer electronics industry to know for sure if that’s right).

Make a chart like this:

I’m including some “un-differentiated” features, like “appearance” and “ruggedness”, for illustration.  Looking only at two products, you can leave these out, but if you consider more competitors your chart may not be this simple;  including more features may give you a more accurate picture.

I used green to indicate positive values and red for negative:  64 MB is positive compared to 16 MB, and it’s a positive feature for my .mp3 player to use non-DRM audio files (since those can be copied from my computer without going online or signing up for iTunes).

Capacity is a differentiated feature, since the capacity of the Sony .mp3 player is significantly different from the capacity of my son’s iPod – 16 megabytes vs. 64 megabytes.  But it’s not really unique, since either company – Sony or Apple – could include more or less memory in their device if they chose to.

The unique feature is “Non-DRM audio files” – the ability of the Sony music player to play files ripped from a CD, downloaded as .mp3 files, or bought from iTunes.  (The iPod uses an Apple format that only works with iTunes.)

I am also choosing not to include price or cost at this point, since your product’s price is a choice you can make, not a feature inherent to your product.  But in some cases, if you know your competitor’s costs, you could include “cost” or maybe “variable cost” – try the analysis that way and see where it takes you.

Now what?

So now we know that the two key features – in my simplistic example – are capacity and non-DRM audio files.  What do we do with that information?

The answer lies not in the features but in the benefits – a more subtle analysis here.

Matt Kesler is a physicist and entrepreneur.  He helps small and large technology businesses with strategic planning and product launches.  Matt can be reached at matt@mattkesler.com.

Walkman is a registered trademark of Sony Corporation Of America.  iPod is a registered trademark of Apple Inc.


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