The Hidden Side Effects of New Product Features

The Hidden Side Effects of New Product Features

I was once introduced to a quote from French philosopher Paul Virilio, which says:

When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution… Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.

This got me thinking about the challenges we face as product managers who are driven to keep producing new value from our products.

What really happens when we introduce new features?

What does inventing the shipwreck really mean?

Effectively, every new thing that is created, whether it is a technology or a new product feature, as at the time of introduction, brought with it a set of downsides that never existed before.

In Virilio’s case, inventing ships brings with it the ability to travel across great expanses of water to discover new places, however, at the same time it also introduced the new concept of hundreds of sailors being drowned at sea.

In a product sense:

  • introducing a new product tier might cannibalize existing tiers
  • adjusting tiered features might bring about increased churn
  • ‘optimizing’ a sign up flow might increase drop outs
  • new customer sign up deals might alienate existing customers
  • adding new features means more features for customers to learn

What do we do to reduce risk?

With every change the role of a product team is to understand what it is that we’re actually introducing and to understand all sides of the potential side effects, which we do by:

  • Keep disruption to the minimum — is it better to introduce smaller tweaks, rather than large scale changes, to ensure consistency of service and avoid confusion?
  • Stay true to your product — Users of your product will see continued value in your product as long as new features remain true to the core value your product offers. If new features start to veer away from what customers see as your value then they’ll start to question whether you’re the right solution, or begin to get confused by your product.
  • Understand your product life cycle — every product has a life cycle, from early adoption, through growth and maturity, to decline, and understand your particular phase will prepare you for the kind of side effects of your developments.
  • Measure and monitor — as with most aspects of product management, data is our friend, and so knowing the position we’re starting from when introducing a new feature or product is key. This allows us monitor the impact of the change and assess whether the impact is positive or negative.