Differentiate Your Product – Circumvent Comparisons


Look Ma! Me Too! The temptation to compete against a checklist can be overwhelming. When we have a competitor who provides 100 of this or 200 of that, it might seem smart to offer 200 of this and 300 of that. We’ll be better off if we focus instead on creating the other thing. The best way to compete is to valuably differentiate our product, not outdo our competition.

More is better features are just that – more is better. But more of the same old thing is worth a whole lot less than some of something else.

Industry Wisdom and Comparison Foolishness


Marc Abrahams recently wrote A Pointed Lesson About Product Features ($6 at Amazon) for the Harvard Business Review. Hat Tip to Jeff Lash for the reference, and Action Marketing for additional commentary.

Jeff makes a good point in his article (btw, check out his site – he’s been posting some good stuff regularly!) that we shouldn’t be competing along the same axes as our customers. When we take an established metric, like online storage quantity or cubic feet of capacity, we aren’t differentiating our products from our competitors. We’re merely running a little faster in the rat race (for now).

Click To Compare

When we compete against a checklist of metrics, we’re in a click to compare battle with our competition.
Click to Compare

Someone said “It’s ok to be in the commodity business – it’s not ok to be second in it.”

When we discussed Kano analysis, we identified three classes of requirements:

  1. Surprise and delight. Capabilities that differentiate a product from it’s competition (e.g. the nav-wheel on an iPod).
  2. More is better. Dimensions along a continuum with a clear direction of increasing utility (e.g. battery life or song capacity).
  3. Must be. Functional barriers to entry – without these capabilities, customers will not use the product (e.g. UL approval).

When we’re looking at the checklists, some items are must-be features and capabilities. We have to do those, they are barriers to entry in the market – preconceptions and customer expectations simply mandate that we have them.

But we shouldn’t focus on adding more more is better features just to keep up with the Joneses. We should definitely add some – but only to the point of optimality, based on ROI.


There’s a point where the increasing utility to our customers of increasing more is better features is unjustified. There’s a law of diminishing returns. And the more effort we put into it, the more it costs.

Innovation Has a Shelf Life

Now that we’re focusing on innovative, valuable features, we can’t rest on our laurels. Our competition will catch up. We can look at a couple recently innovative products, and see how this has happened.

  • Google introduced GMail with a gigabyte of storage and a novel tagging system for organizing our email. Google also used an AJAX interface to allow us to manage email without screen refreshes. At the time, all of the concepts were innovative. Yahoo increased their storage limits to a gigabyte, neutering that innovation and turning it into a commodity checklist item. Google increased their limit to over two gigabytes. Yahoo has also introduced an AJAX interface for their email program. They still don’t have tagging figured out. Even the Mozilla Thunderbird plugins can’t give us tagging. Google created technical differentiation that so far has survived. Of the three features, only one was hard to reproduce.
  • Microsoft Office introduced a productivity suite in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. It took a while, but eventually Open Office (open source alternative) has caught up. With Office 2007, Microsoft made a large investment in UX. This is best exemplified by the new ribbon (replacing the old toolbar and menus), they have leapt ahead again. I don’t know if Open Office will ever catch up.

Hard To Ignore

It may be hard to ignore the checklists, but we need to do it. Once a feature reaches the optimal point in the curve, we should stop and move on. If a capability is required to compete, we have to do it (and in the first release). But we should question the conventional wisdom about what is truly required.


Comparison checklists are the kiss of death for innovative products. One of the arguments for blue-ocean development (entering a space with no competitors) is that you can avoid the checklist. As competitors enter the space, checklists will begin to emerge – just as Yahoo de-differentiated some of GMail’s features. If Yahoo offered 2 GB and Google still offered 1 GB – would you switch? We won’t consider it, as long as GMail is the only tagging game in town. We have to keep innovating to stay ahead.

We should invest in the comparison-capabilities only to the point of optimal benefit for our users. Beyond that, there are financially smarter places to invest our resources.

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