Product feature differentiation: A beginner’s guide

Product differentiation can be difficult for startups, especially in the often-saturated market of technology hardware.

Even for those who’ve had lessons on vertical and horizontal differentiation drilled into their heads, it can feel like there’s nothing new under the sun. Talking about developing stand-out features is easy, but the process of actually doing it can be daunting.

Even the most innovative of us need a few tips and techniques to jump-start the innovative process. Here are a few to consider as you begin your designing process.

1. Map a customer’s experience with your product from beginning to end

As prescribed by Harvard Business Review, map out how your target market interacts with your product from when they first discover it to the day they throw it away.

Completing a comprehensive walk-through can help you better empathize with your customers and identify potential pain points you can address.

Can you make your target market aware of a need they may not be cognizant of? Can you fill that need through a unique, exclusive feature that provides true competitive advantage?

Can you offer your product in a place competitors aren’t, or in a way that’s more convenient and reflexive?

Can you make a customer’s final choice to buy your product more convenient than your competitors?

Is it possible to enhance the payment, delivery, assembly or repair process in way that addresses a frustration and enhances customer satisfaction?

Reflecting on these questions and coming up with novel answers can provide avenues for product differentiation and improvement.

2. Remember that technology is the conduit

Another common pitfall of many technology startups is that they will confuse their hardware for the service they want to provide for buyers.

Startups should approach their technology as the conduit for solving their target consumer’s needs. Regularly taking the pulse of consumers and adapting features to evolving needs is key.

Keep in mind that your product is the means, not the end, for filling a customer’s need and modify your features accordingly.

3. Don’t over-extend

While keeping the pace with consumer needs is important, it’s also important to avoid the draw of over-expansion in hopes of a flusher bottom line.

Startups and established tech hardware companies are often tempted to be all things to all people in pursuit of growth.

Some will add a cornucopia of features that aren’t really needed or wanted by their target market. Others will hurriedly slap on an app to go with their hardware for the sake of having an app, shoving data at users without explaining what it means or what users should do with it in relation to the product. Still more will make Forbes: Differentiate or Die of their product instead of focusing on their feature of strength.

Once you’ve found the feature that best differentiates your product, don’t rush to change or dilute it in the face of competitive challenge.

Instead, find novel ways to frame that strength that quells competition and makes competitors’ strengths seem like weaknesses.

Innovative feature examples from Startup Launchpad’s Oct. Show
Many exhibitors at the Oct. 2016 Startup Launchpad Exhibition provide excellent examples of startups that came up with innovative features after close study of their product’s life and their market’s needs.

Jennifer Tung, Executive Assistant at MysteryVibe, discussed their product design process and how the unique features of their product were created in a saturated and competitive hardware sector.

The first bendable vibrator on the market, it bends and contours to the body and offers six motors with built in joints in a modest and minimalist exterior. After studying their audience closely, they were able to incorporate features that both enhanced user experience and addressed their target market’s unique concerns.

“It’s more of an Asia sex toy,” said Tung. “Women are more conservative. It’s about having more Asians accepting this as a toy you don’t have to be embarrassed about.”

While there are many motorcycle helmets available on the market, Jarvish was able to address a user concern (being able to listen and change music while riding) in a way that fills a need (changing music tracks or stations while on the road) that also creates a competitive advantage (enhanced safety through hands-free voice controlled Bluetooth speakers).

Bagel Labs
To many, it would seem like the market is full of measuring devices with little difference in basic functions and services. Yet Bagel Labs was able to design digital tape measure that breaks with convention.

To address users’ problems with measuring things beyond flat, straight surfaces, they incorporated a wheel, laser and string measurement capability to enable measuring curved and other unconventional surfaces. To serve user’s needs for clearer reading of measurement and recording sets of measurement data, it incorporated a digital reader, measurement recording and voice note recording for user’s future reference.

While it offers a variety of features, each serve the core need of measurement without being excessive or superfluous.

These are just a few examples, but show that through careful study of your target market and staying focused on your core consumer’s need, it’s possible to come up with innovative features that can make you stand out in the market.

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