How Customer Feature Requests Inspire Product Ideas

It’s tempting to think that customer feature requests are the best source for product ideas. They are, but not in the way you may think.

Feature requests tell you what your customers think your product is missing. But they can also lead you astray.

The vast majority of requests come as solutions from specific customers. If you were to address each of those feature requests, you may temporarily please specific customers. But overall you’d end up with a complicated product that is both harder to use and maintain.

You may also get so busy trying to address every customer feature request that you don’t introduce changes that truly solve customer problems and ensure the product supports your product strategy.

Customer feature requests for your customers are feedback, not commitments. They provide a significant source of inspiration for new product ideas when applied wisely.

Here are some thoughts on how you can effectively use customer feature requests without becoming a feature factory.

Feature requests are feedback, not commitments

It’s foolish not to take advantage of the treasure trove of feedback that feature requests represent. Srivatsa Marthi, VP of Product Management at SetSail, has found that “feature requests directly drive revenue. In fact, our Product Design team calls customer feature requests ‘UX gold.’ ”

Accumulate this treasure wisely as it can easily overwhelm you.

Your customers, taking from their day-to-day workflow, love to suggest solutions to make your product easier to use for them.

Welcome these requests, but don’t take them at face value. Instead, dig deeper to understand why they’re making the feature request.

Perhaps they’re unaware of the functionality that your product has that can solve their problem. Identifying this situation can expose opportunities to improve user experience or increase the amount of user help you provide.

Perhaps they’re trying to use your product to solve a new novel problem. This is great information as it can lead to potentially lucrative new product ideas.

Either way, you need to dig into those feature requests to what lies beneath them. Here you can identify potential new ideas for your product.

The downside to this approach is digging deeper takes time and effort. In the meantime, it can appear to your customers that their feature requests go into a black hole.

The balancing act of collecting customer feedback requests

You have a delicate balancing act when you collect customer feature requests. The more feature requests you get, the more feedback you have on what your customers are looking for.

Of course the more feature requests you receive, the more you have to understand what they’re really telling you. These feature requests could reinforce each other, or they could introduce a lot of extraneous noise that may drown out what your customers are really trying to tell you.

You need to set the proper expectations with your customers. While you appreciate their feedback, you will not implement every request you receive. How you handle this communication will determine how willing your customers are to continue providing feedback.

Vaibhav Kakkar, CEO of DigitalWebSolutions, noted that it’s “important to be transparent with the customer about what you can and cannot do. If you’re not able to accommodate their request, be honest about it. Let them know what alternatives you might offer, or if there’s something else you can do to help them achieve their goal. Honesty and transparency go a long way in building trust with your customers.”

Collecting and assessing customer feature requests

To walk that delicate balance and keep your customers engaged you need an effective process to collect, organize, and triage customer feature requests.

As a key part of the process, identify a place to collect the requests so you organize and analyze the requests individually and in relation to each other.

Once you have a place to collect and analyze feature requests, go through this thought process:

  1. Who submitted the feature request? Do they represent one of your key personas or user groups? Is it a one-off a request from a single customer or is it a common request from multiple customers? Is it a request coming out of sales claiming that we’ll lose a big deal if we don’t add this feature?
  2. Why did they submit the feature request? What’s the underlying reason for the feature request? Is that reason consistent with other requests, or is it unique? Is there an existing way in your product to address the problem they’re trying to solve?
  3. How is the requestor addressing the problem now? What can you learn from their current solution to identify new product ideas? What is the impact of delivering a new solution? Are there any disadvantages?
  4. Does solving the problem align with your product strategy? Just because you can solve a problem, doesn’t mean you always should. Does solving the problem help you reach your desired outcome, or does it distract from that effort?

Naman Nepal, founder of Cove Commerce, describes his team’s approach to analyzing the feature requests they receive.

Collect and categorize: We gather feature requests from multiple channels, such as support tickets, social media, and customer interviews. We then categorize the requests based on themes or product areas to identify patterns or trends.

Identify the underlying problem: Instead of focusing on the specific feature requested, we try to understand the underlying problem the customer is facing. This helps us determine if the proposed solution is the best way to address the problem or if alternative solutions might be more effective.

Naman described an example where they used this process when they received several requests to add a wishlist feature to an e-commerce platform:

Instead of simply adding this feature, we first conducted user interviews and discovered that the underlying problem was that users needed to save items for later without adding them to their shopping cart. As a result, we explored various solutions and ultimately implemented a “Save for Later” feature, which better addressed the core problem and improved the overall user experience.

Besides analyzing feature requests themselves, Diana Stepanova, Operations Director from Monitask, suggests “you can also conduct research to determine how much customer demand there is for this feature and if there are any competing solutions. Doing this will help you assess the potential impact of adding or not adding a feature to your product.”

Deciding whether to act on a customer feature request

You understand the underlying problems your customer feature requests point to. Now it’s time to decide whether you’re going to implement any changes to your product.

It’s tempting to adopt a scoring framework or voting process to decide which features you’re going to implement. Approaches such as RICE give the impression of applying consistent decision criteria to your prioritization decisions. Voting approaches provide ways to involve multiple perspectives in your prioritization decisions.

Unfortunately, both approaches have some downsides. Namely, they lead teams toward incremental improvements and may not result in substantial, impact generating changes to their product. These methods also do not guarantee that you select features that are closely aligned to your product strategy.

After all, merely delivering a product does not make it successful. It’s only successful if it moves the needle on desired outcomes.

You’re better off analyzing customer feature requests through the lens of your product strategy. Use the feature requests you receive to validate and refine your product strategy.

If many of the feature requests you receive point to the underlying problems you planned to solve, that’s a sign you’re heading in the right direction. If the feature requests point to an underlying problem you hadn’t initially identified, you may need to revise your product strategy.

Your customers feature requests can also suggest potential experiments you can run to identify the features that provide the biggest lift toward your desired outcome in alignment with your product strategy.

For an example of how this might work, consider Naman Nepal’s process for deciding about feature implementations.

Prioritize based on impact and effort: We evaluate each feature request based on its potential impact on our users and business objectives. We also consider the effort required to implement the feature in terms of development time and potential maintenance costs.

Validate with user research: Before deciding to add a feature, we often conduct user research to validate its potential impact and ensure that it aligns with our customers’ needs. This may include surveys, interviews, or usability tests with a prototype.

Srivatsa Marthi also makes prioritization decisions that serve both his customers and SetSail. “Feature requests that meet the most pressing needs of our customers, which fulfill their key goals, and which also align with our product strategy, rise to the top of the stack for our new feature work. Ultimately, we’re looking to create win-wins with our customers, in which SetSail thrives in enabling our customers to thrive.”

How to avoid becoming a feature factory

When you analyze all of your customer requests, the temptation is real to deliver a bunch of features. This is especially true if the feature requests line up with features that potential clients claim your competitors have.

Resist that temptation lest you fall into the feature factory trap – continuously pumping out features because someone asked for it.

To avoid becoming a feature factory, identify the outcome you’re trying to reach and establish some clear metrics that will help you identify the features that drive progress toward that outcome.

Use these metrics to help you identify the small number of features that will drive the biggest impact. That has the advantage of saving you work in delivering a bunch of features and reducing the amount of features you have to maintain going forward.

Alex Milligan, CMO of NuggMD, shared an example of how his team analyzed customer feature requests to identify potential changes to their product.

Appointments became one of our main areas of consideration. Customer feature requests revealed the need to streamline the wait process for scheduling online visits. Instead, we took an entirely unique approach to this issue by creating an appointment-free system. Our medical providers are now available for 14 hours each day to attend to patients on-the-spot.

We used customer feedback to officially banish the waiting times and improve the quality of care they feel they deserve.

Do you need help collecting and assessing feature requests?

The right process for collecting and assessing feature requests can help you unlock the UX gold that comes with all the wonderful feedback you get.

Of course you risk losing or drowning in all that feedback without the right tool to help you collect, organize and analyze that feedback.

ProductPlan’s Product Discovery Tool helps you capture feature requests, organize them in a central repository, and validate the right ideas that drive your product strategy.