How important is it to be at feature parity?
Just like any other product-related question, the answer depends on your product and its users. But it’s safe to say that, for a product manager working in a startup, the answer is likely “not so much”.
Startups need to move fast. This requires you to constantly assess and ruthlessly prioritize what your lean engineering team should work on next. Put another way, product managers would need to show that customers will still use (and pay) for a product that doesn’t have full feature parity.
But it’s easier said than done. After talking to product leaders, we’ve designed this guide to help you understand and navigate the feature parity trap.
Alright, let’s get started.
Let’s start with the basics. What do we mean by feature parity?
Feature parity refers to the consistency of features across different platforms or systems in a product. Simply put, it means that a product has identical features regardless of the platform or system it is accessed from, or that it matches the features offered by its competitors.
There are three common types of feature parity that product managers often encounter.
This type of feature parity refers to ensuring that the features of a new product match those of a previous or legacy system. Product managers face this parity during a product rewrite.
Here’s a question: Do you need to be at feature parity with legacy systems?
The automatic answer to this question tends to be “yes”. But we are here to tell you that it’s not always the case. Let’s look at a real example.
When Catherine Shyu, former product manager at SendGrid (currently, leading product at Coinbase), was tasked with a product rewrite, she had just a year to achieve full future parity.
“There was no way we could get to feature parity in a reasonable amount of time (1 year), but dammit, we were going to start from the highest priority features and try anyway.”
Partway, she realized striving for complete feature parity can lead to "feature debt" – features and UX that may have made sense at the time but do not perform as well and may not have been included if the product were written today.
So, the team started cutting out these features to reduce the time estimate and pushed other features beyond the initial launch. Eventually, it led to an MVP launch—where the goal was to fulfill the needs of the smaller end of their user base and new users.
80% of their customer base can be served with 20% of the features.
This allowed the team to test the product with real users and collect revenue while continuing to build out the offering (and towards feature parity).
“The pressure of “feature parity” disappeared because we proved ourselves wrong — customers were perfectly willing to pay for a product that didn’t have all the bells and whistles.”
Understand feature usage, design and ship a v1 of your product. And, then continue to build out other important features.
When a product works the same way on different devices, such as phones, computers, and websites, and even across different operating systems like Android and iOS, it's called multi-platform parity.
Do you need to be at feature parity while expanding to a new platform? In most cases, the answer is no.
To borrow from Casey Winters, former Chief Product Officer at Eventbrite, products on new platforms need to find their PMF (product-market-fit). For example, when Eventbrite launched their mobile app, they focused on relevant features rather than including every feature available on the web app as they knew the user behavior would be different.
“We restrict our creator mobile app to certain features like checking-in attendees rather than re-creating all of the event creation & management.”
- Casey Winters
Similarly, when the FullContact team ran into a “feature parity” problem while planning to build an Android app, they looked at the usage of each feature on the iOS app and moved low-usage features past the "must-have" line. This enabled the team to go to market sooner and serve the users.
Competitive feature parity refers to making sure that a product has the same or similar features as those offered by its competitors.
Now, at first glance, it’s easy to justify why you’d need competitive parity. Your product can stay competitive in the market, attract users who’re looking for a similar product, and prevent existing customers from switching to a competitor.
But it’s far from the truth.
What wins you customers isn’t feature parity. It’s differentiation. Matt Wensing, Founder of Summit, prioritized differentiation over feature parity. In other words, he worked on shipping features that’d differentiate the product in the market and followed up with features that’d help the product reach competitive parity.
Why? As Matt puts it, “people don’t talk about undifferentiated things”. Another benefit of leading with differentiation is, users will likely share what “parity” features they need. But they’re unlikely to share “differentiation” features.
When you blindly work towards competitive parity, you’re shifting your focus from the customers to your competitors.
“By continuing to fight it out in feature parity with a competitor who is ahead in development, you will always be playing catch up.”
- Brandon Dohman, Product Leader.
Rather than understanding how you can solve your customers' problems, you’ll be spending valuable time and engineering resources catching up with the market. Remember, just because your competitors have it doesn’t mean you should too.
Focus on what makes your company unique and find ways to differentiate from your competitors.
Even if you understand the perils of feature parity, it’s important to help your stakeholders and leadership understand why aiming for feature parity isn’t the wise move. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Highlight the risks of feature parity: Explain to your leadership team the downsides of solely focusing on matching the features of your competitors. Mention that this approach can lead to reduced innovation, a lack of differentiation, and an increased likelihood of making less impactful decisions.
- Leverage the voice of your customers: Everyone, including your stakeholders, care about what customers want. Capture customer insights and feature requests from your calls—and present them to your leadership team to get buy-in.
You can use Grain to create a reel of highlight clips from your customer calls—capturing what they’d like to see in your product (features that help you differentiate) and present it to your stakeholders. Here’s how.
Show the benefits of differentiation: Demonstrate how offering unique and differentiated features can set your company apart and provide a competitive advantage.
"Okay, let's assume it's a year from now and we've caught up with feature parity. Why are buyers choosing us instead of the competition?"
- Jackie Bavaro, Former Head of Product Management @ Asana.
Focus on customer needs: Emphasize the importance of understanding and fulfilling customer needs. Explain that focusing on feature parity may not address customer needs and desires effectively, whereas creating unique features based on customer insights can lead to customer loyalty and increased market share.
Provide data-driven insights: Use data to show the market trends and customer preferences. Provide examples of companies that have successfully differentiated themselves by focusing on customer needs and data-driven insights.
Whether you’re redesigning a product or expanding to a new platform, feature parity shouldn’t be considered a “hard requirement”. Put another way, you’d need to do the things that create the most customer value first.
“The thing we often forget when building for a new platform or rebuilding is that the product originally starts with just a few pieces of core functionality. You didn’t start out with all your features at once, and your customers may not mind if you don’t have everything perfect right away, as long as the core functionality works.”
- Catherine Shyu, Product Lead, Coinbase.
Start with your customers, understand their jobs to be done, and track feature usage. You’d be able to ship successful products without full feature parity—and get to market sooner with your lean team. At the end of the day, what your users care about isn’t parity. They only care if your product can make their lives easier and deliver on its promise.