Features and benefits in the software world

I stumbled across an old article on CNN Money on how small businesses can attract new customers. I wasn’t that interested in the article and glossed over most of the points, but one did catch my attention:

Emphasize your product’s benefits, not just its features. Say you are selling a teapot with a spill-proof spout. Rather than simply mention the spout’s spill-proof shape, focus on the problems it will prevent: burned hands, ruined suits, etc.

This seemed interesting because in the software world features seem to be evangelized over everything else. However, after digging a bit, I realized the issue is a bit more complicated. In general, what I discovered was that when features are enumerated, they’re usually accompanied by or mixed-in with product benefits, and it’s not always clear-cut that favoring one method over the other is the best approach when it comes to attracting users (in general, even for free products, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to replace the term “customers” with “users” for something like this, as the bottom line is still getting people to use your product).

  • Case 1: Firefox (features then elaboration with benefits)
    The firefox features page shows a simple case of what I’m describing. Features are presented as headers and below each is a concise description of how said feature benefits the end-user. e.g.,

    One-Click Bookmarking
    Bookmark, search and organize Web sites quickly and easily.

    Nice and simple, feature (one-click bookmarking) followed by benefit (bookmark, search and organize web sites quickly and easily.)

  • Case 2: Blogger (mishmash of features and benefits)
    The blogger features page is a bit more of a mishmash. Sometimes benefits are listed as headers with an elaboration of features below it, e.g.

    Publishing your voice is easy and free
    …In a matter of minutes you can start posting text, photos, videos, and more to your blog…

    The header details a benefit of using blogger (it’s easy and free) which the description elaborates and lists a few features (ability to post text, photos, videos, etc.).

    In other cases, it’s vice-versa,

    New post notifications
    Your readers can choose to subscribe to your blog’s feeds, so they’re notified whenever you publish a new blog post…

    Like the Firefox feature page, it’s feature (new post notifications) followed by benefit (readers notified when now posts are published).

  • Case 3: Picasa (verb then elaboration of feature and/or benefit)
    Picasa features is interesting in that it’s headers are verbs describing actions you can virtually perform using the software (organize, edit, create, share). Following the header is a very concise description of features (edit: eliminate scratches & blemishes, fix red-eye, crop, … ) or a benefit (organize: manage your photos in one place, and find photos you forgot you had). This is unbelievably simple yet still seems to accomplish its goal of evangelizing the product. However, this is photo management software, so it’s worth noting that the software itself is a fairly simple mechanism.

There’s a lot more feature pages that can be looked at, but I haven’t found anything else too interesting. Apple does the same as what’s described in the Firefox case; features then elaboration with benefits (e.g. feature page for Xsan). Microsoft is a beast and lists features and benefits in a variety of ways for different products and in different ways. Narrowing the focus and just looking at Office, Microsoft seems to have a product overview for each product (e.g. Word 2007 product overview) which describes benefits and features in the same mishmash way described in the blogger case. There’s also a “Top 10 reasons to try” (e.g. Word 2007 Top 10 page) page which seems to be similar to the product overview, but more concise by listing only 10 benefits or features.

One issue with all the cases described is that the target is the new, uninitiated user. Users who are upgrading probably don’t want to read a ton of information about benefits and features they’re already aware of, so a list for upgrading users may be something important as well.

What’s best? worst? I don’t know. Overall, I like the Picasa case for it’s simplicity. Its features/benefits list is very short and uses only a few sentences, but within that space it manages to describe exactly why that piece of software should or might matter to a potential user and why they should use it.