royce wells

Emergent Features in Web Products

Saturday, November 19, 2016 · 4 min read

Digital product systems exhibit emergent behaviour that creators can capitalize on to improve products.

If we could determine how those sensations – features, in contemporary parlance – are detected, we could understand how we perceive the world, namely by adding up or otherwise integrating those features into wholes.

“Emergent features and feature combination” by James R. Pomerantz and Anna I. Cragin

Emergence is a term familar to the natrual sciences, and explains the higher-order effects that come out of smaller systems working together. The cells of the heart band together to create the organ, the neurons in a brain interact to allow us to think.

There is also some precendent for emergence in knowledge work, most frequently in technical development where the agile methodology around Extreme Programing uses it to describe how engineers can create software architecture without extensive preplanning.

I think there should be some translation of this idea to include ways of designing and building full product ecosystems.

Products are systems, with the various user interactions with the product allowing complex reorientation of the original intent of the prodcut’s features.

These reorientations arise from the feature systems that make up a product.

By observing how these higher-order features develop, product owners can capitalize on opportunity by nurturing the newly created features with additional support by the product feature ecosystem.

An example of this is the rise of Retweets on Twitter.

Retweets grew orginalically from a user base that needed an easy signifier for origination. Users tagged their retweets with “RT” and the handle of the original poster as a way of referencing, supporting, and disagreeing.

While it had its limitaitons, the user-created “Retweet” function was passed throughout Twitter’s network and became part of the overall system, an embeded and unintentional feature.

Various other methods were created to solve for this particular job to be done. The users wanted to be able to share other content that they found on the platform. The copy, paste and add a “RT” became a simple way of accomplishing this.

In essence, the retweet became an additional feature of Twitter, long before it was on a product manager’s roadmap for the platform.

Eventually Twitter adopted the implicit feature and provided a set of enhanced functionality to support what was a prevelant user action.

Twitter threads also gave rise to emergent features like the “Tweetstorm.”

By reacting to how users are actually taking advantage of a product’s feature set, product owners can have implicit roadmaps for what features to improve upon.

While this idea has become a well-known methodology in software development, there is less on the topic when it comes to overall product development.

I think there is further to explore on this topic, however here are some initial thoughts on how to get to emergent product design.

  1. Data collection

    Having a detailed dataset about how your users are actually utilizing your current features is key. Without this, it is hard to have clear insight into how users are leveraging the features you have in ways that you haven’t anticipated.

    Built in analytics offerings like Google Analytics for websites allows even basic products to build extensive catalouges of usage data.

    Suplemented by other typical design tactics like user interviews, focus groups, surveys, etc.

  2. Look for edge cases

    Emergent features will arise from the unintended edge uses available by your current feature set. As such, looking to not just the main flow of usage but also unusual and specific usage will pinpoint areas where users are exploiting the product’s current features for new functionality.

  3. Look for feature combinations

    Emergent features can also come out of the interaction between multiple features that are part of the current product.

  4. Allow room for growth

    Without room for orgnaic growth, emergent features won’t appear. That means that you need to allow your users to explore and play with your product. A ridged list of dos and donts within the product, or a similarly ridgid mentality from the product owners can stifle emergent features as they appear.

  5. Nurture new features

    As emergent features appear, the smart product owner will encourage and support them with additional functionality provided to the user. This creates a positive feedback loop as enhanced emergent features can create additional pockets of functionality.