Features touch consumers. Strategies do not.

Product strategy and design direction get a lot of respect and features often get dismissed, but features actually touch customers. Features and the details of each one matter a ton because when your product works, when it clicks for the consumer, it will be a feature that lights them up, not your genius strategy.

At my fitness gaming company, I knew our product was right when a consumer e-mailed us to let us know, “I didn’t order desert last night because Maya (the virtual personal trainer) would be mad at me. I have lost weight. I feel great. She has changed my life.” There was no way to tell Maya what you ate. This customer had personified the product and we were on her mind when the game was off.

We were in her head and changing her behavior. Wow. Even more amazing to me, it was a single product feature that unlocked this deep consumer engagement.

Here is what I mean:

Our first version of the product delivered a personalized fitness experience based on your current fitness level and a long term focus – upper body strength, lower body strength, cardio fitness, flexibility or weightloss. We created an interactive workout that adjusted difficulty and coaching tone based on how you were feeling and your responses to some simple questions throughout the workout.

The first experience was great. The workout was engaging and the trainer was responsive. No one used it twice in a week. They were not motivated to come back.

All the trainers on our staff said we needed to motivate them with a tangible goal, not just a long term focus.We tried all kinds of measurable goals related to fitness level. For someone focused on upper body strength for example, we tried absolute number of push-ups, push-ups vs some expectation based on age and weight (people like you…) and percentage change in ability so going from 2 to 4 was the same as 20-40.

Nothing worked.

Then we found some research out of MIT on affective computing. It talked about the value of creating a perception of control for the consumer and the power of allowing them to establish a sense of shared past, responsive present and promised future with the technology or virtual character.

The lightbulb went off. People think about time on a calendar. We should let people choose how many times they are going to work out per week and use that as the tangible goal. Maya could then reference their last workout, “on monday we…so today we will…” She could preview the next workout, “Today we focused on…for your next workout on Friday we will work on…” and she could admonish you for missing a workout in reference to the goal that you set, “Where were you on Monday? I thought we were working out.”

The magic of Maya, our virtual personal trainer, was unlocked with a small decision about the types of tangible goals we asked the user to create. We always knew we needed to deliver a personalized, interactive, goal-oriented fitness experience. We learned that using the calendar to express these goals opened the minds of our customer and got them to embrace the product long enough to discover the utility of our software — better health/fitness over time.