Horace Dediu has a way of putting things into an insightful perspective that makes you look at things differently. In the latest Critical Path episode, he points out that what people enjoyed about the iPod (and the Walkman before) wasn’t just that it let’s you take your music with you, but that it gives you privacy in a public space. Similarly, the product of a gym is not just exercise, but delivering a feeling of guilt. It’s a way of looking at a thing beyond it’s features and immediate use case.

Look at the current success of Widgetsmith. Apple touted widgets as a way to get glanceable information on your home screen, but that’s not why they took off - they took off because to many people their phone’s home screen is their virtual home and letting them decorate it their way means something to them.

On a much smaller scale, when I released my album-focussed music player Longplay, I received a good amount of feedback and praise. Interestingly, a theme emerged after a while from people expressing that they love the app not because of any specific features but because it let’s them reconnect with their album library in a way that reminded them of their old vinyl or CD collections. It’s a wall of their favourite albums that has been with them for many years or decades. It’s something personal.

While I developed and used the app myself, I had a vague sense of that, but soaking in that feedback from users and getting those different perspectives, revealed the the “heart” or the “essence” of the app. That in turn helps digest and prioritise other feedback, suggestions and wishes. When you have an understanding of what that essence of your app is, it becomes much clearer what to say “no” and what to say “hell yeah” to.

What I’m taking away from this is that it’s important to look beyond the features, and try to get a feeling of what’s underneath and what’s the defining principle. It’s hard to find that yourself and you might need quite a bit of user feedback to get to that. But if you find it, it can be inherently rewarding, and might reveal aspects of directions to take your app that you did not consider before.