How To Avoid The “Swiss knife” Product Trap

Zigmars Rozentals
9 min readJul 8, 2023

Features will not sell your product. They often confuse customers and discourage continued use.

When product managers focus more on the product than the customer, competitors will eventually create solutions that better address customer needs.

This is the focus of my article on the “Swiss knife” product trap, which has ruined many startups, companies, and product managers’ careers.

Everyone loves the “Swiss Army knife,” which has many tools built into one relatively small object that you can carry in your pocket.

Customers value versatility — products that require a single purchase but can then be used for a wide array of tasks and circumstances.

The “Swiss Army knife” promises to be capable of resolving almost any situation that requires a hardware tool. As consumers, we often cherish such products because we get so much for so little! The attraction is undeniable.

If you’re a product manager, you probably have a list of “feature requests” coming in from different sources: surveys, feedback channels, helpdesk support, sales, stakeholders, and many more.

So many times, I have seen a senior board member stating something similar to: “Our product should be packed with numerous features, and the market will adore it!”

However, nothing could be further from the truth. If something is for everyone, it is for no one. When a product or solution tries to cater to the needs and preferences of everyone, it often ends up being too generalized and fails to satisfy anyone’s specific needs. Products without a clear value proposition to solve a particular customer problem rarely end up successful. On the contrary, the best chance of creating a successful product, feature, or solution is to focus on one particular customer problem and uniquely solve it.

Wait!

What about Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft?

Are not all Fortune 500 company products like “Swiss Army knives”?

Throughout my diverse experience in product management, agile coaching, and tech startup consulting, I’ve repeatedly encountered the belief that loading a product with numerous features is the shortcut to quick success. As a proof, proponents often point to numerous Fortune 500 companies as examples.

While it’s true that established products have created an extensive ecosystem of features around them — as I’ll demonstrate in a few examples below — it’s a huge myth and misconception that this is a shortcut to success.

So, at first let me tell you a few examples where super successful and well established products are literally “Swiss Army knives” and then we will think more about why it should not be a good example of how to launch your own products, features and solutions.

In these examples, one may ask: where is the “trap” and problem I am referring to? Let’s see these “antitheses” of the “Swiss knife” product trap.

Amazon Web Services (AWS)

AWS

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is indeed a “Swiss Army knife” for businesses, thanks to its comprehensive suite of tools and services that cater to virtually every conceivable need. Imagine AWS as an adaptable multi-tool that offers not only storage with S3, but also computing power with EC2, seamless data migration with Snowball, expansive database services, powerful machine learning modules, and even tools for game development.

With its wide array of tools and capabilities it is an ultimate “Swiss Army knife” in the digital era.

Facebook (Meta)

Facebook App is full of features

Facebook (Meta) is another example of a “Swiss Army knife,” addressing a collection of different customer needs, from social networking with Facebook to photo and video sharing through Instagram, instant messaging via Messenger and WhatsApp, and professional networking on Workplace.

This vast suite of applications and services has truly made Meta an all-in-one solution for personal, professional, and social digital interactions, challenging the statement that the “Swiss knife” approach can become a trap at all.

Microsoft

Another example is Microsoft, undeniably a “Swiss Army knife” when it comes to satisfying a wide range of customer and business needs.

Picture Microsoft as a robust digital toolkit that not only provides familiar productivity software like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint but also caters to the evolving needs of modern businesses with solutions such as the Azure cloud platform, the Dynamics 365 business applications suite, and the Teams communication platform. It provides advanced AI capabilities, cybersecurity services, gaming technology with Xbox, and even explores the realm of mixed reality with HoloLens.

Thus, Microsoft, with its comprehensive suite of applications and services, is truly a “Swiss Army knife” in the digital landscape, providing tools for virtually any task you can imagine.

So, where is the problem?

These success stories may seem like proof that loading products with a bunch of features can make a company a world-leading brand in its field.

The problem about “Swiss Army Knife”

Looking at these examples we may ask doesn’t it appear to be a winning formula for success?

Isn’t their vast collection of features a factor of their success?

Stop!

It’s not that straightforward.

Yes, businesses and individuals love these products and their features, but the market is a more complex beast.

While AWS, Meta, and Microsoft have indeed become the “Swiss Army Knives” of their respective domains, this approach is not a way how to blindly follow, create products that customers love.

These examples are well-established brands with significant market share and capitalization. Their current product strategies are tailored to their specific stages of growth and product portfolio lifecycle and development.

If you’re a product manager working on a product or product portfolio, mimicking their current strategies definitely isn’t the best move.

Instead, if you want to create a product that customers love, you should think about adopting a more targeted approach.

You should be focusing on specific customer problems and needs. Or better start with one.

There are different product management tools and methods that may be helpful, such as utilizing the Lean Canvas, 5 Whys, Business Model Canvas, Jobs-To-Be-Done framework to understand much better the real motivations behind customer behaviours.

Building deep understanding and specialization in a particular area can foster innovation, improve the customer experience, and ultimately create a unique value proposition.

Remember, even the “Swiss Army knife” started with one blade before it added more tools.

Yes, you might snare a few customers who appreciate an “all-in-one” app or product, but usually, this won’t be enough to generate significant traction.

Without a clear “use case” and purpose, your product might struggle to capture the market and reach a critical mass of users.

I often call this phenomenon the “Swiss knife” trap.

So, how can we avoid this trap?

The steps to building a product from scratch are both universal and unique.

They are unique because your product and your customers are one-of-a-kind. At the same time, these steps are universal because they always begin with the same inquiries.

A good place to start is asking WHY.

Why would anyone use your product?

What is the problem that your product proposes to solve for the customer?

What is the value for your customer?

What’s the real customer motivation using the product?

These are the questions you, as the product manager, should ask every day, working with your product.

Let me help you see this from the customers’ perspective.

A Car

Think about why the car was invented.

What is the main “job” of a car?

Though cars can be collector’s items for some, status symbols for others, or even homes for a few, their main purpose is transportation.

Getting from point A to point B.

If you were inventing the first car 135 years ago, your sole concern would be ensuring it could perform the customer’s job of moving from one point to another better than a horse does.

More transportation value for the customer than the existing alternative — the horse.

The same logic applies to a chair or table.

Their primary functions are simple and clear. If you want to create a better chair, let’s say “Chair 2.0,” you should not blindly start adding new features without understanding the current problems that customers experience using a chair in specific contexts and situations.

Learning about customer use cases and discovering their pains and gains through the experience of using the current solution could be a great starting point for creating better answers to the problem and developing new value propositions that address the customers’ needs.

This happens by NOT loading your product with new features every release.

In fact, as has been proven many times, a product often solves the customer problem better by removing some unnecessary features that distract from the main “job” for which the product was “hired.”

The digital realm is no different.

An example to learn from — Waze App

Waze, the community-driven navigation app, is a prime example of a product that excels in fulfilling one particular “job” that customers “hire” it to do:

to provide the quickest, most efficient routes based on real-time traffic and road conditions.

Unlike many multi-purpose applications, Waze focuses on doing one thing extraordinarily well, offering turn-by-turn navigation information while crowdsourcing data on traffic, hazards, and more from its community of users.

Users hire Waze not just because they need to get from point A to point B, but because they want the most accurate, up-to-date, and user-friendly navigation service available.

Waze’s success is a testament to the power of a product that thoroughly understands its job and performs it exceptionally well.

Another good example is a podcast app

Podcast apps, like Apple Podcasts or Spotify, are another great example of a product that specializes in one key “job” — to serve as a one-stop platform for podcast listeners to discover, access, and manage their favorite shows.

Customers “hire” these apps for this specific role, seeking a seamless and personalized listening experience that effortlessly connects them to a universe of podcast content.

By focusing on executing this singular task exceptionally well, podcast apps have become an integral tool for everyday podcast listeners, highlighting the power of a product that understands and efficiently fulfills its defined role.

Your product also have a job!

If you are product manager, here is a question for you -

What is that “one thing” customers are aiming to accomplish when using your product or opening your app or website?

This holds true for both an advanced artificial intelligence platform and a simple WordPress website.

The customers are using them as tools to accomplish specific goals.

They are “hiring” these products to do certain “jobs”.

So, before you start creating product requirements, drawing flowcharts, and wireframes, your main task is to define the primary jobs of your product or service.

Even if your product or service is already used by thousands, you must persistently ask — “Why is my product used?”

Call it a “killer feature”, “main user story”, “core use case”, “product vision”, “job”, or anything else.

The reason WHY the customer uses your product should be defined and clear.

If you master the delivery of this “job”, your customers will appreciate it.

All the other “nice-to-haves” are good, often necessary, but they’re not why the market adopts a new product.

So, as a product manager, never lose focus on the fundamental problem your customers are addressing with your product.

Stay focused to how your product remains relevant and continues to perform “the job” as an effective solution for it.

In the realm of product management, it’s essential to understand this concept.

Post scriptum:

Thanks for asking about the product in the top photo.

Yes, it is real, no Photoshopping, no AI, no Midjourney!

It is Wenger 16999 — the biggest Swiss knife the world has seen with 141 features: https://www.knifecenter.com/it...

Needless to say… …the product was discontinued and is no longer available.

Are you asking the reason? That’s the “Swiss knife” product trap :)

https://rozentalsblog.blogspot.com/2023/07/blog-post.html

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