Feature Bloat or New and Improved?

A lot of companies these days are focused on minimalist design. The success of companies like Apple and even Google show us that you really don’t need to slap feature upon feature to grab the attention of users. Just do one thing and do it real good. The rest will follow. Or will it?

Obviously building more features takes time and money. In a software project it also adds code that you have to maintain and build with. For a bad code base it can introduce the very real risk of dragging the rest of the project down by introducing more bugs and making things very stable.

Microsoft and MySpace are the antithesis of Apple and Google. But wait, those are also the biggest players in their field too. They’ll slap on a new feature before going back to fix all the things that are wrong with it. As a result, they’re paying the cost when they’re the biggest player in the game. Look at how long it took Microsoft to release Vista and how badly it’s doing. MySpace is a big flaming mess that can’t even hang on to my login details or redirect me to the right page after logging in. I’d understand if this was a new startup but they’ve been around for years and have all the resources. The thing they have in common is that they’d rather not cut their losses and rewrite the code (Of course, this has its own risk but the long-term benefits can be big) or significantly improve the existing code before adding more stuff.

Still, users can’t get enough of MySpace and Microsoft continues to keep their stranglehold on the computer market (despite many geeks defecting to a mac). Is it because they have market share already? Maybe. However, my guess is that they got where they are today by rapidly building out features and making smart marketing moves (mainly being the most accessible). Microsoft software can run on any IBM clone with little restriction (discounting their irritating DRM). MySpace is open to anyone including many many spammers and fakes (despite their recent initiatives to the contrary).

I think minimalism only works when it is done really really good and fulfills a definite purpose. Think potato peeler. You really don’t need laser guidance or a GPS on that peeler do you? It might be nice to have a really ergonomic but slip-proof handle and a special allow to keep blades sharp for longer. Twitter is a good example of a “potato peeler” app: an asynchronous group IM with character limits. It answers one question well: What am I and my friends doing?

Still, this approach wouldn’t work with DVD recorders. You need features even if it means a little confusion. Why? Because different users have very real but different needs. You simply can’t say, “this is how you use it or else.” I think this is the big mistake many people make about Apple products. Apple products are packed to the brim with features. Just take a look under the hood of OS X and you’ll be amazed by the plethora of features that come with the operating system. Apple simply does a good job of hiding the stuff that doesn’t matter and highlighting the stuff that does. It’s like a full-featured DVD recorder disguised as a potato peeler.

Features matter and here are some reasons why:

Scratches an Itch

I think every user has been here whether web or desktop. Everything is peachy until we find that “one glaring omission” in our favorite product. We get in touch with people and ask if it’s “hidden” somewhere or make a feature request. You can’t please everyone but it never hurts to try. Sometimes a deficiency becomes a “deal breaker” that prevents you from finding new customers.

Keeps things fresh

I think this is more prevalent with the growing influence of the internet and it’s not just web apps but desktop apps as well. The best way to keep the buzzers buzzing is to constantly release updates that show your commitment to improving the product. It gives people something to talk about (giving you good feedback) and staves off rumors that you entered the deadpool.

For a startup it can mean life or death. Early on you’ll attract lots of curious people and some of them will become passionate. What do passionate beta users like? A constantly evolving product. Even better if they feel like they played a part in it.

Some Thoughts

I think the reason why many are fearful of featuritis or feature bloat is not because new features are bad but simply because people aren’t doing enough subtraction as well. Successfully adding features also means having the courage to delete things that no longer matter and have the aesthetic sense to reorganize the design as needed.

At some point you also need to stop and polish the base that you have before embarking on the next phase. The important thing is not to hold off on adding needed features but making a feature-packed product that isn’t cluttered, something intuitive to use but does most of what you want it to.

Categories: web