Monday, January 24, 2011

Two Stupid Reasons for Complicated Products

I frequently get asked by startups to simplify products. In general, companies are fantastic at coming up with great feature ideas, but they tend to find it harder to either kill underperforming features or properly integrate new ideas that got tacked on as an experiment or pivot.

Because I get called in when a company already has a product that new users find confusing, I see a lot of the same mistakes repeated. I also hear the same excuses for those mistakes.

Often, when I’m looking at a new product, I’ll find very similar features in different parts of the interface.

For example, one social product had three completely different ways of searching for friends the user might know. Now, I don’t mean that there were different criteria you could use - like email address or interests or user name. That would have been fine.

I mean there were three completely different places the user could go in the product to find three completely different features that were meant to help people search for their friends. There was huge functionality overlap among the three features, but they were all slightly different.

There’s a Reason For That

Of course, I mentioned that it seemed odd and confusing to have three different places to go to do essentially the same thing. And the product owner patiently explained to me that there was a reason for that.

The product owner then launched into a detailed description of how the first one had been built by the team as an experiment. A few months later, since the experiment went well, but was a little slow, the team migrated to a different technology for search, and built a second version of the feature alongside the first one to see if it could be faster.

Since the product owner hadn’t given them any requirements for the new version other than “go faster,” and the new technology made some of the old functionality tricky, the second version didn’t have exactly the same capabilities as the first. So, the team decided it wasn’t an adequate replacement for the old version. They released it anyway, since they’d already built it, and it was faster.

The third version of the feature had been built as part of a larger feature, but the rest of that larger feature had been killed, and only the search part remained. It had some neat new functionality that users liked, but the team felt it didn’t really replace either of the other two versions.

Moreover, the product owner explained to me that different types of users liked the various different versions of friend search, so he was hesitant to kill any of them, because whichever one he killed would upset somebody.

So, he was stuck supporting three different variations of the same feature, and new users were overwhelmed by choice for where they were supposed to go to find their friends.

And here’s the thing: users don’t actually want this sort of choice. This sort of choice is confusing. It makes navigating the product cumbersome, and it’s unpleasantly surprising to constantly find new, slightly different ways to do the same thing.

There’s a Big Difference

This isn’t the only way that the problem manifests. Sometimes when I point out similar features in different places, the product owner reassures me that “there is a big difference” between the features.

This happened with a client when I pointed out that there were two different types of quizzes in one section of the product, but they had different names and placements. I asked why they couldn’t be combined into one section, so that the clutter on the page would be reduced and the user could always know where to go to take quizzes.

He assured me that there was a big difference between the two types of quizzes. When I asked him to elaborate, he went into detail about how the types of quizzes were different on the back end, and how one was often used as a business development tool while the other was user generated.

In other words, both of the “big differences” were things that were only different to the company. They were the sorts of differences that a user would never notice. All a user would notice would be that the quizzes were sometimes in one place and sometimes in another, which would be confusing and frustrating if she was looking for that feature.

How to Avoid This

Take a hard look at your product. Are there any similar features? You’ll be surprised at how often the answer is yes. If there are, ask yourself what your reasons were for building the different variations.

If your reasons for building different versions of the same feature are based entirely on technology or business development (in other words, things that only matter to YOU and not your users), you’ve got a problem.

The most customer friendly way of dealing with it is to try to come up with a superset of the best functionality from all the versions and improve one of the versions until it satisfies as many user stories as possible.

But even if you don’t have the time or resources to consolidate them into one great version of the product, just killing the duplicated features will ultimately simplify your product and make it more useful and understandable for all of your customers.

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