Monday, May 17, 2010

How Many Features Does it Take to Destroy Your Product?

I work with a lot of startup founders who are extremely excited about their products. This is unsurprising, since nobody in their right mind would launch a startup without being totally convinced that their product is going to be awesome. It’s just too much work and risk for something that you aren’t passionate about.

Passion in startups is a great thing. It can also be incredibly dangerous.

The story is the same with pretty much every group of founders I work with: they have hundreds of great feature ideas for their product. Let me be clear: HUNDREDS of great feature ideas. Don’t get me wrong, many of these are genuinely great ideas. Almost every time I hear one, I think, “Wow, that would be really nice to have in this product and would add a lot of value.”

Unfortunately, starting a product with all of those features causes a lot of problems.

More Features = More Time to Build

Imagine building a house that includes a single room vs. one that has twenty rooms on three floors. There’s a lot more work, design, and planning that needs to go into the bigger design to make sure that people don’t get lost and that the house won't collapse.

This may seem obvious, but building one feature takes a lot less time than building ten. And the more time you spend building your initial product, the longer it takes to start getting metrics from actual users. Sure, you can and should start getting feedback from people using mockups and prototypes, but nothing beats actual data from your real product in the hands of users.

More Features = More UX Complexity

Remember that 20 room house? It has a lot more windows, doors, staircases, and electrical outlets than the one room place. It can be hard to find a reasonable place for everything. The more complex your product is, the more challenging it can be to present all of your features to your users in a usable way.

It’s hard to design a product that has a lot of different features. Everything needs to have an obvious, findable place in the product structure. All the features need to fit together in such a way that a user never gets lost or confused. Starting with a couple of key features keeps the overall UX much simpler and vastly reduces both your design time and the chances that your product will look like a giant mess.

More Features = Less Clear Value Proposition

Ever come to a web site or opened a product and thought, “What on earth does it DO?” Generally, the culprit is a confusing jumble of features, menus, buttons, and calls to action that prevent you from understanding the main value proposition of the product. Sure, companies try to combat the problem with wordy feature descriptions, video tutorials, and on-rails first time user experiences, but those often make things worse.

The simple fact is that the fewer features your product has, the easier it is for a new user to immediately understand what your product has to offer them. When all you have is new users, making sure they don’t get confused and leave is a pretty high priority.

How Do I Know How Many Features I Need?

I wish there were a magic number I could give you. Since there isn’t, I’m going to give you one way of approaching the problem that's worked for me in the past.

Define the Product

The first thing you need to do is stop thinking of your product as a collection of awesome features and start answering the question, “What does it DO?” Answer it as simply as possible, preferably in one sentence. Like this:
  • “It lets people buy any book in the world.”
  • “It helps people make new friends.”
  • “It helps small businesses with fewer than 5 employees find and purchase group healthcare.”
  • “It connects travelers with people who want to rent out a room.”
This is harder than it sounds. You’re probably used to dealing with products or web sites that have been around for awhile and started to add other features. For example, you could define Facebook in any of the following ways plus dozens of others:
  • “It helps people get in touch with old friends.”
  • “It allows people to play casual games with friends online.”
  • “It lets people post pictures to share with friends and family.”
  • “It lets brands market directly to consumers.”
  • “It helps people organize parties and events with their friends and contacts.”
But remember, it didn't start out that way! Any one of those definitions would be perfectly reasonable as a single product, and each one would have its own minimum set of necessary features.

Define the Minimum Set of Features Necessary

Now that you’ve got your very simple product definition, you need to strip it down the very minimum set of features necessary to let people do this thing. BE RUTHLESS. You want to let people buy any book in the world? Let them find  and purchase a book. You don’t need to give them recommendations or friends or wishlists yet. You don’t need to let them buy a blender at the same time. You need to give them the best damn book buying experience they can imagine, and when they first come to your site, they had better immediately understand that they can buy books.

This may be the hardest thing that you will ever have to do with your product. It takes a tremendous amount of willpower not to add all those awesome features that you know people are going to love. Just keep telling yourself, you can always add them later, once you’ve nailed the core experience of your product.  Remember, if users don’t love the core experience of your product, all the extra features in the world aren’t going to save it. In fact, they'll probably make it worse.

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