When we develop tech products, we are always interested in how to improve them. We listen to customers’ requests based on what they need, and we come up with ingenious new features we are sure that they forgot to request. Either way product development inevitably becomes an exercise in what features we can add in order to improve the product. This results in feature creep.
The negative side of adding features
Adding new features to a product does frequently increase utility and therefore improves the product. But that does not mean it is purely beneficial. There are a number of adverse effects of adding features that are sometimes being downplayed.
The addition of each new feature adds complexity to the product. It is one more thing to think about for the user and the developer. What is worse is that unless this feature is stand alone and not related to any other features it does not just increase complexity linearly but exponentially. For example, if the addition of a choice in a drop-down menu has an effect on other choices being available in other drop-down menus the complexity increases at the system level not just with the new choice but with all the combinations. The consequence is that the entropy of the system is increased significantly. In practical terms this means that more tests need to be done, troubleshooting can take longer, and general knowledge of system behavior may disappear when key employees leave unless it is well document, which in turn is an extra cost.
The risk also increases based on the simple insight that the more moving parts there are the more things can break. This is why for decades I have ridden only one gear bikes. Because of that I don’t have to worry about the gear breaking or getting stuck in an impossible setting. Every new feature added means new potential risks of system level disruptions. Again, this is not a linear function as interactions between parts of a system add additional risks that are difficult assess. I think many of us have tried adding a function in one part of the system that produce a wholly unforeseen effect in another part. This is what I mean about interaction.
Every new feature requires attention, which is always a scarce resource. The user has a limited attention gap and can only consider a low number of options consciously (recent psychological research suggests around four items can be handled by working memory). Furthermore, the more features the longer it takes to learn how to use the product. And this is just on the user side. On the development side every feature needs to have a requirement specification, design, development, documentation and maybe training material needs to be made.
How about we don’t do that?
Luckily, it is not the only way to improve a product. We can also think about taking features away but somehow that is a lot harder and rarely if ever does it enter as a natural option into the product development cycle. It’s as if it is against human nature to think like that.
In a recent paper in Nature entitled “People systematically overlook subtractive changes” Gabrielle S. Adams and collaborators investigate how people approach improving objects ideas or situations. They find that we have a tendency to prefer looking to add new changes rather than subtract. This is perhaps the latest addition to the growing list of cognitive biases identified in the field of behavioral economics championed by Nobel laureates like Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler. Cognitive biases describe ways in which we humans act that are not rational in an economic sense.
This has direct implications for product development. When developing a tech product, the process is usually to build a road map that describes the future improvement of the product. 99% of the time this involves adding new features. Adding new features is so entrenched in product management that there hardly is a word or process dedicated to subtracting features.
However, there is a word. It is called decommissioning. But it has been banished from the realms of flashy product management to the lower realms of legacy clean up. As someone who has worked in both worlds, I think this is a mistake.
How to do less to achieve more
As with other cognitive biases that work against our interest, we need to develop strategies to counteract them. Here are a few ways that we can start to think about subtracting things from products rather than just adding them.
Start the product planning cycle with a session dedicated to removing features. Before any discussion about what new things can be done take some time to reflect on what things can be removed. Everything counts. You don’t have to go full Marie Kondo (the tidy up guru who recommends throwing away most of your stuff and who recently opened a store so you can buy some new stuff ) though, removing text, redundant functions is all good. A good supplement for this practice is analysis about what parts of the product are rarely if ever used. It is not always possible for hardware products, but for web-based software it is just a matter of configuring monitoring.
Include operational costs in the decision process, not just development costs. This is not an exact science like anything in product development but some measure of what it takes to operate new features is good to put down as part of the basis for a decision. If a new feature requires customer support, then that should be part of the budget. Often a new feature will lead to customer issues and inquiries. That is part of the true cost. Also, there may be maintenance costs. Does it mean that a new component of the tech stack is introduced? That requires new skill, upgrades, monitoring and management. All of this needs to be accounted for when adding new features.
Introduce “Dogma Rules” for product development. A big part of the current international success of Danish film can be ascribed to the Dogme 95 Manifesto by Palme D’or and Oscar winning directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. It was a manifesto that limited what you could do when making films. Similarly, you can introduce rules that limit how you can make new product enhancements. For example, a feature cap could be introduced or the number of clicks to achieve a goal could similarly be capped.
Create a feature budget. For each development cycle create a budget of X feature credits. Product managers can then spend them as they like and create x number of features but by having a budget, they can also retire features in order to gain extra credits. Naturally this runs inside the usual budget process. Obviously, this is somewhat subjective, and you may want to establish a feature authority or arbiter to assess what counts.
Work with circular thinking. Taking inspiration from the circular economy, which has some similar challenges is another approach. Rather than only thinking about building and removing things it could prove worthwhile to think in circular terms: are there ways to reuse or reappropriate existing functionality? One could think about how to optimize quality rather than throughput.
Build a sound decommissioning practice. Decommissioning is not straight forward and definitely not a skill set that comes naturally to gifted creative product managers. Therefore, it may be advantageous to appoint decommissioning specialists, people tasked primarily with retiring products and product features. This requires system analysis, risk management, migration planning etc. Like testing, which is also a specialized function in software development, it provides reduction in product risk and cost.
Taking the first step
Whether one or more of these will work depends on circumstances, what is certain is that we don’t naturally think about how to subtract functionality to improve a product. We should though. The key is to start changing the additive mentality of product development and start practicing our subtractive skills. It is primarily a mental challenge that requires discipline and leadership in order to succeed. It is bound to meet resistance and skepticism but most features in software today are rarely if ever used. Maybe this is a worthwhile alternative path to investigate. Like any change it is necessary to take the first step. The above are suggestions for that.