Anyone managing a product will often be tempted to add features as a way of improving the product. Most often the temptation is prompted by customer feedback. This is sometimes mistaken for validation, if customers ask for it then it should be added, right? Well, not always. Adding a feature is no trivial matter. Even small features can degrade the overall user experience.
What Leads to a Positive User Experience?
Usability expert Jared Spool frequently refers to the Kano Model when it comes to crafting positive user experiences. The Kano Model breaks user experience down into three primary facets:
- Meeting basic expectations
- Performance improvements
Of these three facets, performance improvement is most relevant to feature rot. Spool describes performance improvement as “…the investment of new features as a method of improving the performance of the product.”
Many products are released in a simplified state, so adding features is an easy way to improve. Feature bloat typically occurs when this practice continues past the infancy of the product.
The result is a worse overall product rather than a better one. Consider what design changes are required to add a simple feature…
- The interface has to be altered
- There are typically associated controls or settings
- The user must learn what the feature does and how to use it.
- The feature has to be watched, improved, and continually supported
On the most basic level, a product with too many features is overwhelming. Designers can certainly empathize with the difficulty in learning everything you can do with Photoshop. A one size, every feature under the sun is actually less desirable than a focused alternative.
I frequently see this with premium WordPress themes. What sounds like a great one-size-fits-all theme with tons of capabilities is actually an impossible-to-configure mess of bloated code. Often they are so difficult even I struggle to configure them. Fifteen years of experience should be enough to configure a theme to moderately resemble the demo page.
A common sticking point is that initially features sell — even if the product is subpar as a result. Washing machines, for example, typically sell better when there are more options. In the store the washing machine appears to be a more capable product, even though most people only use one or two of the dozen or so options.
I frequently battle this with Project Panorama. Simple yet specific functionality is often expected to be included with the core plugin. Users don’t want nor expect to install an additional plugin to accomplish minor things like remove the admin bar or block the dashboard for subscribers.
Yet including this functionality would bloat the plugin because most users would never need it. As a result, I frequently push back and explain why that feature wouldn’t improve the product for the core audience.
So as product designers, managers, or developers we have a choice to make. Add the features and sell more products in the short term, or produce a better, more desirable product in the long term. Obviously my bias is towards the latter where you don’t have to be on the lookout for a new competitor with a simpler, easier option.