This past week I was reading Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences. I came across the following paragraph in which Buxton talks about why new versions of mature products are often poorly designed:
"As a product reaches maturity, the number of features have grown (so-called “feature bloat”) to the point where those that you do add represent an ever-smaller part of the overall application (despite their increased cost) and are harder to find, even for the smaller number of users who may need or want them."
Scope creep. Feature bloat. Feature creep. I’ve heard many names for this phenomenon, and I’ve seen the sympathetic nods all around from product designers. I have been there when business leaders pressure a product team to add one more obscure feature because “this big client really wants it and we need it to close the sale.” Time and again, it seems to me like the product leaders I admire are all really good at saying no.
Is feature bloat inevitable? It's hard to cite examples of companies that have successfully avoided it. Photoshop, Word, Excel, even Facebook and the iPhone have all packed more and more features into a product over time. Don Norman wrote a thing about iPhone feature creep. Gmail is another example of a product that some users might argue tries to do too much: contacts, filtering, settings, formatting, scheduling. Will we see the same thing as Docs, Dropbox, and other popular tools now mature?
Is feature bloat a bad thing? Referring to the phenomenon as “bloat” and “creep” certainly makes it seem so. I believe the bloat is subjective to the user: the bloat is the gap between all the user thinks she needs, and what she encounters in the product. For the power user, the completeness of features is more important than a simple, non-overwhelming experience. The power user doesn’t think Photoshop is bloated; the first-time user probably does.
The more I think about it, the more I see an inversely proportional relationship between feature bloat and SaaS. I’d like to think that the emergence of the SaaS business model might be reducing the urge to add features. If product teams previously felt the pressure to add features to raise revenue through sales of “improved” version updates, SaaS products can now keep that revenue flowing with monthly recurring revenue. Businesses can now focus on raising customer lifetime value by pushing that subscription further out with other tactics like better customer engagement, rather than by focusing on adding features.
It seems to me that a way to counter feature bloat would be for product teams of maturing products to identify a point in the product's life where the experience has to be segmented for "amateur" and "pro" users. Even better if this segmentation has been done right from the beginning of the product. The pro users get their full suite of features, and the amateurs get only what they need. Here’s where SaaS comes into the picture again. I'd like to think the emergence of the freemium/tiered model of products today (that is actually closely tied to the SaaS emergence) lays the foundation for this practice. By having several tiers of the product from the beginning, it forces the product team to think in terms of the different personas, with different motivations for using the product, with different willingness(es?) to pay and different tolerances of product complexity.
Maybe I’ll elaborate on some of the above points in future posts.