Product complexity driving you crazy? learn where to cut.

All other things being equal, the more complex your product is, the harder it will be to use. And the harder your product is to use, the more your customers will rely on your technical support department, which tends to increase your costs and decrease your customers' overall satisfaction with the product. The good news is that one of the most simple and effective ways to reduce complexity is to cut unnecessary features from your product. But how do you know which features to cut?

Well, it's not easy. Marketing wants a feature that one of your competitors has so they can cook up one of those bulleted feature comparison charts. The engineers have an idea for a feature that they think is really interesting, and one of them spent the entire weekend coding it. And then there's the "squeaky wheel" customer in Arizona that wants a particular esoteric feature that no one else seems to care about…

It's difficult to determine what features are important with all these colliding views and opinions clouding your view. In order to separate the wheat from the chaff, it's helpful to follow three simple steps: 1) Keep the big picture in mind, 2) Focus on your personas, and 3) Apply a screening tool.

The big picture

Good businesses constantly balance customer, business, and technical issues as they develop new products.

All three of these factors have to be balanced in order to make a good product, of course. A product that pleases your customers but doesn't make money won't make you successful, and a stellar product that fills a market need but can't be built on schedule won't either. This is the big picture, and it is helpful to keep it in mind as we move on through the next steps.

Focus on your personas

If you don't already have a set of personas—archetypal customers that you use to make informed decisions about the design of your product—you'll need to create a set. (For more information on creating personas, see Kim Goodwin's newsletter article, Perfecting Your Personas.) Your personas will help you focus on what your customers really need, and they will become the benchmark you'll use to evaluate the customer benefit of specific features.

Apply a screening tool

A simple matrix with questions and yes/no answers will suffice. For the customer, ask questions like "Does this feature offer clear benefit to the customer?" and "Can the customer easily learn how to use this feature?" From a business perspective, typical questions include, "Will this feature help me sell the product?" and "Will customers be able to use this feature without calling technical support?" From a technical standpoint, two major questions are, "Is this feature possible given the current technology?" and "Can this feature be implemented within the schedule?"

This is not a complete matrix by any means, but it's a good start:

   

Feature

Customer
benefit

Does the feature offer a clear benefit?

Yes/No

 

Is the feature easily learned?
.

Yes/No

Business
benefit

Will this feature help me sell the product?

Yes/No

 

Can I assume that customers will not require any additional support?

Yes/No

Technical
feasibility

Is this feature possible given the current technology?

Yes/No

 

Can this feature be implemented within the schedule?

Yes/No

Note that both of the technical feasibility examples are clear deal-breakers: "No" votes in either of these rows would require a schedule change or the creation of a new technology.

The feature-cutting process in action

Let's take a run through the process. In this case, let's imagine that you're in charge of the development effort for a sporty new automobile, which, like most modern cars, is fully computerized. You already understand that you have to balance the customer, business, and technical issues, so you get the big picture.

Next up is to introduce the persona that represents your customers. Your designers—after much ethnographic research, careful thought, and animated discussion—have created a persona named Jack Caldwell.

Jack is the energetic, 42 year old owner of a small but profitable antique store. Jack wants to get to work on time, enjoy the drive, and not worry about his car breaking down. Like most folks, he would prefer to spend as little money as possible to keep his car on the road. But at the same time, Jack appreciates a nimble car that moves quite nicely when asked, which is why he gravitated towards a sportier car. He's upgrading from an older sports car with a carbureted engine, in search of something more modern and reliable.

Now that we've established Jack as our target persona, it's time to apply the screening tool. In this case, we're evaluating two different features for our automobile: the Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) system that controls the car's engine, and the Real-Time Miles Per Gallon (RTMPG) display that shows the second-by-second fuel consumption of the car.

The Electronic Fuel Injection feature continuously measures a variety of engine parameters including the amount of air flowing to the engine, the current throttle position, and the oxygen content of the exhaust. The system uses this information to determine the exact amount of gasoline to inject into the engine at a given moment. The advantages of this system over Jack's old carbureted car include more power, better fuel economy, lower emissions, and greater reliability.

The Real-Time Miles Per Gallon feature, on the other hand, is one of those features that your development team was able to provide for "free." The car already has a feature that displays the average miles per gallon measure of fuel efficiency, which, for example, allows Jack to see what his average fuel efficiency was for a long trip. Behind the scenes, the computer calculates this Average MPG using a raw data stream from sensors that continuously monitor the fuel consumption of the engine and distance traveled by the car, in real-time. One of the engineers thought it would be useful to go one step further and display this raw, real-time data in a digital readout, because he thought it might help drivers better understand their driving habits and how they affect the overall fuel economy of the car. The Average MPG and Real-Time MPG features share the same digital readout on the dashboard, and a small control switches between the two types of information, which look very similar.

Let's plug these features into your matrix. To find the answers to the customer benefit questions, you and your designers adopt the worldview of your persona Jack and anticipate his reaction to them. The business benefit questions are answered both through your understanding of Jack's values, and by tapping the knowledge and expertise of your business and marketing people. Finally, the technical feasibility questions are answered directly by the engineering department. After much discussion and debate, here's how it finally shakes out:

   

EFI

RTMPG

Customer
benefit

Does the feature offer Jack a clear benefit?

Yes

No

 

Is the feature easily learned by Jack?

Yes

No

Business
benefit

Will this feature help me sell the product to Jack?

Yes

No

 

Can I assume that Jack will not require any additional support?

Yes

No

Technical
feasibility

Is this feature possible given the current technology?

Yes

Yes

 

Can this feature be implemented within the schedule?

Yes

Yes

Screening results

Your matrix shows the Electronic Fuel Injection feature to be a winner on all counts. Jack enjoys the benefits of overall better performance and fuel economy, and he drives his new car exactly the same way the drove his old car: He pushes on the accelerator pedal, and the car goes. This feature is definitely a keeper.

As it happens, the EFI system is also a rare example of a truly transparent feature, in that there is no change in the user interface of the fuel delivery system. The gas pedal works exactly the same way from Jack's perspective, despite a significant upgrade in real-world benefits to Jack.

On the opposite extreme is the Real-Time Miles Per Gallon feature, which scored very poorly. Jack doesn't understand the meaning or value of this feature—to him, all it does is display a succession of seemingly random numbers: 129, 56, 5, 13, 87… This real-time measure of fuel economy is useful to the computer as raw data for averaging, but is not that useful as a live status indicator for Jack. In the best-case scenario, Jack will think this raw stream of data is rather silly. In the worst-case scenario, he'll mistake this raw stream of MPG data for the more useful Average MPG reading, and assume that the feature is broken. He'll end up bringing the car back to the dealer or calling for help. There's no clear upside to this feature, so it should be removed.

The RTMPG display, in addition to being rather useless and confusing to Jack, is also a perfect example of an empty calorie feature: it provides no clear benefit to the customer, it doesn't help sell the product, and potentially requires extra work from your support staff, at a greater cost to you. Given all this, the fact that the feature can be implemented with the current technology and on schedule seems a small comfort.

Of course, these are just two extremely different types of features—you'll discover many flavors in between as you apply this process to your product.

Some additional tips

A few other things to keep in mind when you're looking for features to cut:

  • Don't include special one-off features for individual customers unless you're convinced that they will benefit the majority of your customers as well. Use your personas to evaluate customer feature requests so that your team isn't unduly influenced by the "squeaky wheels." (Of course, if the "individual customer" in question is a 50,000-seat Fortune 100 account, the business benefit may outweigh the downsides.)
  • Neat technical features are often confusing to customers. They may excite your engineers—smart people who have parlayed their interest in highly technical things into a career—but if a feature doesn't offer a clear and direct benefit to your customers and help you sell the product, it's better to just leave it out.
  • If you haven't already, consider changing your company's marketing tactics—and I know this is both non-trivial and controversial—from competitive feature comparisons to competitive benefit comparisons. Competitive feature comparisons usually end up sparking a product "arms race," in which you and your competitors feel pressured to pile on the features as fast as possible to stay in the race. On the other hand, if you can demonstrate that your product provides your customer with a greater benefit than your competitor's product, regardless of how many more features their product has…Well, let's just say that if I were a salesman, I know which product I'd want to bet my commission checks on.

Jack drives off into the sunset

As you can see, reducing complexity by cutting features isn't just about thinning down your product. It's about making your product more appropriate, and as a result, of greater benefit to both your customers and your bottom line. And isn't that what we're all driving towards?