Sunday, February 10, 2013

Product Management: Thoughts on feature bloat

As a product starts getting customers, it develops a clear narrative for the user.  "What is the product about?" question can be answered simply by the answers your customers gave to you: "What does the product do for me [customer]?"  At the end of the day all that matters is how customer is using the product.  What doesn't matter is how many features you jam into the product.

This seems like an obvious thing to figure out.  But it gets tricky because customers, competitors and market are always in motion.  There is always that customer who comes up with the next feature request that would keep him happy.  There is always that competitor who is looking to take your customers away at the moment when your product feature stays still for a few months.  There is always that market unknowns where a couple of college dropouts working on the next big thing will undercut much of what you have built so far.

To stay ahead of this game, it's easy to get on to an endless feature treadmill that delivers feature after feature that many don't even know about, a few have heard, and fewer actually use.  Often it happens for a few reasons:

  1. Listening to existing big customers and adding features to solve their problems
  2. Adding a feature requested by prospect to close the deal
  3. Copying from competitor's feature set

These are all good reasons.  But before you start another project to add one more feature, there is a question that you have to ask as a product manager.  That is this:

How will the feature help customer do their job better?

If you stop and think about this question, there is an assumption behind it.  It is that customers must first know about the feature.  Then they have to understand how it can make their job easier. Without the two pieces, the new feature that you add may well end up as a feature that many customers don't know about, and are not using.

Remember that if you built it and customers don't know about it, it might as well not exist.    Product manager's job is to make sure that customers know and use them to provide feedback.  Only with the actual user feedback, you can iterate the feature and make it better.  If no one knows, the iteration process does not start.  When you stay in this hidden feature addition cycle for while, that's what leads to feature bloat.

So naturally the fix to this feature bloat is one thing.  Make when you introduce a feature, people know about it.  That's including your sales engineers, sales and customer support and eventually customers.  It's product manager's job to make sure the information flows and everyone understands what problem the feature is solving for the users.

Once everyone knows about the feature and still not interested in using, then that is feedback that you can consider when you add the next one.  But without that feedback, you don't know whether you are on the path to feature bloat or to a great product.

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