Feature Creep Rant: Making the Right Thing

February 9, 2016 in Human-Centered Design
David Bishop
Strategic Design Lead

Writer’s Note: I wrote an article on this topic 10 years ago, and it’s still relevant today with our on-demand culture and increasing desire to connect everything to the Internet of Things. The original content has been updated to reflect current observations and annoyances.

What is it about people that make them want to add features to products until they are bloated, unusable junk? Feature creep is so prevalent that it’s spawned the spoonerism - feeping creaturism, which appropriately sounds like something out of a horror movie. A perfect example of this is represented in the article “Office 12 Makeover Takes on Feature Creep.” Was the product so bad that only a makeover was going to be enough to address it? And why did it take 11 versions to realize that you couldn’t add features forever and have the product remain usable?

Too many Word features in too many toolbars.

The Market Reinforces Bad Behavior

The competitive landscape and market forces can push you toward feature creep. The good news is that when products are created they typically satisfy the needs of users by letting them do something that was previously impossible, or do something with greater efficiency or accuracy. Once a product has a solid user base, the users take to social media and other digital forums to make requests for changes, modifications and additions for version 2.0. Then the competition appears, and suddenly the market is comparing the products based on what? Features. Suddenly, Marketing people start thinking about how great the next version will be and how the new features can be promoted.

A particularly egregious example of market reinforcement of feature creep is the use of RFPs (Requests for Proposals) to compare products. RFPs typically require extensive lists of features and functions, with a strong implication that the vendor with the most features will win the contract. Has anyone ever considered how the best product is more concise? More focused? Or does less? Why not? Why is that so wrong? Why is it so hard to create an easy-to-use version of a product that doesn’t contribute to creeping featurism?

The market may reinforce the addition of features to products, but product designers and developers also contribute to the problem. It is hard to refrain from adding a feature because it’s easy to imagine that someone, somewhere will find a particular feature useful. Foregoing a function or widget feels like you’re ignoring a user need, or that you may be making some future task impossible (even if it is rare). Focusing on the things that you’re sure everyone will use feels like you’re building a “least common denominator” product, or building a “dumbed down” version of your product, or making something that won’t compete in the marketplace.

Consider Simplicity

How can this dilemma be avoided? Consider simplicity as a feature! Don’t think of removing a function from a product as taking something away; think of it as adding simplicity. It’s a solution for making users more efficient, happier, and more effective. One of the worst outcomes of feature creep is when customers call a company’s support center to request features that are already present! (Yes, we’ve seen this happen). Pause and ponder that for a moment—the features are already in the product, but users can’t find them. They may as well have been absent.

If some of the creepy features can be removed (or not included in the first place), users will be able to better find the features they want and will actually use. Taming complexity in your product design can help to uncover functionality, which is tantamount to adding features!

Guard Against Feature Creep

Talk to the users of your company’s products. Visit them. Observe them using the products and take notes. Collect wish lists of desirable features, as well as features nobody uses; ask the users directly about what they wish was absent. Try testing variants and prototypes against each other to see the benefits of simplicity. Challenge yourself and other product designers to design simpler, easy-to-use products. Consider using analytics and metrics to record what parts of a product or system are actually being used, how often, and by how many people during testing phases, and use the logs to determine what parts are not used. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of believing that, if there is a chance that someone will use a feature in the future, it should be added. There is harm; every feature added makes it harder to find others and compromises functionality.

I’ll leave you with the following quote from French aviator and writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Banner source: NASA

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