Last week, my article about product simplicity (or, more commonly, product complexity) generated a bunch of reactions on my social feeds and email inbox. It turns out I’m not the only one frustrated with bloated software and gadgets with way too many buttons.
There are many reasons that products, especially software, becomes difficult to use. However, in my experience, the main problem is that product managers don't talk to buyers.
When I say “buyers” I mean people who are not yet customers. If somebody isn’t yet a customer and they describe what they want, it will usually be simple.
In the case of the Speed Queen washer that we love that I mentioned in last week’s article, my wife and I wanted an easy to use and reliable washing machine. Nothing more.
How feature creep happens
However, when people start to use a product or service, they inevitably think of something they want. When product managers come calling and ask about the product, existing customers will likely say something about a washing machine like: “It’s good but I wish I could set a timer.”
An auto company product manager might hear: “Great car, but I wish it had a cup holder in the trunk so that I can put my coffee down when I load my groceries.” Or somebody might say: “I wish that each passenger could control the temperature at their own seat.”
“Oh, good idea,” says the product manager.
The product manager then inflates the request when they run it up to the bosses “I’m hearing from a bunch of customers that they want more cup holders and an air system that can be controlled from each seat.”
That’s why cars ended up with a dozen cup holders and the air control systems in cars are so complicated as to be virtually unusable. (Rented a car lately?)
The problem when product managers only talk to existing customers is they get a totally biased view of what's required.
Someone who has used Microsoft PowerPoint every day for years usually asks for something more.
While somebody who hasn’t ever used presentation software just wants something that works.
I’m not suggesting that product managers don’t speak to existing customers. They should! However, it’s a bad idea to just build what’s asked for.
Better to focus on making a product easy for all, rather than adding ever more features for a few.
Oh, and one more thing that results in feature creep.
At some companies, product development teams have free reign to build whatever they think is cool. This is an even worse problem because the product development team is not a user of the product.
This approach almost always results in “cool” but useless features that often do more harm than good because of the high degree of frustration that results.
An internet enabled refrigerator that “knows” when to order yogurt and does so automatically? Yeah, I guess it’s cool. But no way do I want it!