Feature-zilla! Will Featureful Kill Usable on the Web?

Chris Ward

When did you last use the references feature in Microsoft Word?

Or truly needed any more than about a quarter of the filters in Photoshop?

When talking about feature bloat in applications, our minds often slip to thinking about Microsoft or Adobe software and the statistic that most users only utilise about 20% of their feature sets.

Whilst many vendors are doing a far better job than they used to, the same is true about many software solutions.

On the flip side, when was the last time you found yourself swearing at the screen attempting to accomplish a seemingly simple task that surely should just work (formatting lists in Word anyone)?

We’ve all used over-bloated software, hoarding a plethora of features that we feel we might someday need.

‘Damned if I won’t find a place to use that diffuse, bi-polar, boolean mosaic filter before I die!’
you think to yourself.

The aim of most software vendors is, of course, to shift units and build customer bases. It’s hard to excite consumers to buy with statistics such as ‘now 50% more usable!’ as opposed to ‘100 new features’.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine what, say, your dad or your dentist would even make of that the first quote?

So, what does this mean to mobile and web developers and designers?

These worlds have, by necessity, been stripped-back and feature-light. But as bandwidth increases, server costs decrease and user expectations increase, we are tempted to add more and more into our web apps, while becoming lazier with our execution.

We’re now experiencing the same ‘rust’ in our sector that application developers have already been through, and are emerging from again.

it..creeps!

Now, I work primarily with off-the-shelf, open source Content Management Systems (CMS) and Client Relationship Management (CRM) tools. Both have celebrated reputations for steep learning curves and mind-numbing complexities.

These systems fit very well into the cliche in our opening paragraph. They attempt to be all things to all users, which can often lead to frustration or compromise on the part of developers and for end-users.

They also present the temptation to provide features that were never requested or needed. Off-the-shelf systems offer fantastic, time saving devices for your projects, but can also distract you and your users from what is really important.

Remember, it is as easy to turn things off as it is to turn them on.

This article is something of an initial discussion around prioritising better usability over features in our work, but if there were one point I would like to hammer home the most, it would be to make our creation tools (CMSs, Frameworks, Languages) more usable and approachable.

This is now increasingly relevant with recent efforts encouraging everyone to learn to code.

So, why is feature creep overwhelming usability?

Developers are a scarce resource

In the open source world, we often see issues and bug queues languishing for years with major areas of functionality left unfixed because a developer has moved on (physically, mentally or time-wise).

At the same time, we see huge efforts poured into new features, additions, and branches of projects over disagreements or doubling and replication up of similar tools.

One area that is perennially lacking is thorough documentation. Sadly, this is exactly the area that beginners encounter the most, and is always pushed as needing contributors. But let’s face it: writing docs is never going to be as glamorous as coding some sexy new feature.

Developers often prefer big ideas over finishing touches

In the open source world, we have to bear in mind that most projects are run on volunteer time. Project leads and developers are always most likely to be drawn to work on the bits that interest them the most. Unfortunately, small, iterative usability improvements aren’t always that high on their fix-it list.

In fact, often the natural mentality of developers is to want to make something technically amazing, and this invariably focuses on the structural or code level — not necessarily a level that will make sense to most end users.

The silent majority is.. well .. silent

The communities that form up around products are usually full of vocal minorities, all lobbying for their killer feature to be added. While the majority of users are probably not interested in that feature, few would actively protest against adding it.

I mean, no-one wants to be a killjoy, right?

Suffice it to say, actively seek out the opinions of the silent majority, and diplomatically remind yourself that those shouting the loudest may not always be right (even if you don’t tell them that directly).

So, what to do?

Most small development agencies quote their projects based around features. Indeed, the client often has a checklist of things they want from their site and quoting follows these lines.

In an ideal world, we would all follow user-centered and agile principles, but often the concept of not issuing a fixed price quote is still a little too ‘out there’ and scary — for both development house and client.

However it’s certainly possible to break your quote out into different collections of features, or phases based around client priority.

You can then help guide a client through the process of deciding which of these should be done in order of priority, and slowly introduce them to thinking of their clients as the end user and how these features will (or won’t) solve their problems.

Resist the temptation to design, code or quote for features that appeal to you. We all love a challenge, and it’s very tempting to get all misty-eyed at the thought of heroically fixing a design problem that has been plaguing your creative community for decades.

Back in my university days, we covered a topic that I have always sought out to highlight in products that manage it successfully: the concept of ‘abstraction’, or making something complex appear stunningly simple.

When designing and developing front ends, keep this in mind and strip out the extraneous that a user just doesn’t need to know about or access to achieve a successful outcome.

The sad fact is that people are mostly lazy (or perhaps attention-thrift), and don’t really care about your efforts to make some fantastic series of events happen. All they really care about is clicking a button that makes everything they want (even if they don’t know what it is yet) happen.

No matter how innovative and game-changing things may be under the hood, if it’s too hard to understand how to use it, people will gravitate elsewhere. The road to awesomeness is littered with far shinier turn-offs (and everyone is talking about them).

Remember that restrictions and limitations can often lead to far superior creative output. This applies equally to the tools you use, but also to the features you provide to your end users.

Attempting to create a wondrous, flexible, system is hard work and will create more problems than you may be trying to solve in the first place.

Locking down your users to a carefully selected and well-executed core set of features is far simpler and will probably win you more supporters in the long run.

It is certainly possible to ‘sell’ a reduced feature set — focus on the time you are saving people, the more pleasant and productive experience.

Be harsh and judgemental with your interfaces, experiences and feature sets, and always bear in mind that classic of adages, “If in doubt, leave it out”.

“If in doubt, leave it out”.

Unfortunately, it’s too easy to add features to software. They don’t require the physical parts, logistics and costly processes required for adding features to bricks-n-mortar products. It won’t make the box any bigger to ship, right?

The increasing trend for rolling software releases has become even easier to accomplish. Just pop it in next weeks update.

Would you pay for an upgrade that reduced features?

This has been an approach attempted by Apple with their most recent OS X upgrades. While they have added some new features, they’ve also stripped their base application offerings of anything deemed extraneous or unused.

One would assume that these decisions were based upon statistics and research. While there was some noisy backlash against these decisions, I wonder if it wasn’t more a case of people wanting the option of having a StairMaster, rather than ever wanting to actually use one.

I suspect there are a lot of StairMasters in garages.

It’s not all bad. Some companies in our sector are doing a great job of keeping it simple. Dropbox is a great example. They’ve got one great idea and have bravely resisted the temptation to add multi-tiered social integration, video chat, and a fun gamification element. Yay them.

Funnily enough, Steve Jobs reputably once told them them they didn’t have a product, they had a ‘feature’.

This week Steve’s ‘feature’ was valued at $10 billion.

Maybe we need more features after all…

  • So, what do you think?
  • How do you evolve a product without strangling it?
  • Would you advise a client against adding a feature, even if it cost you income?

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  • Dragan Krstic

    I started reading the article, finished first paragraph, hit CTRL+F, typed “Apple”, and, voila!, it is in article’s conclusion. So, if Apple did it, then it must be great!
    Here’s a little story. When I run PhotoShop 5 for the first time, I tried every single option, every single filter in it. Did I used them? Yes I did and yes I do.

    Usability is key feature of any software, and I’m more on software speed and optimization, seamless workflow, but that is not connected with simple count of features. Productivity applications are complex system and users must be educated to use them. Users are becoming lazy. They don’t want to learn, it is easier for them to ask or to google it.

    But this article is not about features, it is more about how we must follow Apple than balancing feature set. If we look in older design tutorials on SitePoint, they are all skeuomorph-ish. Now, they are all flat. What changed since then? iOS design guidelines.

    If this article didn’t started with MS and end with Apple, then it d be good one.

    • OphelieLechat

      Hi Dragan — it sounds like you got a very different take-away from Chris’s article than I did! He mentioned Apple in passing mid-way through the article, then later pointed out how Steve Jobs was wrong about Dropbox for exactly this reason. Nothing in the article is about “how we must follow Apple”.

      • Dragan Krstic

        I’m not saying that Chris did it intentional. There is a well established behavioral pattern, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, about how Apple is often consider good example UX/UI, even if Apple (and Jobs too) contradicts itself.
        Functionality bloat is big-big problem. Number of methodologies are created in order to help developers to handle requests. Chris gave some great advice’s on topic, yet I suspect that his inspiration comes from latest Apple decisions, decisions made after Jobs.
        For the record, as long as we have different views, all’s well.

        • Alex Walker

          We love this kind of discussion, Dragan.

          I edit all the design/ux content so I’m happy to put my hand up.

          I know it can get tiresome dragging Apple out as the ‘UX shining example’. I didn’t grow up an Apple guy, so I have no built-in bias that way.

          In the ‘Flat Design’ article earlier in the week, I think Gabrielle does mention Apple’s iPod commercials — they ARE pretty famous — but follows it up with crediting Microsoft’s Metro UI with bringing flat design to the digital space.

          It is hard to completely ignore Apple’s successes over the last 10 years. There are some lessons to be learned.

          But believe me, when they mess up, I’m the first guy to point it out ;)

          • Dragan Krstic

            Hi Alex,
            To be fair, flat design can be traced back to Win 2000 and Office 2000. Even Sitepoint had flat phases during history.
            My point is that there is certain kind of behavior expressed by most creative people in digital era. Apple success can not be ignored, they set clear standard in engineering perfection. What wonders me is does Apple influences our lives too much? Many creatives uses Macs and iPhones. More than half of their day passes looking in Apple products. Changes in Apple products are instantly translated. We usually expect from creatives to “Think different”, yet they copy what they saw on the screen.
            It is natural thing, I think, but I’m expecting from experts and masters-of-trade not to fall into that trap.

    • Alex Walker

      Hi Dragan,

      Some good points in there.

      However, the mentions of Apple in there aren’t really glowing endorsements. Chris talks about their recent pruning of features from OSX, but notes the uproar that went along with that.

      After that, the article almost snickers at Steve Jobs for not being able to recognise how well Dropbox were executing their simple product — and the implication of what they’ve missed out on since.

  • Mats Svensson

    Exactly!
    Who needs contrast, now when anyone can easily cram one meeelion animations onto every webpage?

  • SamBrody

    Dude….I applaud! Were building a web app for lawyers and our main selling point was the lack of crazy features, most of the guys we talked to kept telling us they had no idea how to use the current CRM/case management software. Feature overload kills user experience….mostly because it makes the experience a chore instead of useful and any 12 year old will tell you….chores suck.

    • SamBrody

      Also Im not saying kill all features……just that it makes no sense to create features for 5% of users…….anyone here still build sites for IE5?

    • Alex Walker

      Were the lawyers commissioning the project receptive to that idea? Sometimes even though their head might tells them what’s smart, their heart tells them they want the model with 6 cup holders, a sub-woofer and 2 tvs in each seat.

      • SamBrody

        Its a Saas project for the legal profession, so far the lawyers we have run through the demo have loved the fact that it is easy to understand, as for lack of features, oddly enough it has turned off a lot of older lawyers (people who have used outlook back when it was client program) but has turned on younger lawyers who just need something that works (27-33) they want this stuff to be as easy as candy crush.

        Its funny the younger guys couldn’t configure their way out of a paper bag, but people don’t really use the internet like that anymore either

        • Alex Walker

          That is strange. You’d guess that a 27-33yo would still have grown up using Word and Excel at high school and college. Maybe Playstation generation lawyers just always stuck with the presets and defaults as a rule.

          Interesting.

          • SamBrody

            I remember a few years ago I tried to set up outlook…….UNPLEASANT, gmail was just much easier, all I had to do was log in and it worked.

            I’m 29, a php developer & I still get confused when I need to set up zoho, we just ended up paying twice as much for basecamp & highrise, but it worked out of the box and that was more then worth the money.

  • Stevie_D

    I’m torn. On the one hand, I really like fully featured systems. While there are some features of Word and Excel that I don’t, there are a LOT that I do use regularly. And as a devoted long-term Opera user, I was on the verge of tears when I saw how they had catastrophically culled the feature list with v15, destroying the browser’s primary advantage.
    But then I see so many products that are bug-ridden (Firefox’s ongoing inability to cope with page-break properly being a prime example) or are hideously unusable that I have to wonder.
    I can see two positive reasons to go for a feature-complete product (rather than that it is easier to sell), and that is that (1) a feature that exists but is difficult to use has more potential than one that doesn’t exist at all; a user-friendly system is all very well but if it can’t do what you want it to do then it’s no good, and (2) the people behind the developments are generally either instinctively good at usability or won’t get it in a million years, so having them spend more time on a feature won’t necessarily make it more user-friendly!

  • Dela De Youngster

    I agree with the article to some extent. However, I don’t believe a software’s feature-set and its usability are inversely proportional. An app can have lots of features and still be usable.

    One main point that was often hammered on in a Software Usability Engineering course I took was this: make simple and often-used features immediately available, so all users can easily use the software. But “hide” the advanced features such that skilled users can find them when they need to. In this way, you cater to both extremes of your user-base by not overwhelming novice users nor depriving the advanced ones.