Balancing Features: How Many is Too Many?

When it comes to product development, there are two major factors you need to consider: the user and the company. You want to make sure that your product will be user-friendly and profitable for the company.

This is not always an easy balance.

One of those difficult decisions is how many features should go into a product or service?  Innovative companies spend time asking themselves questions like "How can we keep this simple?" or "What does our customer base really need?". These insights are often crucial for avoiding over complicating a product or service with too many features, which can lead to terrible user experience issues and lower profitability.

As Steve Jobs once said,

Innovation is not about saying yes to everything. It's about saying NO to all but the most crucial features.

In the past we spoke about designing a minimum viable product, which is a great starting point. However, this insight doesn't focus on the minimum—but the maximum. Deciding when is the point to stop adding features, and instead focus on continuously optimising your finalised offerings.

The Cause of the Problem.

To begin, let's focus on what causes this issue in the first place. What is the obsession with adding too many features, what is the reason companies continue to make such mistakes?

We believe the cause of the problem occurs when our focus is misplaced on the features themselves, rather than what they are meant to solve.

Teams can become obsessed with what competitors are doing, and rush to develop similar overloaded products that match everything that everyone else is doing—out of fear of being left behind. Think of smartphones as an example, they didn't always have front and back facing cameras—yet now, a smartphone without such features will usually struggle to compete in the market!

A more subtle (yet common) issue, is that organisations are structured to focus on output. This is something we've been taught throughout our academic and professional career... we're rewarded for completing a vast amount of tasks, and producing an equally vast amount of output—but is this better in the longterm for success? Not always. And for products, more often not.

The reasoning, is that output is inferior to outcome. You may present your boss three features when they asked for one, and they'll think you're a superstar—but overdelivering then means three features to maintain and update, three features to focus on and develop, and three features to distract from each other! By focusing on outcome instead, we decide which feature is most important and then perform deep work to ensure it is developed for the best impact.

Workplaces still perhaps aren't celebrating outcome as much as output, but when justified the benefits are easy to see. Take this insight as an example... we could tie up our discussion at around 900 words, making it a snappy read and providing the tip of the iceberg. We'd then perhaps have the extra time to publish a further three insights on the same day or week—but they'd be equally shallow in thought. Instead, by taking the time to define what topic is most beneficial—and value adding—we're able to focus on the outcome.

And what is that outcome? An in depth discussion that can help past, present, and future product owners make more informed decisions and lead to better quality products locally and globally. It may also help demonstrate our train of thought, and attract more clients to want to work with us as their confidence grows that we share values and understand true consumer needs.  

This is why outcome needs to be prioritised. This is why teams need to learn to say 'no' to unnecessary features, and to stand confidently by their own roadmap.


Know your Product.

This should go without saying, but we're stating it anyway.

Know your product. Know your strengths, what you're building, and why you're building it.

There is a common comparison with 'jack-of-a-trades': Imagine a restaurant offering pizza, noodles, burgers, steak, dumplings, curries, tapas, and sushi... then imagine individual restaurants staying within their cuisine: An Italian, Thai, American, Steak-house, Chinese, Indian, Spanish, and Japanese. Logic and probability almost always determines the specialists will provide higher quality than those that try to provide a bit of everything. So... is your product a specialist product? Or a generalist?

Hone in on what you're trying to build, and the minimum features you need to achieve that goal with quality. Don't add extras for the sake of it. It can be tempting to be reactive to what competitors are doing, or new trends that emerge... but it's murky territory when you stray from your purpose and USPs.

Testing and User Feedback.

To avoid this trap, you need to test your product continuously and deeply with real users for a long time before it is released so that you can make sure that the finalised product offers enough value in its most important features, and is easily accessible.

User feedback can also help you to avoid overloading your product with features that don't add enough value or are difficult for users to find. These insights usually come from user interviews, surveys and beta testing.

Other considerations for helping you decide what features to prioritise and which features to cut would be to use the Pareto Principle. This is where 80% of your business results come from 20% of your efforts. It can be applied to products so that you focus on what drives the most revenue and don’t waste time or resources on features that have a low impact in terms of driving profits or revenue growth for your company.

The Pareto Principle, whereby 20% of your effort tends to result in 80% of your important output. Find the areas that matter.

Also, focusing on your brand promise is a foundation to guide you whenever you're unsure which direction to pursue. Ask whether the work you're developing matches the values and aims of your organisation, and prioritise the features that will best reflect what you're trying to achieve. If any features don't align with your brand promise, then they're likely to confuse your audience or be a disadvantage or a hindrance rather than a product benefit.

The Kano Model.

Another way to prioritise features is to use the Kano Model. The Kano Model is a method for developing a customer-oriented philosophy, based on customers' reactions to the quality and performance of products.

Think of this model as customer delight versus implementation investment.  Product teams will pull together all of the potential features being considered, and then evaluate them based on the following criteria:

  1. How likely they are to excite and/or satisfy customers.
  2. The cost/investment needed to implement them.

Expanding on these criteria, the Kano Model will aim to identify three types of initiatives product teams will want to develop:

  • The basic need fulfilment initiative.
  • The emotional appeal (or excitement generator).
  • Performance features.

The basic needs can be described as the features that your product should have. Customers will expect these features as the norm and they take them for granted. This means that they will be disappointed if these features are missing. And, if these don't work as expected, customers could be unhappy with your product.

The emotional appeal, (also known as the excitement features), focuses on maximising positive differences and unique features to delight your audience. These may be surprises, or USPs to make your product stand out amongst the a great way.

Thirdly, performance features are areas to develop to maximise great customer experiences. An example of this would be increasing the storage size on a laptop, or the products ability to perform at higher speeds than competitor models. Performance doesn't need to be in competition with other brands, sometimes it is simply improving what you already have.

Meanwhile, there are two main aims that teams will wish to avoid:

  • Customer dissatisfaction.
  • Indifference.

Quite simply, if some of your features are likely to be met with apathy—or even worse likely to displease your audience—then it is clearly a path to avoid.

The Kano Model is about constantly experimenting with your product. A good practise is to utilise user testing when planning to add new features against removing old ones, in order to see what generates more interest (or backlash) from your community. This can be done by the buy-a-feature exercise with a focus group.

As discussed in our 'understanding value propositions' insight, in this workshop activity, you'll be testing one of two things.

  1. Which of your solutions is/are most desirable.
  2. How to strengthen your solution with the most desirable features.

Either way, you'll be aiming to strengthen your product or service with the value propositions that actually matter. The ones that actually add value.

Here's how it works:

  1. Present all your proposed solutions and/or features.
  2. Assign costs to each.
  3. Give your audience some fake cash (often people use monopoly money, or even jellybeans).
  4. Ask the audience to put their fake cash towards the solutions or features they value most and would hypothetically invest in if the money was real. Note that they can choose to put all of their cash on one item, or spread it around.

The interactive element makes this exercise fun, and also puts your audience in a buying mindset (albeit a playful hypothetical simulation). Performing this workshop before major development can save time and money that otherwise may be wasted pursuing a route of no real interest to your audience.

Closing Thoughts.

The famous English poet John Lydgate is credited with once saying:

"You can please some of the people all the time. But you can't please all of the people all the time"

This rings true for product design, and also branding. Your aim is never to try to achieve some bland mass appeal...that wouldn't challenge the status quo or encourage your best work. Figure out the people you wish to delight, and focus on making truly exceptional products for your niche market—and have the courage to avoid watering down your work in a cheap attempt to grab some extra slices of the market.

Saying 'No' can be challenging, especially to key stakeholders and superiors, but having the courage to stick to the product vision will stop the product getting over complicated and diluted with too many features.