Killing Feature Creep

Almost everyone in product design is familiar with feature creep…the slow but steady growth of features over time that eventually make a product cumbersome and difficult to use. Yet, even though everyone is aware of the problem, we are almost powerless to do anything about it. Why is that?

Well, I recently attended the Warm Gun Conference in San Francisco where Dan Ariely gave an awesome talk about human behavior and cognitive bias. He made a point that has stuck with me since…he said that in the hardest of challenges knowledge isn’t the problem.

Take global warming, for example. Everyone knows what’s going on, everyone has knowledge of the problem, but we are powerless to stop it. We don’t see the effects of our behavior because the effects take years to surface. And we can’t take drastic action because our individual actions are only a drop in the bucket. And collective action is too disruptive to national and international interests. Global warming is a perfect example of tragedy of the commons.

Feature creep is the same type of problem as global warming. Each of the decisions we make to add a feature here, attach a small widget there, add up over time. No single feature addition is a big deal, but taken together change everything. And we know this is the case…knowledge of feature creep is not the problem! But we still add the features anyway…because as individuals it makes sense to. The long-term effects are outweighed by other short-term effects like the momentum of the team, the scrutiny of stakeholders, the wishes of customers, and the desire to show individual progress.

So there’s the rub. The product designer must exercise restraint early and often in order to prevent this. This will be unpopular…and it will piss people off. It may get you fired. But, it will also prevent the long-term disaster which is an overwrought product with too many features. Sometimes products have so many features that people just don’t know where to start!

The value of restraint in product design cannot be overstated. The consistent application of restraint is the only way to create a long term, healthy product. We know that adding too many features is a bad thing…but that knowledge is usually not enough.

Published: January 24th, 2014