Product Bloat

30 April 2010

It's well known that companies can claim market-share from competitors by offering a product that has fewer features than their rivals' but that performs better in key areas; for example, a new fast search engine called Google appeared on the scene in 1999 to challenge the slow, bloated offerings from the likes of such as Yahoo.

An recent technical article describes how a software development tool (Microsoft Visual Studio) has, in the opinion of the author, become too bloated and cumbersome to use with the result that some expert software developers are turning to older, less fully featured tools that allow them to concentrate on the job – creating software.

The issue that faces all product designers is related to the famous Pareto Principle; also known as the 80/20 rule. Applied to a product, this can be expressed as a typical customer utilising just 20% of the product's features for 80% of the time. Of course, another user will utilise a slightly different 20% of the product feature set; scaling up to a product being used by millions, this can become a real problem for the product designer. Throw into the mix such change-drivers as: customer requests for enhancements, competitor keep-up, regulatory compliance and the desire to win business in other market areas, and you have recipe for feature-bloat.

So, the tendency is for products to increase the amount of features they offer. So why does it seem so difficult to ensure that when features are added, experts are catered for? I've found that they are often overlooked in the design process. This is sometimes simply oversight - but occasionally experts are deliberately overlooked because they are "demanding" or "difficult" to work with.

I believe this has wider implications than just software productivity. In a corporate business change initiative, you will have considered the reasons for the introduction of a software product (for example, a competitive advantage give over competitors – or simply running to keep up) but you also need to consider the experience levels of your employees that will use the product both before and after the training package that forms part of the initiative. For example, in your organisation you may have those that are already experts in using similar product – so the training for this group should perhaps focus on the configuration of the more advanced features of the product. So, if you don't engage with your experts, then you are likely to miss key benefits in your business change initiative.

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