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Does Your Software Product Really Need New Features?

Written by Ian Landsman, published on 06.13.2018

Until the early 2000s, you couldn’t release features without planning them carefully long in advance.

Software updates were released as major new versions every year or two and distributed on physical media. Forethought had to go into which features would be included in each new version.

Software products would get major new versions until product managers found that new versions were no longer leading to sufficient sales. Further development stopped when new versions were not financially viable.

That all changed when Internet ubiquity and increased bandwidth made it feasible to release updates more often.

First, updates started happening several times a year, then every six weeks, and then every two weeks. Now, many SaaS products deploy updates daily or even several times each day.

Modern, streamlined processes let us get features in the hands of customers more quickly than ever before.

But is the ease of releasing new features leading us astray? Are we taking time to think about whether new features are beneficial to our products?

Read on as I explore reasons why you might want to stop adding new features.

Opportunity Cost

The resources you spend on your product are resources you are not spending elsewhere. This is an example of opportunity cost, or the “loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.”

Even though your product might benefit from new features, the time you spend on it is time you are avoiding spending on other things. Those “other things” might be different aspects of your product, such as marketing, better onboarding, or performance improvements. Or it might be another product altogether.

Times Change

Perhaps your product is ready for maintenance mode, or even retirement.

For example, your desktop product that you started before the rise of SaaS apps and mobile apps might be better replaced with a new product.

Or rather, perhaps the entire category of your product has reached saturation. If so, your time would be better spent on a new product altogether.

Higher ROI from Marketing and Onboarding Improvements

In “Success is always one feature away,” Andy Brice observed that adding new features can be an excuse to avoid the real problem with a product: a lack of marketing. Brice writes that, “In my experience, poor sales are almost always due to insufficient marketing.”

I’d add to that another task which some product managers inadvertently ignore: good onboarding. Onboarding is the process of introducing new users to your product and its functionality. Improved onboarding can benefit your product and your sales much more than adding new features.

Your Customers Would Prefer You Fix Bugs

An inevitable side-effect of frequently adding new features to your product is that quality suffers. The more features you add, the more bugs could creep into your product.

Your customers might be much happier if you stopped adding new features and instead made existing features more solid. Low quality can be a significant contributor to customer churn.

By concentrating on fixing bugs, you keep your existing customers happy. Happy customers renew their subscriptions, they refer you to friends, and they don’t ask for refunds.

You’ll Never Get All Requested Features Done

Many of your customers probably love your product just the way it is.

But some customers always want more. They’ll request additional features no matter what. And often, adding a popular new feature triggers requests for several more.

This leads to an unfortunate consequence: your list of requested features *always* grows, and the list grows at a rate proportional to the number of existing features.

A software product is never finished. There is always room for improvement. This can lead to you getting on the “feature-release train,” where you keep churning out new features simply because you can. However, your product might have gotten to the point where those features are not actually making your product more valuable to most of your customers.

Too Many Features Hurts Usability

Perhaps you’ve been through this scenario: your company releases a new product and initial customers praise the simplicity. They love everything about the product, except…well, could you, they ask, add one little thing?

So you do. Then they ask for one more thing. The process repeats and repeats until your product is no longer praised for its simplicity. It is now a heavy-weight, hard-to-use product. A competitor is released, which initial customers praise for its simplicity, and…well, you get the picture.

It is hard to know when to break out of this cycle. Time it right, and your product will have a perfect balance of simplicity and useful features. I think the only way to break the cycle is to frequently assess your product through the eyes of a new user, and ask yourself, “Has my product become too complex?”

If your product has indeed become too complex, consider removing some features in order to improve usability for everyone. You’ll be guaranteed to anger a few customers in the process, so tread carefully if you do choose to do this. Do it right, and you’ll have a product that new customers are more likely to adopt.

Do People Really Want New Features?

You probably have a small but extremely vocal group of customers who seem to have a new feature request every day. The noisiness of these customers can trick you into thinking that those features would be very popular. You should be tracking the frequency of feature requests. If a feature is not broadly popular, then adding it might make your product worse, not better. My company’s product, Feature Upvote, helps you track feature requests.

According to Kathy Sierra in “Featuritis vs. the Happy User Peak,” software products tend to keep “adding feature upon feature until the simple things you used to do are no longer simple, and the whole thing feels overwhelming.”

Sierra argues that deep down, it is our fear as product owners that lead us to keep adding features. Fear of not winning new customers, of displeasing existing customers, of not comparing well to competitors. It is a misplaced fear.

Final Words

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with adding new features.

Just make sure it is worth your time – and worth your customers’ time. Make sure you are spending significant time on other aspects of your product, such as onboarding and marketing. And finally, make sure that any new features you do add make your product better, not worse, for a majority of your customers.

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