Cut Back on Features!

January 30, 2007

Posted in Small Business and Web Industry.

“Don’t take away features from users. If they want to do something, even if it lets them shoot themselves in the foot, let them.” warnerja from

I’ve been playing with this article for a while now and it’s been sitting in my drafts list for nearly two weeks. I’m sick of looking at it, so I’m hoping it spurs some other interesting topic.
“Less is more.” Technology is supposed to make things easier. I’ve worked in technical support, managed distributed support personnel, trained non-technical users, and worked with enough clients to fill a hundred canvas sacks. In my purely anecdotal experience, more features means more frustration.

Jitterbug Phone Ad HeadlineCheck out this phone from Jitterbug, developed by Samsung. The selling point is the lack of features. No camera, no games, no crazy ringtones. No mini-keyboard, no text messaging, no web browsing.

It’s just a phone.

Jitterbug Phone PictureWhile this particular product is aimed at seniors and an aging, still-wary-of-technology segment of the population, I can’t help but think this is a good idea for a lot more than my wife’s grandparents.

With all the hoopla around the iPhone, I have to wonder: Where’s the phone that just works? Not the one that plays my mp3s and lets me hack into NORAD, but the phone that I can rely on – the one that connects when I want and answers when I want?

Does it matter that the frosting is pretty if the cake tastes like cardboard?

For the past few years, I’ve built websites that can be maintained using Macromedia Contribute. It’s like the little brother of Macromedia Dreamweaver. I call it the “Fisher-Price of Web Development.” You can’t do anything serious with it, and that’s good. Update content, even create pages. But it’s hard to mess things up. For non-technical users (e.g., an administrative assistant that needs to make the occasional update), it’s sufficient.

That word there is “sufficient.” Your product has to get the job done. But it doesn’t have to do a lot more than that. That’s because we reward success – not excess. Plenty of products are feature-rich but break down when we need them most. Don’t you wonder why the developers spent so much time on added value while the core functionality (the reason you rely on this thing) doesn’t work?

There are two issues here. First, there’s the goal of producing a great product by focusing on the core features. Second, there’s the issue of making it better by making it harder to mess up. The quote from above suggests that you should let users shoot themselves in the foot if they want. If you make it easy for your customer to shoot himself in the foot, your customer will shoot himself in the foot. And he won’t be happy.


  1. David Locke — March 29, 2007

    Cutting features changes your market, or changing markets force you to cut features. The technical enthusiasts loves control and a lot of features. The mid market sees all this control as feature bloat. The late market demands less control without a loss of power. If you don’t cut that feature bloat, your product will exit the category as the category moves on. Your sales will stall.

  2. chas — March 29, 2007

    Good point… I just finished reading Seth Godin’s Purple Cow and given the adoption curve he describes, your comment is even more insightful. Sometimes your market is relatively technical, but the early adopters are the ones that demand the most features.

    Sometimes the features can be there, but they’re hidden. The 1% of people who use a particular feature in Excel don’t want it removed, but would be perfectly content to dig for it (while the rest of us are blissfully ignorant of its existence).