“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci

I think many of us doing products have encountered what we used to call “feature creep”. Products that started out as simple and beautiful concepts getting added more and more “must have” features ahead of a release or latest for the following one. Often times these additions are being driven by sales people who fear/threaten not to be able to sell a product if a certain function (that the competition has or is supposedly about to release) is not being added. In other circumstances it is Product Management themselves who are adding features to “bullet proof” the product against the competition in magazine reviews wanting to ensure a tick in every box.

I have been watching this with particular interest over the past years with cell phone reviews. For ages it was feature laden creations with no particular user focus that made it to the top. When the iPhone arrived it was being poo-pooed for not having this or that three or four letter gimmick and usually ended up being beaten to some 10th – or so – rank by various HTC or Nokia devices. Same held for the iPad which did and does not sport certain interfaces, memory slots, or what have you. I don’t have to quote market share figures for you to get the picture.

There are similar stories to be told for autos – the Datsun/Nissan Z240 coming to mind which over some 20 years degenerated from hotly selling, affordable, simple, and almost iconic long-hooded sports car to expensive and “fat” Z300 – only to disappear from the US market for lack of market interest for a period of more than 5 years before being replaced by the recent and newly focused “Z” models.

And only recently I had to look at ramp-quality issues of one of our clients – to interestingly find that a recent product series with significantly more features on board to supposedly win reviews has massively increased the percentage of initial field incidents compared to previous launches while – to add insult to injury – not performing all that well in the reviewer’s labs.

What I am trying to get to is that “more” in many circumstances amounts to less in the eyes of the customer and in consequence is likely to result in fewer sales or more cost for your company.

So it pays to focus on understanding the customer. What does s/he really do with your product, want from your product, expect from the next version of your product. Spend time and resources in the early stages of the product development process. Define target market/group, user personas, and use cases clearly. Try and keep your product focus razor sharp. Stay away from “all-rounder” products that were all the rage in one of the companies I worked for – until we introduced the concept of target group and matching product concept. Withstand feature creep. Test product concepts and split features between different well-targeted products if you can afford to segment your market. Try and communicate with your customers using new crowdsourcing/social techniques.

You may find yourself taking radical steps as a result. One of my favorite examples is BT who daringly reduced the feature set of their DSL home gateways (IADs) between their “Home Hub 2” and “Home Hub 3” series’ of products in a massive fashion. If BT’s stock price development over the period has anything to do with it, it certainly was the right move.