Dealing with Feature Overload in Web Product Management

Simplify, Simplify Again, and Simplify a 3rd time

Having come into contact with at least 20 different websites and start-ups over the past 2 months, plus having to manage all the features in our new start-up Krowde, I am starting to see the light on the words “Simplify, Simply Again, and Simply a 3rd time”.  Back when we were at Caffeine Spaces in Boca Raton, someone wrote this on the dry erase board.  It has a lot of meaning to me and can be applied to so many aspects of building out a website or mobile app from design, functionality, marketing, architecture and other aspects of these tech start ups.  I am focused on product management in this context.  (but I could write another article on any of those disciplines)

Feature Junkie

It has a lot of meaning to me because I am a feature junkie. Everytime I come up with a new product or concept, I can think of  a million cool features.  This is what we do as creative people and when you combine that with a technologist, more specifically a web developer, you can have a thousand little features that are cool and different and meant to change the world, even a world within a world.  But overall, what you are doing with complexity sometimes, is really showing off your ego.    We all want to show off what we can do, how smart we are, and we are, but not always in business.  Trust me, it’s my downfall.  In web product management too many features and quite often the wrong features can be the death of a product or at least delay it indefinitely before it goes live.

What’s The Delay And I Want It All Now!

Now, if you think about it, how can you produce all these features when your time is limited.  That is not the real question.  The real question is what features are really needed first, and what features can’t wait.  I can’t really expound on the features in Krowde that I am talking about, but I can come up with an imaginary app that I probably will never create.  Let’s call it Park Finder, and let’s say it was being built for iOS and Android.

Anyway,  you have spec’d out the mobile app.  You have come up with a dozen great features from a map with icons, a search of that map, a link to that park’s page, a listing and a small profile per park, the ability to share that Park with your friends instantly via Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, an ability to talk about that park, an ability to upload pictures about that park for others to see, rate that park, a list of parks by ratings, park contact info, park office instant chat.  Wait a second!  Park office instant chat.  That needs to go into the list of “Would Like” stuff.  And that is the issue.  In fact, that list has a lot of cool stuff, but ultimately his park finder app could actually be live and working with just 3 features, a search, a map and a link to the website for that park.  All the other park finder features sound so good in your head and they are, but the customers don’t know what they don’t know.

Customers Don’t Know What They Don’t Know

I like saying this line and it has come back in many conversations, because it is really important and tied to the simplification concept.   The second issue with product complexity occurs in the mind of the technology founder.  Sometimes they think that more is better.  They think that the value increases with number and breadth of features.  But it is not exactly the same for the customer or customers.  Customers don’t always think the same or use the same features.  When only 5 out of 1000 users used that feature, then of course it was not very important.  Also, from a development standpoint, what about getting the thing finished and out to the market.  That is what is important.

Timing

Getting the Park app out into the market, with limited features is the best way to do it.  It is what Fried says in Rework, Brad Feld says in his blog and it makes common sense.  If you want to get your product out there and in the market, only include at first the core features, the features that make your product usable.  It will not fail because it does not have all the final pieces and bells and whistles you envision.  It may be that the park finder app may have been well received and done very well with only these basic features.  You have the time to add new features after that.  Add your sharing, commenting, rating and other features later on.  It is painful, but worth it and the difference in your app making or not making it to market.

What Can I Live Without?

In the end people are the problem, because even I have fallen into the “I want it all” trap.  And then I was the problem. You think you can have it all, but sometimes more doesn’t necessarily sell your product.  Sometimes less does.  Sometimes doing a small thing well is more critical than anything.  There are products and services that are bigger, feature rich, etc, but they are not for the small boot strapped start-up.  There is a cost associated with more, and sometimes those features never amount to anything or any usage.  The people you can’t always control, because they may be in charge and have the purse strings.  But at least you understand yourself what the issues are, and can say to yourself, what can I live without?

Jonah Berger’s Contagious Is Just That

Last month I wrote a blog article about how I adopted the e-reader app on my phone pretty late in the game and have actually read a few books, which is a complete conundrum in my current situation, where I find little personal time for much of anything.  So, getting myself back into reading a complete book whether it’s a novel or in my case a business or self-help book has been a complete challenge.  This all started when I forced myself to read ReWork by Jason Fried.  And since then I have read Venture Deals by Brad Feld and 10% Happier by Dan Harris.  But this past week I finally finished up Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger, and quite frankly I have not read a book like this in a few years.  I have recommended Contagious to a dozen people developing a strategy for marketing their new Internet start-up.  The last time I had read a book like this was “Don’t Make Me Think“.  For years I moved and carried Don’t Make Me Think because it had so much practical value information in it you could put to use immediately.  If you have read it, you know why.

Why Is Contagious So Sharable?

Contagious explains very succinctly why people share stuff.  It uses example after example of why people pass on a Tweet or Youtube Video or why they suddenly desire a Mars Bar during the Mars Rover landing.  It puts together an understanding of human motivation that gives marketers a path towards making something big happen with a small ad budget.  It does not say how to do it, but what makes sense and what will work (if you can accomplish the task).

So, like Jonah Berger implies in his book, Contagious is a book of practical value when trying to figure out a way, particularly a guerrilla marketing approach to promoting something.    And some of the information in the book I have already shared probably with about 30 people over the past 30 days.  I guess I am a bit of a cheerleader when something is quite revealing like this book.  For instance, the book really gives a theoretical understanding of online sharing, what many business people know exists, understand the value, but don’t really understand the reasons why things are shared.  And not understanding the reasons and how Social Currency really works, many companies will miss the boat on this concept.  Berger gets to the heart of why a specific campaign works, why something is shared and how to change and improve upon something you want shared.

Propaganda

Years ago in high school we had a short class on propaganda and all the reasons why and how it works.  I think I covered this again in my MBA marketing class.  It is the standard, easy to understand, concepts like Joining The Bandwagon, or creating subliminal messaging.  It’s your typical autocratic, fascist government techniques, quite often applied in marketing.  It’s that Mad Men kind of stuff that we know exists in every ad, and we just take it for granted.  That is the world of advertising that is relatively straight forward, though having a class or two will give you an idea of the basic propaganda techniques so you too can become Jim Jones.  What Berger has explained in his book is that long before there was the Internet, Email, Twitter, Facebook and any other way we can share, buzz, text, update status, and contribute there were underlying principals a few marketers figured out (mostly by accident).  The concepts of sharing are end results marketers want, but to create that viral spark really requires sophistication that I could only guess at.  Some people got lucky over the years and he shows many examples in the book of what works and what did not work.

Sharing Is Actually Old School

So, what I finally realized as I finished reading this book is that the sharing principals Berger has written about are concepts that have been around since the dawn of man.  Humans have always told stories and always shared, but obviously not online at first.  We would share a story about something amazing with our friends.  We could talk in person, call on the phone, even write a physical letter.  This is nothing new, just when you put it in context with online sharing, it becomes more of a science, especially when, in Contagious, they do real research on things like why articles are the most emailed articles on The New York Times.  The results are quite surprising, though completely logical.

The Physiological

I am not going to spoil it and give you the complete Cliff Notes of Contagious, you need to go and read it yourself if you are in online marketing or interested in marketing.  What I found the most interesting aspect of Berger’s studies is that there was a physical or what he calls a physiological change in people who share things.  They are most compelled when they get goose bumps (my description) or feel a physical change based on what they have heard, and are compelled to share something.  It can be awe, laughter, crying or something like this.  This physical piece is critical to finding an answer to why people share.  Let me know if you read this book and if you have any thoughts about it.