Foregoing assumed value in favor of rapid feedback

The goal of developing any software should be to provide functionality useful to the majority of its users.

While doing business analysis or writing user stories for a feature of a project (especially those that are an attempted re-design of an existing one), it is important (and exciting) to brainstorm, be visionary, and think up great ideas for how you can please your customer base. However when planning those features for release, it is tempting to attempt to complete all of those stories before making the feature available to users.

The reasoning behind this argument usually sounds something like “our customers have used the product for years with these features, and they will not use it if they are not all present”. Another spin on this is “our competitor has these features and we will not be competitive without them”. There are several flaws in this argument.

  1. The argument assumes that users are currently using all the features. Unless you are measuring the use of the feature in the field (google analytics etc.) and have data to back up this claim, it is highly unlikely that a compelling offering could not be made available to users with a smaller subset of features.

    This applies to competitive analysis as well. Comparing your planned features to an existing product sheet will simply align you with them, which can be a disaster if many of their features are unused by their customers and you will now be spending money building them too. It also reduces your ability to differentiate yourself from them.

  2. The argument assumes that users will not provide accurate feedback on their needs of the software. When you choose to implement the kitchen sink around a feature, what you’re really saying is, “I know more about the user’s needs than they do, so I will decide everything to offer them”.

    When you go this route you spend excessive time getting to market, excessive capital implementing features that may not even be used, and place release cycle pressure on yourself by having a larger workload – making it less likely that you will be in the relaxed mindset necessary to listen to your customers and be able to respond to requests for changes.

    It’s more efficient and realistic to simply release the smallest subset of those features necessary to make initial use of them available, measure usage and gather feedback, and give users exactly what they want once they’ve used the feature. While it’s true that this approach can result in designs that are different from what you originally envisioned, your vision is not as important as the successful adoption of a feature by its users.

  3. The argument weights delivering assumed value over used value. What this means is that by focusing development on robust implementation of features that have not been even initially deployed to users, the backlog and priorities are being driven on assumed need. Even if your customers tell you they need a feature, unless you are measuring that they are using it in the field, and they are providing you with feedback that they like it, you are taking a risk with the effort needed to implement it. It makes sense to reduce that risk so that if you deploy a feature that turns out to not be useful, the lost capital is minimal.

Where I’m going with this is that organizations should spend serious time reviewing their backlogs of features, working with user experience experts to come up with designs that deliver the smallest, simplest design that accomplishes what you think the user needs and then get it out there. It is always more viable to bolt on a feature that you verify is needed after an initial offering than to spend money on assumptions only to find that it was a waste.

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