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The feature creep: when too much hurts

July 03, 2020
what the feature creep is and how to avoid it

The feature creep can drain projects of time and money, while making life difficult for the user. But is it exactly, and how do we stop it? Read on to find out!

By allowing the user to do too much, you end up with features and controls that most users have never even seen, let alone learned to use. In broad strokes, that’s what the feature creep represents. Too much of everything, leaving users struggling to truly benefit from the value of the product. After all, what good is a supercar, if one does not know how to drive?

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In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the feature creep, what makes it a bad thing, how we can identify it – and most important of all: how to avoid it. Is it something that happens before or after the product release? Does it harm the usability or is it just a money issue? Let’s take a closer look.

What is the feature creep?

There’s some debate as to who exactly came up with the term “feature creep”. With that said, it was David Pogue who brought it into the spotlight back in 2006, with his TED talk on why simplicity sells. And the way he went about explaining it was nothing short of brilliant – on screen, he opened every single menu bar available on Microsoft Word. The result? The menus took up the vast majority of the screen space, making it impossible for anyone to use the product.

analogy of the feature creep

It was a smart way to visually represent the feature creep. It forces us to see past clever architecture and navigation, and makes us confront how complicated the product really is. Users generally don’t want to have to learn endless buttons and controls, or countless ways to reach said controls.

So how does the feature creep happen in the first place? If we start out with a legitimately good and straightforward idea, how do we descend into chaos with endless features?

The slippery road of scope growth

With any given product, the features will have a direct relationship with the scope of the product. At first, we envision a product that will solve a specific need, for specific people. That is your scope. It covers the ground of how far the product will go – and when we start increasing the scope to cater to more problems, we start to damage the real value of the product.

Based on the solution we come up with, we make our way to the requirements of the product as we develop the idea. Adding requirements, just like features, can be a nightmare. But why does it seem like a good idea at first? Why do so many design teams fall in the featuritis trap? The answer might like in a concept we are all familiar with: user-centered design.

“The product phenomenon is the result of designing for feature-led experiences rather than user-centred ones.”

									Ian Batterbee - UX Planet								

Think about it. User-centered design is all about user happiness and what is best for the user. Any additional feature you include in the product is likely to increase the initial learning curve, put stress on navigation and ultimately work against the user. That is no longer user-centered design.

design thinking as aid in choosing features for product design

This is why it’s important to have a clear picture of what your product is and what it is not. There are many design techniques out there that are meant to help designers focus their creativity and establish boundaries for their ideas. Design thinking and the double diamond method are a few useful examples.

Big companies are fertile soil for featuritis

The feature creep can be born out of a team that simply wants to please too many users. However, it can also be born due to the dynamics of big companies. Ian Batterbee explained it very well with a practical example: a simple signup form. Consider a simple form created by a UX design team. It’s short, with three input fields, and maintains functionality over glamour.

However, this isn’t the end of the design process. Sales gets involved, seeing it as a window of opportunity for leads. They add three fields more – which already doubles the form in size. From there, the signup form snowballs with technical additions by the engineering department, and even more fields requested by marketing.

analogy of signup form for feature creep

Where does it end? Where did the user experience go? In these situations, there needs to be a limit. The difficult part is that each company has their own way of doing things, and the person in charge can make or break the user experience of the entire product.

Can the feature creep affect products that already exist?

Yes, but in this case the factors that contribute to the feature creep are different. Consider the life-cycle of any given product. Once the product reaches maturity, there’s a distinct possibility that it can’t be improved. Nothing could truly salvage it. Maybe it’s obsolete. Maybe it’s a solution to a problem that no longer exists.

The problem is that when the time of death comes for a product, it can be tempting to reach blindly for any olive branch in sight. Adding new features can be a final attempt to save the product and breathe new life into it – but it often results in frequent changes that users can’t keep up with, and only postpones the end momentarily.

The bad side of the feature creep: what does it do?

So much talk about the feature creep being bad – but what does it actually do to the user experience? How does it work against users? Let’s talk about specifics.

The navigation and IA nightmare

This implication of the feature creep is pretty logical: if you have many features, it can be difficult to organize them all for the user. How do these features relate to each other? Can they be categorized logically? Which features are primary and which ones are secondary?

All these questions will heavily affect the navigation design and information architecture (IA) of your product. These are two crucial veins that will both support and feed your product, and both are already challenging from the get-go.

excess features create a navigation problem

Part of why the feature creep is so destructive, is that it implies that these additional features are added along the way. That means that not only would you need to create a navigation system, but you’d also need to make serious changes to it as you progress in the project. The very same can be said about IA.

The thing about these two faces of UX design, is that they both represent a dance between the complexity of the design and the effort users are willing to put into the experience. How much effort kills the entire experience? At which point are users willing to abandon your product and opt for an easier option?

The features that never see the light of day

Think back to our Microsoft Word example, or simply consider notoriously complex pieces of software (such as Photoshop, Excel or SAP systems). These are designs that offer a wide variety of features, organized in a complex navigation system that has users taking classes in order to use them to their full extent.

the problem of unused and unknown features in ux design

But how many users can afford to dedicate money and time to learning a software product? It’s a known issue with the feature creep. It results in a lot of users who only scrape the surface of what the product can really do, never truly benefitting from the design in its full glory. It also creates a small group of users who dove deep into the product, and know it to its core. This is a painful manifestation of a serious learnability problem.

Feature fatigue

The term feature fatigue was first created back in 2009, in a study titled Feature Fatigue: When Product Capabilities Become Too Much of a Good Thing (by Thompson, D. V. et al). The name itself refers to how having many features creates a series of usability issues that can ultimately mean the doom of the product.

“Our results suggest that too many features can encourage initial purchase but damage satisfaction and reduce repurchase probabilities, leading to lower customer lifetime values.”

									Debora Viana Thompson et al. - Feature Fatigue								

The study admits that not everything is black and white, in that the right number of features will vary drastically depending on the goals and individual company. With that said, it did draw one crucial conclusion: that while having many features can encourage initial buying, it’s not a good idea in the long haul. Generally, the products that keep users coming back tend to be simpler with fewer features. The study suggests splitting the feature-packed product into several simple products as a viable remedy.

The money problem

This is the main reason why companies have come to fear the feature creep. It can seem like a great way to increase the value of the entire product and make money. But more often than not, too many features end up resulting in a money pit of a product.

This is not just because with each new feature, you’ll need the resources to both plan and create that feature itself – but the dreadful task of changing the rest of the design to accommodate this new feature. This results in higher costs in many different ways. It’s the design effort to dream it up and create the prototype, it’s the time and effort into changing the entire prototype – and the developing bill for it all. Add to that all the testing and redesigning that will be needed to fix it all.

illustration of how the feature creep brings higher costs and lower revenue

It is true that the surge in costs will depend on which stage in the design process you are. In general terms, the further along in the project, the more expensive these changes will be. In the industry, starting the development of the prototype is a hallmark. From there on, any changes are very likely to be painfully costly.

You’d be surprised by how quickly deadlines are pushed, patchworks are needed and reword rears its ugly head. In business management terms, the feature creep can quickly derail a good business project.

How to stop the feature creep: avoiding doom

Maintaining simplicity can sound so broad and general, can’t it? It’s the typical thing that is easy to say but difficult to implement. If taking something complex and simplifying it was easy, Steve Jobs wouldn’t have been such a turning point in technology. It’s no coincidence that making great simple products is difficult: people’s standards are high, and no fuss means there’s no hiding any mistakes.

It’s true that there is no easy answer to the question of how to make products easy and simple. There are, however, many ways we can avoid adding meaningless features to our design. Let’s take a closer look.

1. Do your homework and plan ahead

Seems like basic advice, we know. But dutiful research before you start defining features at all isn’t the kind of thing we can overlook. What is the problem you’re out to solve? How can you go about solving that problem? Who are you doing it all for?

When we say do your homework, we mean it. This is the time to put everything you know about the people you’ll be designing for on the table. Get close to the users, have interviews and observe them going through this problem you hope to solve. In order to please them, you have to know what they need, what they like and what they don’t like.

how user research can lead to meaningful features

This is called user research, where you aim to use everything at your disposal to know the preferences and needs of the users. Usually, you want to gather data and information on which you’ll base yourself when creating the product. Once you know what the product needs to do to solve the user’s problem, you can then wireframe the bare bones and develop and test as you go.

Take out the big guns. Think of classic tools in the UX design industry, like mental models and user personas. Using the right tools to help guide your thoughts makes a big difference, trust us! Having a professional prototyping tool is the line between an interactive prototype and a bunch of static images. In this case, classic design tools help you direct and limit your efforts, marking the difference between constructive effort and running around in circles.

2. Base your decisions on data. Validate, validate.

This is closely connected to your research. It’s the concept that really, testing and research is never done in UX design. This is crucial, because it will help you understand where you stand with the user. Information is a powerful thing.

No designer can blindly say what a user wants. Even those of us who are lucky to be highly empathic can’t fully understand what others feel and think. Each user is a unique person, and even though they all share a common problem, it can be challenging to cater to them all. That’s where user testing comes in.

deciding data to make decisions and choosing features

User testing is a wide and deep topic, which we won’t explore in depth here. But user data can be the light of reason when deciding anything regarding the design – especially potential new features. Testing methods and techniques vary according to the market and the product, but when it comes to new features the important question is: does this feature add real value to the product? If so, can we quantify that value? How does it affect user behavior? What are the implications of that behavior change?

For more: Check out our full in-depth guide to User testing. It covers most of the theory, methods and practical side of user testing. It’s a must-read for UX newbies!

3. Stick to the original product idea

It’s only natural that you’ll change your idea of what the product needs to be as you get deeper into the initial research. As you discover things about your users and how the main problem affects them, your definition of the problem might change. With that, your product changes, too – and that is ok. You want to have an iron-clad definition of the problem, so that your product solution is solid.

With that said, it can be tempting to add things on along the way, as we’ve seen before. It’s important to allow yourself time to validate these new ideas – after all, these features might be worth considering. But more often than not, anything that comes as an afterthought, as to what the product should do, tends to not be worth it. Remember that users tend to prefer simpler products that get the job done, and big problems that call for solutions tend to come up in the research.

stick to the original vision of the product

Overall, you want to maintain the original solution to the original problem. Additional fluff to the design and main concept can make the entire team lose sight of what is important: the user, and helping the user overcome that original problem.

After a while, you and your team will come to recognize product changes that smell of future headaches and late-night working. To have everyone recognize feature creepiness is ideal, as it stops destructive ideas before they have the power to damage the user experience.

4. Have good communication

Having people in your team contribute is a good thing – it brings more points of view and skill, resulting in better decisions, right? Unfortunately, nothing is ever that simple. When it comes to making sure everyone is on the lookout for the feature creep, communication and a chain of command are key.

communication as a remedy for the feature creep in ux design

While each company has their own structure, it’s important that the UX design team itself is well structured and able to communicate with other departments efficiently. It’s important that the product design team can develop ideas in a safe environment, working collectively to find the optimal features of the product. However, there has to be a system to separate the good feature ideas from the bad ones.

Communication is also important in aligning business goals with design goals. Remember that everyone needs to be on the same page to avoid friction and maintain a steady pace of progress.

Open communication is a great idea. People should be free to communicate not just ideas, but also feedback on those ideas. In this game, the Product Manager will play a big role in creating this dynamic where everyone can, ideally, create meaningful designs while quickly identifying cases of featuritis.

Where simplicity overcame complexity: success examples

1. Trello

Trello is a project management tool whose popularity has grown immensely since it was founded back in 2011. By 2017, Trello had a whooping 19 million users and less than 100 employees. That same year, Trello was bought by none other than Atlassian – a major project management player that also owns JIRA.

trello overcame competition with reduced features

From Trello.

Trello’s concept is pretty simple: it aims to help communication and management with a board where teams can leave notes and engage with each other. Jira follows a similar path, but offers a whole plethora of features. There are many who say that the Atlassian move to buy Trello was logical: Trello was catering to a different group of managers and companies, while JIRA remained mainly popular with developers. Atlassian needed a way to diversify their base.

And so, who’s the winner here? Trello saw that not everyone needed intricate and complex management tools, and offered a functional product that had users coming back. We like to think this was a win-win: today, JIRA and Trello can be used together, benefitting users who do want a little more than a simple board.

2. Zoom

Today, most of us have at least heard of Zoom. Even if you have never used it, chances are that you’ve read about it. With the 2020 pandemic, Zoom became a hot topic as people flocked over to the software for both work and fun. But what of the competition?

The pandemic was good to most platforms that helped people communicate, with names such as Discord and Slack being mentioned over and over as people tried to work remotely. And yet, none other matched Zoom’s success. For example, Slack saw a 50% increase in revenue compared to the year before – which is impressive, but falls short of the whooping 169% that Zoom enjoyed.

The reason why may lie in the simplicity of Zoom. It’s true that Slack offers a great level of learnability, but Zoom is as simple as a video conference app could possibly be. Most users never even truly interact with the interface, but simply follow a link into the call. Even Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield recognized to the Financial Times: “the more complex nature of the Slack service had made it “a harder lift” for customers to adopt when compared with Zoom”.

3. Google Drive

When Google Drive launched back in 2006, it was seen as more of a curiosity. It was difficult for anyone to see this new open-source software to ever truly compete with a giant such as the Microsoft Office pack. However, as time passed, it became clear that Google was on to something: people flocked over to Google Drive, which grew in relevance, market share and popularity.

google drive as example of simplicity beating feature-packed products

From G Suite.

But why? People were already so used to Microsoft Word or Excel, why change? Is it just because Google Drive is free? As it turns out, it could have to do with the acute featuritis that Word and Excel suffer from. Many users who relied on Word never truly learned to make the most of the tool – and Google Drive was much, much simpler.

Some designers firmly believe that the main reason behind the rise of Google drive is that it offered a much easier version of Microsoft’s softwares. Google took all those features that few people used and got rid of them – reducing the features until only the truly key ones remained.

Dire cases of featuritis: feature creep examples

Can products that have too many features succeed? Unfortunately, yes they can. It’s not unusual for enterprise software, for example, to have users that suffer in silence because they need the product for daily tasks. Other examples include brands so well-established, they can afford long trials of new features and exploring new ground to grow their base.

1. Facebook

Facebook is such a popular platform, it can be easy to think that the design team over at Facebook can do no wrong. However, the platform has evolved from a simple place to stay in touch with your friends. Today, Facebook can be a place to stay current with the news, to watch live events, to buy and sell things…

some users say facebook has become a victim of the feature creep

From Axios.

So when does it end? Facebook is the classic example of a company that has plenty of resources to burn – adding new features isn’t exactly a costly venture. For a giant like Facebook, creating, testing and implementing a new feature might as well cost peanuts. But does this all help the user experience? Some users say the platform is now bombarded with features and ads, harming the general experience.

2. Photoshop

Photoshop is a must-have tool for any designer worth their salt. The software is well-loved for the endless possibilities it brings to the table, allowing designers everywhere to turn their ideas into something concrete. However, the great possibilities aren’t the only thing Photoshop is known for.

The software comes with so many different features, we end up reading blog posts with titles like “The top 30 Photoshop features to learn”. In order to truly be able to use the program, some users pay for lessons, full courses and spend endless hours watching tutorials. It makes for a long learning curve, which perhaps not so many users would be willing to go through, if it wasn’t necessary for their work.

3. Excel

Another piece of software that is necessary for people’s work. Excel is used by many, but understood by few. Here, you’ll also find users who needed lessons and many hours of practice in order to be able to carry out normal tasks – and even these may not use all of Excel’s features.

example of excess features in excel

It makes for a complicated software that ended up losing ground to it’s simplified competitor: Google Sheets. Excel does have a group of users who need the secondary features that most people don’t – and these aren’t about to switch over to any other software.

The wrap up

The feature creep can be pretty destructive. It has a way of making the team lose sight of what the original vision was, and creates a vortex where no matter how much time and effort you invest in it – progress always feels minimal. Deadlines are missed, people get frustrated.

The good news is that the right kind of research and testing, we can see which way is up, with users being the ultimate judges of what features truly belong in the design.

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Rebeca Costa
In-house writer, usability enthusiast and patron of all sleep-deprived designers