How to stop features from killing your product

Product Management Mar 3, 2020

Get rid of parasitic features lurking in your product

"Every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his advantage."
― William S. Burroughs

As a kid, when I was on holiday with my older brother, we would often play the game SimTower together. In SimTower, you are in charge of building a tower complete with condominiums, offices, elevators, hotel rooms, medical centers, and much more. We spent hours talking and playing, trying to figure out how to build the perfect tower together.

For your tower to earn income, you need to have tenants that pay rent. If you did a shoddy job, tenants would leave together with their money. With insufficient funding, building an impressive tower would no longer be possible. You needed to make sure to construct the right things, or all those tower costs unsupported by income would drag the vertical growth of your tower down.

Imagine your product is a big skyscraper, just like in the game SimTower.

Each room in the skyscraper represents a feature. All those features cost money to keep up and running — they don’t run on air after all.

Here are some of the different costs you incur for the upkeep of a feature in your product, list not exhaustive:

  • Support costs when people call to troubleshoot or let you know something doesn’t work.
  • Maintenance costs to fix issues or to update features, so they remain working.
  • Infrastructure costs to pay for servers and infrastructure the feature runs on.
  • Increased development costs for other features: as your codebase grows, it will become more expensive to add new features.
  • Dependency costs. More features mean more dependencies to manage. More dependencies result in higher development costs.
  • Marketing costs for features communicated to your users.

All features cost money. But only some features make more money than they cost. Each feature in your product should be able to carry its weight. It should deliver more value to users and the business than it costs.

A parasite is an organism that obtains food from another organism of a different species, called the host. The term parasite comes from the Greek παράσιτος (parasitos), meaning ‘one who eats at the table of another.’

Cleaner Shrimp help get rid of parasites. Image by PublicDomainPictures

Unused features in products are like parasites that eat money to stay alive. The product is the host providing the different dining options that allow them to survive.

A product with too many feature parasites becomes sick with the following symptoms:

  • Users find it difficult to discover the features that are valuable to them. Clutter in your product is costly. By diluting your valuable features with non-valuable features, you increase friction for users to obtain value out of your product.
  • Adding new features becomes cumbersome. You spend a large amount of your development capacity on the upkeep of feature parasites. The time-to-market of novel features increases, as your developers need to work on an unnecessarily complicated codebase.
  • Your product makes less money and may even become unprofitable with the cost of unnecessary features dragging it down.
  • A lot of discussions and meetings are wasted by discussing noise: features that are not pulling their weight.
  • Prospective customers will struggle to understand your product. All those unused features pull your product in different directions, making it difficult to cut through the noise and understand the primary purpose of your product.

The different problems associated with unnecessary features are apparent. How do you get rid of all these feature parasites hiding in your product?

How do you cleanse your product of feature parasites?

"But if they're so successful, why haven't parasites taken over the world? The answer is simple: they have. We just haven't noticed. That's because successful parasites don't kill us; they become part of us, making us perform all the work to keep them alive and help them reproduce."
― Daniel Suarez

To get rid of feature parasites, you need to be able to discern which features are pulling their weight. Like figuring out which employees in your company are performing, this is challenging.

The ability to distinguish these features requires understanding how your products deliver value to users and the business. To differentiate valuable from non-valuable features is difficult, had you been able to do it before, you would never have ended up with all these unused features in the first place.

Some questions you need to be able to answer to remove these feature parasites:

  1. What different kinds of users does your product have, and how does your product make their lives better? What are the goals of your users? Consider using Jobs-to-be-done interviewing and Jobs-to-be-done personas.
  2. Based on quantitative data, which features are most popular, and how often are they used? An excellent way to get started is by applying the GAME analytics framework.
  3. Do the least used features fit with your product vision and strategy? If not, can you sunset them without upsetting customers too much? People hate losing what they have, even if it is something they rarely use. This phenomenon is called loss aversion.
  4. Is it possible to rework features that do fit with your product vision and strategy, so that they can become valuable? Another option is to hide features in the front-end and wait to see if any customers start to complain.

If you never remove or rework features, you can be sure your product has a lot of feature parasites. It is impossible to get everything right the first time. Nobody has a crystal ball and knows up-front what works. The good news is that you can teach a feature parasite to earn their dinner.

The main challenge is that you need to disrupt your way of working. The same thinking that got you so far won’t allow you to break the chains with all those unused features.

Simple is more difficult than complex. To keep something simple, you need to have a deep understanding. You need to know what matters and what doesn’t. In Dutch and English, we have the following saying: “Throwing away the baby with the bathwater.” It means you throw away the good together with the bad. If you lack understanding, then you might accidentally remove the things that matter. This uncertainty is what makes removing features scary and challenging

People involved in building products are hard-wired to think about what we should add to a product to make it better. But what if you would ask a different question instead: “What can we remove from our product to make it even better?”. Clutter is the worst enemy of your product. Take the time to eliminate the unnecessary, so the necessary doesn’t get drowned out.