An argument for feature minimalism

The early days of developing a new product or service are exciting. Passion is high; everyone is on board; meetings are buzzing; concepts are thrown around; excitement builds. Founders often see limitless potential for their idea.

Many co-founders will have been told the importance of doing some kind of market research. In order to validate their vision, some may talk to potential customers about the new idea. This might confirm their belief that their product will be a huge success, or it can have them bouncing off the walls with new ideas for alternative uses. “What if we expanded it …” … “This could be used to…” … “We could also sell it to …”.

But adding functionality to software based on this kind of research is risky; after all, confronted with a passionate founder, the average person is unlikely to shoot their dreams down in flames.

This early excitement during development is an important part of the creative process behind a killer concept, but it’s crucial that you maintain the focus of the product with feature minimalism; and here’s why.  

Losing your laser-focus

The temptation when developing a new product is to add as many features as possible in the belief that this gives you the best chance of finding a fit between product and market. It’s easy to assume that covering all bases is the safe approach.

But bolting on functionality in the hope that ‘if this doesn’t work out, maybe this will’ is a flawed approach that will mire your product in confusion and woolly thinking.

Name any successful digital product from the last few years and chances are it does just one thing brilliantly. Multi-room smart speaker system Sonos started out with a simple vision; reinventing home audio for the digital age by filling every home with music. And although they’ve expanded by adding services to their offerings like Spotify and Amazon Music, these features are closely aligned to their core vision.

Other companies have attempted to diversify their offering, but have found it has clouded their vision and confused customers. Dropbox made a huge impact with its focus on delivering excellent shared cloud storage. Riding on their success, the company tried adding more features like photo-sharing with Carousel and mobile email with Mailbox but later pivoted back to their original vision of transforming everyday workflows.

Team communication platform Slack started out as a massive multiplayer online game but pivoted to laser-focus on enabling communication. Their vision, of being the place where teams work has created a large following of super-fans who spread the work about Slack without the need for big marketing campaign spends.                                   

Creating every possible feature isn’t a strategy

Nope; it’s a recipe for confusion and leaves you open to attack from competitors with clearer visions.

In software development, time and budget are often wasted creating features for which there is no market. But creating every conceivable feature diverts resources from helping your best features reach their true potential.

In ecommerce, companies make the mistake of trying to imitate the scope and features of the likes of Amazon and Alibaba. But it’s very unlikely you have the resources of these giants. In fact, the best new ecommerce sites create focused and unique content around a specific range of products, in line with a founder’s vision.

For example, Bellroy provides unique descriptions, photos and videos for each of their wallets. Jing Tea illustrates the origins of each of their teas and provides supporting articles explaining how consumers can get the best out of their products.

Instead of taking the scatter gun approach to software features, you should define your vision and then use that vision to determine whether to add an idea. The first questions when evaluating any idea should be – does it fit with my vision? This is an argument for feature minimalism for a better end result.

But visions are not infallible. They can be based on false assumptions and can change with time.

What to do instead of banging on tons of features

Any business idea starts out with a leap of faith: a founder believes in the future success of the product she wants to create, even though there’s no proof for this yet. This leap of faith is divided into two assumptions.

Firstly, the value hypothesis assumes that a product will deliver value to its customers; that is, those early adopters will find and embrace the product.

Secondly, the growth hypothesis assumes that the product will not only appeal to the small group of early adopters but will also find a bigger market later.

To quickly close the gap between believing and knowing, every founder should formulate and test these two fundamental assumptions.

If you can validate them through testing, then you’ll know that it’s worth investing the time and effort into developing a product.

Validating your vision

There are a variety of user testing methods that can help you create a clear, validated vision you can use as a blueprint for adding services.

It’s possible to test your value hypothesis with prototyping, building a minimum viable product and testing it on users to see if it solves a problem effectively and delivers value.

And you can test your growth hypothesis to establish if there is a wider demand for your product by;

  • Faking it then making it - Create landing pages for different pricing models, or list different features using disposable brand names. Drive people to them using paid search advertising. Track whether people are willing to start signing up based on the information they can see. Capture their information and contact them again after creating the features. Dropbox did something similar by making an explainer video showing how the platform worked before it actually existed!
  • Create a Crowdfunding page - Crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, among others, also provide a great platform for running MVP tests. These websites are essentially collections of MVPs where the market response is judged by the interest people show in the form of contributions to the campaigns.
  • Create a pre-order/beta sign-up page - encouraging users to sign up based on a specific set of features. Norwegian webcam startup Huddly, secured investment by demonstrating a demand through their initial pre-order page. They appear to be testing pricing models using the same method.

Rather than doing lots of things in a mediocre way, idea validation and user testing help you do the one thing you’re great at, even more brilliantly.