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Designing the Obvious: Build Only What Is Absolutely Necessary

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Robert Hoekman explains why you must focus only on the features that are the most essential and build only what is absolutely necessary.
This chapter is from the book
  • Think Different
  • Think Mobile
  • Drop Nice-to-Have Features

When applications evolve based on the demands of users (or of CEOs), they tend to take a bad turn. Features used by only 10 percent of users or used only 10 percent of the time are added and get in the way of the remaining 90 percent of features. They clutter an otherwise clean interface. They interfere with the features used most often.

And when “featuritis” takes over, you quickly find yourself permanently providing tech support for things that shouldn’t be in the tool to begin with, fixing more bugs, writing more Help material, and neglecting other, more important features. And while this may sound like a lot of fun to certain (slightly crazy) programmers, it’s clearly the wrong approach.

The focus should not be on features, the focus should be on focus. An obvious application is a focused application. It’s easy to explain to other people. It makes sense to those using it because the purpose of the tool is self-evident, and nothing in it strays from that purpose. Every feature supports the single situation the application is designed to support.

More Features, More Frustration

A user’s frustration level doesn’t map directly to the number of difficult features in an application. Frustration increases exponentially. For every additional feature, there is more to learn, more to tweak and configure, more to customize, more to read about in the Help documentation, and more that can go wrong.

For you, it’s one more feature. For users, it’s one more thing that adds to the already long list of frustrating things to deal with while using a computer. It’s not just your application—it’s everything else, too. It’s the operating system, which hides files away in obscure directories and is constantly popping up little dialog boxes and error messages that you are forced to address before you can get on with your real work. It’s the browser, which has no graceful way of indicating whether or not the link you just clicked is going to show you what you want to see. It’s the email client, which offers no insights into how long it will take for the message you just wrote, with the rather large photo of your cat, to be sent to your grandmother.

Users contend with all these things and more during the same stretch of time they try to deal with your application. And the frustrations add up quickly.

I know, I know—none of these things bother you at all. They don’t really bother me either. But that’s a sad fact. It means we’ve become desensitized to things that are otherwise maddening. It means we’ve gone numb.

In short, we’ve become “computer-savvy.”

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