Messenger apps started as the simplest way to start a conversation online. Open the app. Select a person to chat with. Go.
Today, those apps have seemingly endless ways for users to engage: video chat, send gifs, send emojis, send money, use a filter, buy and sell goods, play games, talk to bots, and more. So much, in fact, that the product leaders behind these apps are slimming them down.
Messenger apps are a classic case of feature bloat. The more features, the more complicated, and the more users crave a simpler experience.
In today’s hypercompetitive software markets, a lot of companies are hardwired to believe bigger is better—more features mean increased functionality and therefore happier customers. Yet, industry data shows quite the opposite – a whopping 80% of product features are rarely or never used.
Of course, product teams need to develop and ship new features. But, too often, they are motivated by the wrong incentives and forgo a relentless focus on the customer. Whether it’s to stay competitive, differentiated, or solve for what they believe are their customers’ needs, some companies get locked into a cycle of feature FOMO – fear of missing out – that ends up stalling product innovation.
What Causes Feature FOMO?
Feature FOMO is influenced by a number of internal and external factors:
A Belief That Users Want More Features
Particularly when selling to the enterprise, where sales teams and looming analyst reports can drive product decisions, companies frequently adopt a “more is more” mentality when it comes to features. This idea is backed by a well-cited data report, which found that software buyers almost always choose feature-rich products, and when given the choice to add additional features, they always do so. On the flip side, the study found that customer satisfaction drops drastically when those same buyers have to learn too many features.
A Tendency to Look to Competitors for Inspiration
Most companies say they’re not competitor obsessed, but still one in five say they look primarily to competitors for product inspiration. Competitive intelligence is useful, but it shouldn’t guide your product strategy. When it does, you often end up in a constant game of “catch-up” or becoming perpetually beholden to a category definition defined by another company and rigged in their favor.
Product Teams are Being Judged by the Wrong Numbers
Pendo’s recent State of Product Leadership survey found that 77% of product teams are evaluated based on the number of features they ship. This gives product teams an implied incentive to add more, regardless of whether those features are being used and adopted.
Product Teams see Themselves as Task-Oriented Instead of Visionary
Product managers have a lot to do, so it makes sense that a majority view their responsibilities as more tactical and less visionary. The downside of that may be shortsightedness when it comes to prioritizing features or driving long-term feature adoption. Without a sense of product vision, product teams may be more likely to say “yes” to new features that may not add value to users.
The Downside of Feature FOMO
More product features can make sales teams happy and look good in a competitive matrix, but companies shouldn’t overlook the potential negative impact.
Back to our messaging app example.
ICQ was one of the world’s most popular apps of its kind in the 1990s. After near-constant feature and version updates, usage declined by the early 2000s and the company was forced to introduce ICQ Lite – a version that simply offered chat functionality. That’s a lot of engineering time and R&D expense wasted.
In the enterprise, where my company operates, a technology brand that haphazardly rolls out new features needs to be mindful of the learning curve for end users. Every roll-out needs to be deliberate, well-thought out and obsessively monitored. Otherwise, product teams are wasting resources and frustrating customers.
Fixing the Feature FOMO Problem
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t develop new features. Product teams just need to be sure they’re building the right features, and putting processes in place to drive usage of those features. Some companies will need to analyze the structure of their organization, determine new metrics to track, and be more ruthless about sunsetting features people aren’t using. Here’s how to avoid feature FOMO:
Trust (or Appoint) Senior Product Leaders
Product teams should rely on senior product leadership—not competitors— to guide vision. Today 23% of product teams now report to a chief product officer (CPO), compared to just 6.7% in 2018. CPOs are in demand because they can assess the market, build the strategy, and combat demands from other executive leadership and internal teams about new product features.
Measure What Matters
Technology brands should hold their product teams accountable for metrics that have the greatest impact on success. Instead of the raw number of features shipped or revenue driven, metrics such as feature adoption, customer happiness, and customer engagement are critical. These measures point to which features are working now and help form longer-term rollout strategy.
Engage and Listen to Customers
Customers care what you build and when you build it, so give them a say. Set a process for capturing their feature requests, analyze and prioritize those features and then communicate back what you plan to build and when you plan to build it. You’ll generate good will from customers, and ultimately stronger demand and increased usage by including them in your roadmap.
Embrace the Sunset
There may be parts of your product that simply aren’t working. And in fact, they’re requiring resources that could be allocated toward building new and more effective features. Removing product features is a difficult choice and may seem like a negative if some users may feel alienated. But there could be greater risk in continuing to invest resources maintaining outdated and underutilized features. Continuous product insights can tell you exactly when to pull the plug, before your brand reputation and sales start to suffer.