Do not be afraid to remove features

If you want to be a bad product manager, don’t ever remove features. Why would you take something out of your product? More features just make the product better, so taking away features would obviously make the product worse. Sure, not everyone will use every feature, but that’s why you have so many of them. What if you take away something that even just a small portion of your customers use and you alienate them? Customers always ask for more features — not less — so in the end, the product with the most features win.

If you want to be a good product manager, be smart about removing features. Having a lot of features will not make your product great. Great products come from having the right features to solve customer problems, and having those features designed in the right way.

Removing features can and should be done to many products. Good product managers confront this difficult aspect of the job, even though it can be challenging and uncomfortable. Similarly, good product managers do not take this responsibility lightly and only remove features once they understand the implications of any changes to the product and the customer.

The first step to removing features is to not add unnecessary features in the first place. Too often, irrelevant features are added for various reasons — knee jerk response to a customer complaint, an engineer’s pet idea, a lack of understanding of customer needs. Then, when features need to be removed for some reason — technical challenges, support cost, instability — the amount of hassle that a product manager has to endure to minimize impact to customers is much greater than the value than the feature ever provided.

As Marty Cagan of Silicon Valley Product group writes in Great Products by Design:

The job of the product manager is to identify the minimal possible product that meets the objectives and provides the desired user experience — minimizing time to market, user and implementation complexity.

In a “minimal possible product,” there are no unnecessary features. Every aspect of the product is absolutely essential to meeting the relevant goals.

Unfortunately, product managers often inherit products which were not designed in this way, and there are nearly always features that are not necessary to meeting the business and user objectives.

There are two steps to removing features — identifying which features to remove, and explaining to your customers why you are removing these features.

1. Identifying which features to remove should not be a haphazard progress. Features to remove are those which

  • are costly to support
  • present a liability to the product
  • detract from other value-adding features
  • do not fit with the product strategy
  • are not used by customers

Once you have identified a feature that falls into this category, identify why the feature was added in the first place. Was it designed to attract to a specific type of customer? Was it relevant when launched yet inappropriate now given technical progress in the years since? Regardless of the validity of the reasoning, first seek to understand it.

Then, see if that reasoning is still valid. It may have made sense given the original product strategy, though now it contradicts the current strategy. Maybe the feature was unique and differentiating at the time and is commonplace and irrelevant now. Perhaps the goal of adding a certain feature was to capture a new type of customer, and that strategy that never succeeded.

Ultimately, product managers should seek to identify any feature whose removal would have no impact on revenue. Yes, customers may complain a bit, though that is likely happening irrespective of whether the feature exists or not. If features can be removed without any measurable loss in customer satisfaction or usage — both of which ultimately lead to revenue — what is the benefit to keeping them? Similarly, if adding a new feature will have no measurable increase in customer satisfaction, usage, or revenue, what is the benefit of adding it? If more product managers kept this in mind as they considered product improvements, they would not get themselves into the situation of having to remove features.

2. Explaining to your customers why you are removing these features is relatively straightforward once you have done the analysis explained above. This is not to imply that you have to deceive your market and put a positive “spin” on the change. You should be honest and straightforward with your customers when describing the reasoning for the change. This should be presented in the terms of the benefits to customers. For example, by removing some icons from the main menu bar, it will make the menu bar easier for new users to learn and quicker for experienced users to use; or, resources will be put towards new features that your customers have been requesting rather than supporting features that are costly to maintain and seldom used.

Make the transition as smooth as possible for customers. Give them plenty of advance notice and make sure to communicate in several forms — for example, through your sales force, via email, postal mail, webinars, etc.

For customers who did rely on the feature which is being removed, you can also suggest alternative options where possible, even when those alternatives are competing products. If the feature really is that unimportant to your users, you will not have droves of customers leaving because of a small change in your product. Customers will appreciate your candor and assistance in minimizing the impacts of the change.

Whenever possible, implement enhancements to your product at the same time that you remove features. Not only does this provide an improved product for your customers, it is a much easier message to communicate. Instead of defending your subtractions, you are extolling your improvements and explaining how those subtractions were a necessary part of the enhancements. 37signals describes this as “every time you add something you take something away,” and the comments and discussion around their blog post show the challenge and confusion around this topic.

Good product managers need to have a clear product strategy and ensure their product remains focused. This can be done by being very regimented in their product development and only adding new features that enhance the product’s value. However, when there are features present whose cost outweighs their value, a product manager must make the difficult decision to remove them to ensure focus on the product’s vision.

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8 thoughts on “Do not be afraid to remove features

  1. Knowing when to say when is probably the least developed, but most essential, skill of any product manager. Consumers will pay more for added value from a new product, but not much more.

    What you outline in point #2 is a bit trickier. Taking away something that the consumer has gotten used to, even if it isn’t a critical component, opens you up to questions of why they even buy or use your product in the first place.

    Your advice on how to mitigate this danger is very sound , though.

    Obviously, it is always easier if the product manager has a clear product strategy to begin with. Then they know what features truly add value and can sell products at the best possible cost to the consumer, without having to do the risky job of removing benefits later on.

  2. Excellent post, Jeff on the trade-offs and the thinking behind them that needs to take place in a “zero-based planning” approach to product design. As you know, one of the biggest challenges will be when a product feature still has some value to some subset of the customer base, and the benefits derived from leaving it out (lower costs, added flexibility for incorporating other features, etc.) are not totally clear/measurable so as to make the trade-off evaluation clear-cut.

    Reminds me of the old joke as to why it only took god six days to create the world….because he didn’t have an installed base to deal with….

  3. Great post, Jeff. I’m glad this is finally out there in black and white. Feature creep is something I personally detest. And removing features is such a foreign concept to most product development mindsets. I think it was Tom Kelly from IDEO that even said that innovation can happen by removing features.

    I was contemplating feature fatigue the other day (See Gene Smith’s posting on this: while looking at images of a Swiss Army knife. Advertisements of the knives almost always have every blade expanded to show product capability. That’s good for sales. But in the long run it’s the fact that you can collapse them all that makes it value and usable to us. Most products don’t have that kind of balance, and instead stuggle between adding features for sales appeal versus long-term usability.

    That said, as an interface designer I also feel that it should be possible to communicate information or present features in such a way that doesn’t overwhelm people. But that depends on the level of control given to the designer (often short-term business needs trump design decisions) as well as how the product is developed (“dripping” features in over years can make it hard to end up with a consistent, clean design).

    Still, there’s a point when feature creep becomes ridiculous. Like the comedian Steven Wright says, “You can’t have everything–where would you put it?”

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