Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

The peril of software that can do everything

Posted in startups, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on December 4, 2011

I clearly remember a lesson that I learned in a software development course that I took a number of (many) years ago. That lesson was that 90% of the expense that would go into developing and testing a new software package generally goes into the last 10% of the features and functionalities added in as effort is made to fulfill the stakeholder’s and user’s wish list. My ongoing experience since then has repeatedly validated that assertion, as a legitimate, empirically realistic extension of the reasoning that would go into Pareto’s principle – even if its 80/20 standard is shifted by 10 to the left.

I would propose a second basic principle here that while not as generally applicable as Pareto’s principle does hold for software – and particularly as the user interface shrinks going from laptop to tablet and from that to handheld and smart phone.

• Adding in that final ten percent of functionality, and in fact adding in additional functionality in general above some threshold limit can and does increase learning curve requirements for users and delays in navigating to the desired functions even with hands-on experience.
• This translates directly into loss of software effectiveness and value – even as it increases cost to designer and manufacturer. And that is additional cost that flows through the sales and distribution chain directly to the customer and to the user.
• So adding more content often means you in fact provide less functionally, and for increased cost. And the tipping point beyond which more is less is reached more quickly as the user interface becomes smaller so this becomes an increasingly important issue with increased reliance on portable and handheld interfaces.

I am not going to try to quantify this for any interface standard, and in terms of either the traditional Pareto numbers or with the more draconian 90/10 of software development costs. I will simply note that the more features and functions a user has to select from and wade through, the more likely that the one they need now, is going to be buried deep. And that and the frustration they find when short on time and thumbing through embedded menus, is what they will share as negative viral marketing about your software product – and probably about the hardware platform you are running it on too. So costs can and do add up – and all from trying to be that much more competitive by adding more and more, and still more and more.

I am not arguing the case that less is always more. A developer’s goal should be to add in functionality and features in ways that support greater flexibility and capability while still keeping use easy and intuitive. And that means understanding where the tipping points are where more would become less, and it means focusing on adding those features that real world users would see as most valuable to them.

And that is where apps and platforms that support them add value. A basic platform would offer a starter set of core functionality and users would select what else to add in small functionally interconnected packages. And they would also decide where their personal complexity tipping points are – which may very well shift upwards as they gain hands-on experience with the hardware and its basic software platform

I have been posting a short series on Planning an Innovative Offering to be Turn-Key Ready (see Part 1: outlining the fundamental challenge and Part 2 : taking a consumer and marketplace-driven perspective) and this posting touches on some of the same issues and concerns, here looking at them as they specifically apply to the marketplace’s most challenging context.

• Both information processing and communications hardware and software are intensely and increasingly competitive.
• Pressure to pack more and more functionality and of a progressively more diverse and inclusive mix into each and every device is tremendous, blurring the lines between computers and related devices and phones and their more related devices.
• And all of this has to fit into progressively smaller and smaller physical hardware packages with successively smaller user interfaces for accessing and using all of this functional power through.
• There are costs to that, and there are limitations as to how customizable these devices and their hardware can be made, and on how transparent and easy to navigate through they can become.
• Competition for market share is of necessity going to have to include a focus on competition for usability, and particularly for new users as technology generations roll out in keeping with Moore’s law and faster.
• And our drive toward increasingly ubiquitous computing and communications capabilities will continue to drive all of this.

You can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations and also at Business Strategy and Operations – 2. I also include this in my directory on Startups and Early Stage Businesses as the issues I address here can be important as new business founders seek to define and stake out a unique value proposition that works for their prospective customers and marketplaces, at least as much as for themselves.

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