Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

From minimally viable product to overly designed and overly featured product: a cautionary lifecycle scenario

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on July 19, 2015

There is a saying that is sometimes attributed to Parmenides of Elea to the effect that “nature abhors a vacuum.” And if you prefer Latin rather than Greek for any adage of as long-standing a presence as that, try “natura abhorret vacuum.”

I tend to add on clauses to this basic sentiment such as “… especially in closets” from when I have had to move or even just do a major house cleaning, and have found myself staring at all that I have accumulated and have had at least some sort of reason for wanting to save and store – and just since the last time. But the basic principle holds, and it does so from a more strictly human and anthropocentric perspective because we as a species seem to love to collect and accrete and assemble with seemingly ever-expanding complexity. We are happier as a general tendency, to add to than we are to delete from or to reduce down, and because of a “just in case” rationale if for no other reason. Yes, we do discard and throw things away, but take a look inside the homes of those who you see most actively discarding and streamlining in this way and they will probably prove to have the same type of full closets too, and even if they live and breath lean and agile in their professional lives.

My goal for this posting is in many respects one of examining this phenomenon in the context of our tools, and how we build and then evolve them. And that can and does include our physical tools, and it includes our software and other non-physical tools too – our business processes included. These are all tools if not complex tool sets. And we all seem biased towards evolving them and with that including adding to them more than it does subtracting from them – except for when we replace some older feature with a newer, bigger and better expanded one. Hint: next generation, newer software package versions are always bigger than any that preceded them – always and with absolutely no real-world exceptions.

This is in fact a much easier trap to fall into when considering our non-physical tools because they do not occupy any obvious physical space, and certainly given our capacity to store vast amounts of data electronically into the tiniest volumes of storage device. And they do not have any physical weight either, failing once again to remind us of what we are actually accumulating.

Most new tools start out smaller and simpler, focusing on and addressing a specific functional need that led to their being developed in the first place. In the physical realm and as a simple and even simplistic example, I would cite the Swiss Army knife. Pocket knives all have at minimum at least one knife blade that can be folded into the handle. The basic Swiss Army knife added a few other more commonly needed tools that would fold into that same handle such as a small screwdriver or awl. And with time the number of add-on tools that were offered in these products expanded and expanded to include scissors, saw blades, and pliers and bottle openers and more and more and more. The original Modell 1890 Swiss Army knife was a very simple affair with that one blade and a small screwdriver and not much else; the many more current models and versions of this brand now have a great deal more, and with some offering dozens of tools in a single handle grip – even though this makes them clumsy and awkward to actually use and certainly for the more extreme feature-inclusive models. Physical tools can pick up “just one more feature” and repeatedly until their accumulation reaches and passes any possible point of diminishing return for their overall value offered, where more in effect becomes less and even much less. This holds even more compellingly, and more frequently for software and for business process tools.

• Simplicity and focus can be a defining source of virtue and value for a product.
• But even the people who in principle should know this best can fall into the trap of adding just one more feature, one more complexity, one more and then another and another and ….
• Why? Because their most seriously competitive rival has just come out with a new product that has this great new feature and it has created buzz for them in the marketplace so everyone has to match it with their own version of it – and with that next great addition after this one tossed in too.

People accumulate and accrete and they expand in complexity in what they build – and not just in what they load into their closets at home – into their businesses and into the products they develop and offer and sell that collectively define what their businesses stand for.

• Sometimes less can in fact be more, and particularly when this means a very carefully selected overall product for what is allowed in, and with anything that does not add defining value left out – or brought over to another product instead.

Know your customers and what they want. Offer them what they want the most and in ways and forms that make those features easiest for them to find and use. Make ease of use and a laser focus on the customer and their primary needs a defining feature of your business. And yes, work on streamlining your business operations too, while you are at it. In that regard I cite a recently posted Rethinking Simplicity as a Business Virtue, which I offer this posting as a companion piece to.

Then if you can really accomplish this, try those closets at home next. And while you are at it you can find this and related postings and series at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. (And for a specifically relevant reference for this see The Peril of Software that Can Do Everything.)

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One Response

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  1. Doreen Platt said, on July 20, 2015 at 3:02 am

    I enjoyed seeing the light hearted touch from you in this post, Tim


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