Six Blades and Sixteen Lenses

The consequences of an over-designed product not only show up when the product is ready. Far from it. An over-designed product will have consequences during the entire development process.

How teams end up with an over-designed product

Ideally, your product should do one or two things and do them very well. However, product teams often get a little zealous and think their product should be all things to all people. When they want to incorporate every feature that customers have requested, they end up with an over-designed product. It’s like throwing spaghetti on the wall and hoping something sticks. The goal is to please someone – anyone – and the more features they cram in the product, the more likely that’d happen. At least that’s the thought process. A product with a lot of bells and whistles is the ultimate outcome of this.

RealAudio Player (1995)

RealPlayer’s fall is a great example of this. It was originally a basic media player, and it was very popular. Then the product team got the idea in their collective mind that expanding the feature set would make it a more valuable product. They added CD burning, audio recording, a RealPlayer music store, and more. And what happened to RealPlayer? In 2006, they earned a place on PCWorld’s list for The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time.

RealPlayer 10.5
RealPlayer 10.5

Another thought process that leads to over-design is thinking that just because we can, we should. Think of razors. Do you really need six blades on a razor, or were three good enough? Six might actually be better than three, but is it really worth it? Is it really worth the additional cost and time of development? Does the value of three additional blades justify adding them on? Product teams think that just because they can add three more blades, that they should.

We see this phenomenon a lot in technology devices. As of this writing (December, 2018) LG has just filed a patent for a sixteen-lens phone. Yes. You read that right: sixteen. Now I’m not going to say I can predict the future, but here’s something to think about: this year’s best smartphone camera, Google’s Pixel 3, has a single lens despite several phones in the market having two and three-lens cameras.

LG's Sixteen-Lens Phone
LG’s Sixteen-Lens Phone

A very similar approach that leads to over-design is wanting to improve a product’s performance by adding more of the same. Last year’s model had three blades? This year’s will have four, and next year it’ll be five. Our 2018 model had 500 horsepower? This year it’ll be 550 horses. Continuous improvement is important, but there’s a fine line between it and over-design.

Long development times and more capital are the result of these ways of thinking. The development team will be drawn thin, and the anticipation will wane as people slowly lose enthusiasm over a product’s launch.

Consequences of over-design

Increased costs

In April of 2012, Google announced “Project Glass” – its new wearable product. It eventually became Google Glass, and, long story short, it failed to go mainstream. It seems odd that it didn’t. After all, wearables were supposed to be the next big thing, and glasses were at the forefront. Google Glass even found itself on TIME magazine’s list of best inventions of 2012. So where did it all go wrong?

Pricing.

Pricing is a powerful positioner. It’s arguably the most effective marketing marker. And Google Glass’s sunk the product. Google priced its glasses at $1,500. Simply put, people weren’t willing to pay that much for it. Google built it with plans for it to be an alternative to a computer or tablet. People saw it as an additional accessory and not a replacement. Clearly there was a disconnect.

Google ended up with a $1,500 product because it over-designed. It put it in way more technology than it should, and, as a result, overshot people’s willingness to pay.

First photo of Google Glass being used with prescription glasses
First photo of Google Glass being used with prescription glasses

When you’re launching a product, it’s important to avoid overshooting people’s willingness to pay for the outcome that the product promises to deliver. At the same time, as the entrepreneurs behind the project, you want to make sure that you’re producing something viable – something that provides decent returns. Managing to satisfy both your customer’s limited budgets and maximizing your profit is not an easy feat. It will be even harder to do when you’re incorporating a lot of features. You’re going to incur costs for each component of your product, and, as a result, will have to price higher – a price point that might not appeal to your customers.

Keep in mind that customers can also decide not to be part of the market as a result of overpriced products. For example, if I’m looking to resolve the squeakiness in my door hinges and the product you’re producing is much more than I’m willing to pay, I will decide to just live with the squeaky sounds (or resolve it myself using WD40). This is also evident when there are supposedly no competitors in the space. If you justify your high price by claiming that there are no solutions in the market for the problem you’re solving for, then that might not be enough for consumers to pay up. They’ll simply decide not to be part of the market.

Unclear messaging

Word of mouth is a powerful thing. The problem with many products is that they make talking about them very difficult. Customers want to tell friends about a great product or experience they’ve tried. However, when there isn’t a clear and simple lead feature, chances are people won’t be able to explain it to their friends. This drastically reduces the likelihood that word of mouth will work in your favor. When your product has so many features, it’ll become incredibly difficult to express it in simple words. Which feature should I talk about? Which feature is more important than the other? This is also partly due to not electing a lead feature for your product, or launching with way too many features on day one.

Indecision and long development time

Decisions are a natural part of building a product. Trade-offs are, too. During the development of a product, you will be faced with restrictions regarding what features to prioritize over others. You will also be faced with restrictions as a result of feasibility and viability. You might want to integrate feature ‘X’, but integrating it will drastically increase costs. Furthermore, you will be required to make edits to the design of your product due to manufacturability issues. How will you know what the right decision is? When you want to incorporate so many features in your product, you will end up with a bloated list of requests that will result in indecision. More time will be taken to make these decisions because there is no clarity on what you plan on building.

How to deal with over-design

Over-design is an extremely common pitfall that derails great ideas from becoming great products. Here are a few ways you can avoid over-design.

Deciding on a lead feature

The user experience is what makes a product great, not the amount of features it has. According to an intriguing psychological notion known as the paradox of choice, the more options people have, the less satisfied they are with the choices they end up making. Applying this idea to the user experience infers that the more features a product has, the less satisfied users may be. Defining what your lead feature will be based on the core problem you are solving for will help you avoid that. It will also help you categorize each component of your product into either core feature or nice to have. Generally speaking, any feature that is integral to the solving of the identified core problem is deemed a core feature. If the removal of said component fails the solving of the core problem, then that component is part of your core feature-set. Everything else is considered a nice to have.

Research before prototyping

In today’s startup world, speed is deemed the competitive advantage. And so naturally, product teams want to get to building a prototype as fast as they can. They are told that it is only when they have a prototype that they’d be able to really get powerful feedback from customers. But that’s simply not true. What you need is both speed and direction. Simply going fast won’t necessarily get you to a successful product. As hard as it may sound, you need to slow down in the beginning. To understand your customer, the problems they’re facing, and the contexts in which these problems exist. Only then will you be able to clearly articulate a problem statement that will serve as the basis of your ideas. Only when you can refer to a problem statement will you be able to know if you’re over-designing or not.

Aligned messaging

Aligned messaging is the natural continuation of clarity of the core problem. Once you have clarity on your core problem and the core features, you must align your product’s messaging and marketing communication to them. Continuously and consistently delivering messaging that highlights the core problem your product solves will make it easier for word of mouth to spread. You are essentially telling your customers what to talk about when they are referring a friend or making a recommendation.

Over-design is more common than you think, and it might derail a great idea from becoming a great product. Make sure that you slow down and research before starting to prototype. Find a clear problem statement so that you can categorize the features of your product into core features and nice to haves. This will make decisions a lot easier during development. When you’re ready to launch your product, make sure you align your messaging with the core problem you’re solving for.

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