Why so many features?

 

It is a frequent complaint that production software contains too many features: “I use only  maybe 5% of Microsoft Word!” , with the implication that the other 95% are useless, and apparently without the consideration that maybe someone else needs them; how do you know that what is good enough for you is good enough for everyone?

The agile literature frequently makes this complaint against “software bloat“, and has turned it into a principle: build minimal software.

Is software really bloated? Rather than trying to answer this question it is useful to analyze where features come from. In my experience there are three sources: internal ideas; suggestions from the field; needs of key customers.

1. Internal ideas

A software system is always devised by a person or group, who have their own views of what it should offer. Many of the more interesting features come from these inventors and developers, not from the market. A competent group does not wait for users or prospects to propose features, but comes up with its own suggestions all the time.

This is usually the source of the most innovative ideas. Major breakthroughs do not arise from collecting customer wishes but from imagining a new product that starts from a new basis and proposing it to the market without waiting for the market to request it.

2. Suggestions from the field

Customers’ and prospects’ wishes do have a crucial role, especially for improvements to an existing product. A good marketing department will serve as the relay between the field’s wishes and the development team. Many such suggestions are of the “Check that box!” kind: customers and particularly prospects look at the competition and want to make sure that your product does everything that the others do. These suggestions push towards me-too features; they are necessary to keep up with the times, but must be balanced with suggestions from the other two sources, since if they were the only inspiration they would lead to a product that has the same functionality as everyone else’s, only delivered a few months later, not the best recipe for success.

3. Key customers

Every company has its key customers, those who give you so much business that you have to listen to them very carefully. If it’s Boeing calling, you pay more attention than to an unknown individual who has just acquired a copy. I suspect that many of the supposedly strange features, of products the ones that trigger “why would anyone ever need this?” reactions, simply come from a large customer who, at some point in the product’s history, asked for a really, truly, absolutely indispensable facility. And who are we — this includes Microsoft and Adobe and just about everyone else — to say that it is not required or not important?

It is easy to complain about software bloat, and examples of needlessly complex system abound. But your bloat may be my lifeline, and what I dismiss as superfluous may for you be essential. To paraphrase a comment by Ichbiah, the designer of Ada, small systems solve small problems. Outside of academic prototypes it is inevitable that  a successful software system will grow in complexity if it is to address the variety of users’ needs and circumstances. What matters is not size but consistency: maintaining a well-defined architecture that can sustain that growth without imperiling the system’s fundamental solidity and elegance.

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