Rule # 13 – Underwhelm the masses.

You’ve certainly heard the expression, “Less is more.” That’s ridiculous. Less is less, which is a good thing. Less is an absence of clutter. Less is an absence of noise. Less is the ability to focus on making something specific really, really good. Less is the ability to make a fortress impenetrable, a wall un-scalable, a moat un-passable, because you aren’t wasting your resources trying to build a castle you’ll never visit a thousand miles away.

I can’t claim much credit for this Rule (37Signals puts it well in their previously mentioned “Getting Real” and it’s been discussed extensively in other places as well), but it’s worth writing out in my own way none the less.

There is a tendency in new products to try and be “feature rich,” particularly if you are building something for businesses to use. We’ve all done it. In fact, the time-to-launch for my biggest project yet was literally extended by years because we focused on squeezing in everything we could for the first release. Aside from the fact that getting something released in the first place and then adding to it is a much better strategy, there is a much more profound reason to leave features off of your product: no one will use a bloated application. No one.

The solution is to do less with your application, not more. What specific problem are you solving or what specific issue are you addressing? Got it? Now, build that well and quickly get out of the way. No one needs a buddy list that ties in to the their grocery list that syncs to their calendar and uses the Flickr API for pictures of groceries that converts to RSS. No one. However, buddy lists can be useful. Grocery lists can be useful. Calenders can be useful. RSS can be useful. Quit cross-breeding things just because you can.

I would be willing to wager that if you took a bloated application and launched it, and then took the core competency of the bloated product and launched it at a different, unrelated URL, you would find that the “feature rich” application was no more popular, no more highly trafficked, no more sticky, then the single feature application residing somewhere else. You’d also find that most of the extra features on the feature rich application were used by most users only a handful of times before they forgot about them entirely.

The point is that mashing things together to create more features will simply give your application more features no one will use and waste precious hours of your life that could be spent doing something more fun. You don’t see mechanical engineers wasting time building toilet paper holders that measure air temperature and monitor traffic reports, do you? So why should you be any different? Less is less, and let’s keep it that way.

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