Informing what you design and build

I was recently invited to join a design-specification review for a feature I’ll call Feature X.

As I listened to the presentation, I thought: “There are pieces missing from this spec.” When the time came for questions, I asked about the project’s scope. “Your spec is titled Feature X, but I see very little X described in this document. What does X mean to you?” Sure enough, there was a gap between the title of the design specification and the content of the design specification. And the gap was deliberate, on the part of the Development team.

What we're building

The company in question makes software, not cars or bicycles, but the gap between the spec’s title page and the spec’s content was just as great as the one in the illustration. The company’s potential customers say they want Feature X. The Development team says they only have the resources to build Feature Non-X. Non-X is missing some of the key features that define the X experience.

Except for its sleight-of-hand usefulness to sales staff, Feature Non-X may be a non-starter. But there’s one more thing to tell you:

  • Customers say they want Feature X, but the vast majority of users who already have Feature X, don’t use it.

Apparently—I say “apparently” because the evidence is anecdotal—one reason customers who have a competitor’s X don’t use it is because X is complicated to set up and complicated to use. This is, of course, a golden opportunity to make a simple, usable feature that provides only what customers will use.

If this small company is lucky, their Feature Non-X will sell well and the company will leap-frog their Feature-X competitor. With a little marketing- or ethnographic research, the company would have some certainty about why Feature X is requested but not used—and the team would have information to help them design Non-X. Unfortunately, a lack of resources may leave the team’s designer and developers guessing, and the company will have to take this uncertainty in stride.