The right step can sometimes be scary.

Refocus your efforts — and your product.

Google Chrome is getting rid of loved features. And it’s a good thing.

A few days ago I read the news of Google Chrome removing the desktop app launcher on all three major platforms: OSX, Windows and Linux.

The launcher sat right in your dock or taskbar, depending on your OS. It allowed you to jump into chrome apps without the need to launch the browser first. The apps worked offline, got updated automatically and synced to all your devices. Sounds quite handy, right?!

It hasn’t been long since Google removed the notification center from the same platforms. Back then it used to put the power of Google Now right on your desktop. Quite neat a feature I’d say. So to be clear, I was and still am a fan of these features. As others that didn’t make the cut to stay (visual bookmarks, anyone?) they were both, well designed and well implemented.

They made my browsing experience more effortless and fun. Yet I’m positive that for Google, removing these features from their software is a good thing.

Nobody gets hurt

If all is good, why not just keep them?

As I said, I used and enjoyed these features. And I’m not alone, lots of people did. Mountain View is praised for innovating, converging our mobile and desktop devices. I can’t find any usage statistics on these features. Still, they didn’t show the numbers that Google sees as significant impact. Or else they would still be around.

I suppose most users were more tech-interested folks. People that read up on technological progress. I’m pretty sure the average consumer could not tell you if they’ve ever used a Chrome app, maybe even what Google Now is. So maybe below-runaway-hit numbers were to be expected. Still, except for the bookmark manager, these features only added optional functionality for those who wanted it. They didn’t take anything away from those who didn’t.

So given Google decides to stop developing these features and work on something else. Why should they not just leave them intact so the people using them could continue to do so? That’s because they can’t just leave old features lying around.

Software nowadays has an ever shrinking half live. From an engineering as well as a design perspective. Visual design and interaction patters that are innovative become outdated pretty fast. But that’s not the main issue. Material Design principles still are not understood by many in the industry. Google is still implementing it across all its services. So it’s likely to be on point for at least a few years.

But feature code comes with continuous maintenance effort. The environment and thereby base for running features is ever progressing. Sure, Google could ensure compatibility with future versions of Chrome. But all three operating systems are getting bigger updates at least every year. They could break Google’s implementation every time. Ensuring compatibility across versions of browsers and OS’s is a lot of work. As is providing customer support for those with problems. For features that are no longer priority, that might just not be worth it.

Of course, leaving features and waiting till they stop functioning is not an option by any means. Google has to provide a smooth and effortless experience along all customer touch points. As well as excellent customer service. Broken and abandoned features would hurt that reputation big time.

Everyone is different

Why not deliver a customized, more personal experience?

You might say adding and keeping features like these mean a step towards a more customizable, personal user experience. Enabling every person to access information and functionality in a way they prefer. But in my opinion, this theory neglects two critical aspects.

  1. Most people are not that excited by tech, software and development in general. Sure, some will follow tech announcements. Some will know the product like the back of their hand and configure everything to their needs. But most people just won’t do that. People don’t want to spend lots of time figuring out every feature you offer. Instead, they most likely will end up confused if there is more then one way to achieve a goal. They will question their skill and understanding of the application, feeling insecure as a result. Mainstream software, such as browsers or most e-commerce sites, are not a tool for power users by default. The goal has to be to declutter the product, reducing complexity and cognitive load. Letting people understand the product by being clear, concise and to the point.
  2. These features, Chrome apps and Google Now, represent an important part of the core of Google’s products. Maintaining and supporting obsolete implementations over time only distracts from pursuing the optimal solution. And we are still far from reaching optimal implementation. That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with in general. Just that an ideal solution is about solving real problems at the right time. And doing so without demanding too much attention or imposing distractions from our lives. And we’re just not there yet. Removing implementations that in the end didn’t live up to expectations helps Google stay on track.

Removing things hurts

It pays to be focused and culture driven

So you might agree with me now, that removing these features in the end is a good thing. Still, that is a tough decision for any company to make.

You started out with a great idea based upon customer insights. You mobilized the forces, brought together PMs, devs and designers. Finally convinced execs that what you’re doing will be worth it. After a lot of hard work, you arrived at a finished feature that works as intended and is well received. Not a failure at all by any means.

Still, it may turn out not to be what you envisioned for that feature. Not the mass market smash hit, the people’s secret addiction, the essential enhancement to their lives. You get where I’m going. It may well be the right move to turn it off and start over. But that decision is damn hard.

A shared goal that keeps you on track

These kinds of decisions reflect a strong sense of vision for a product. Something that is hard to spread and share throughout a company. A product’s vision is the result of adapting a company’s mission to specific constraints. Google’s mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

This enables the product team at Chrome to align their efforts to Google’s greater goal. Also to evaluate finished products and features. I’d argue, our features in question didn’t meet the criteria of being universally useful for the people to the extent that Google expects from it’s core products. And that’s ok. You don’t achieve greatness in one shot.

Still, it takes a strong shared culture to make decisions like that, and to make them as a team. It doesn’t demotivate a team by devaluing their work. Instead, it allows them to gain motivation for iterative improvement. It enables bringing in new ideas by not needlessly sticking to old ones.

But a strong culture doesn’t stay within the bounds of the company. It reflects as a streamlined, optimized and focused unity towards customers. It builds a brand relationship, along with a shared sense of reliability and trust.

Deciding what to keep

How should you make the cut?

Let’s leave the difficulties of making the actual decision aside for now. How do you even go towards evaluating what is worth to keep?

I’d say for new projects, evaluating impact and performance should not be extra effort. You went towards developing that new feature with a clear sense of your objectives and a strategy of how to measure success. Usually, at one point after pushing live you evaluate success of your project and collect learnings for the future. But that point might well be to early to pass final judgement. And how to you go about older relics or smaller implementations with less planning?

Even if its just small additions, ever adding and never removing at some point leads to an unfocused, fuzzy mess.

While there is no ultimate solution, I’l like to share an idea with you. Recently I stumbled across this video of a talk between Elon Musk and Steve Jurvetson at Stanford. It’s really insightful, so I’d recommend to watch it. Near the end of the talk they discussed challenges for starting a new self sustaining and self organizing civilization on mars. Eventually, Elon answered a question on how he would go towards creating and maintaining legislation for a new society. It’s a vastly different topic, but the abstract idea of his reply could apply to our situation as well. While he is focusing on laws, we’ll take features as part of a product.

The idea is that they should always start out with a fixed default lifespan set out from their creation. At the end of this lifespan, the feature has to be re-evaluated. You’re asking if, under current conditions, it would still make sense to implement it. Considering it’s performance and the market situation, is the business case still strong enough? Compared to the company vision at the moment, is the feature still on track? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then kill it off.

While this may sound like a radical approach, there might actually be something useful to it. Renewing and evaluating the important parts of your product shouldn’t be a problem at all. Or else you may actually be doing something wrong. But it shows you where you keep things around for no reason or value. It allows you to focus and declutter your experience.

What do you think? Does this make sense for you or did you encounter a similar problem before? Tell me in the comments.

I hope you found this insightful and enjoyed reading. Thank you for hitting the ♡ if you did.