Why Leaving a Project Unpolished Is OK
Sometimes finishing touches are not worth the time or money
While the examples below are limited, the following principles can be applied to almost any industry. The following questions are meant to challenge people to reframe their thinking regarding the value being added.
Does Your Customer Really Want the Bells and Whistles?
“80 percent of features in the average software product are rarely or never used. Publicly-traded cloud software companies collectively invested up to $29.5 billion developing these features, dollars that could have been spent on higher value features and unrealized customer value.” — Pendo’s 2019 Feature Adoption Report.
Don’t spend time adding low-value features backed by assumptions. Perfectionists often tailor products to their ideal image, not necessarily the customer’s. The customer may appreciate the extra features, but not all improvements will change their decision to purchase or retain a product.
Example: A web developer spends a month trying to create a user experience that shows data in a table with filterable/sortable columns.
Unexpected outcome: The customer uses the export feature to download the data and view it in Excel.
Sometimes a simple conversation with a customer can save tons of time and money. In this real-world case, the customer provided the data to a third-party for auditing. There would never be a case where the auditors would be allowed access to the fancy web table.
Are You Using Your Time Effectively?
Example: Nintendo created the Wii U, which allowed players to play on their controller and their TV. The device supports several streaming services, a game marketplace, and a social platform.
Unexpected outcome: Customers don’t buy it because of the limited range of the portable mode, a severe lack of quality games, and a lower standard of graphics than the other consoles.
Time spent polishing a product could be used on other innovations. Just because a feature has value doesn’t mean it’s the most valuable. Nintendo chose to integrate streaming features, despite customers having options available on other devices.
The Wii U was short-lived, and the Switch was born from the lessons learned. Unsurprisingly, the deficiencies of the Wii U, like portability, became the focus, resulting in a huge success.
Can Your Customers Live With Imperfections?
During my time at a large company, I worked on a three-month project, instead of improving the sales website to streamline ordering. The neglected website had a terrible user experience, so I was surprised that we would choose to ignore it.
My opinion changed, however, once I realized my project would save a million dollars annually. Shadowing multiple user-experience interviews with the customer reinforced my view: While customers found the website ugly, they were happy. They could still check out, and support was readily available through chat when they were stuck.
This neglect was successful because the primary focus of the product was to deliver a sales pipeline, not user experience, to resellers for a niche market. People don’t shop on websites like Amazon for their wonderful, polished design; they are interested in the prices.
Are You Perfecting the Wrong Solution?
Consider the classic toothpaste box example: An eight-million-dollar project was intended to prevent accidentally shipping empty boxes when a simple twenty-dollar fan blew them off the conveyor. While this popular example could be fictional (could not find the source), these mistakes do happen.
Example: Valve created the Steam Link, a product that was essentially a wireless HDMI cable for games. PC games could now be played on a TV.
Unexpected outcome: Customers were not interested. Also, many of the games did not work well on TV. The interfaces were designed to be played on a monitor within a few feet of the player. Reading tiny text from across the room was a struggle.
Releasing an unpolished, minimally viable product and testing early can help validate solutions and prevent wasted time.
Am I Getting Feedback From My Customer?
Agile development promotes making small, iterative changes to products. Long-winded, monolithic releases are becoming a relic of the past. Releasing minimally functional, working software faster allows for intermediate user feedback; design decisions are consistently validated.
The customer knows best how they use the product. Without interviewing or tracking, you may be spending time on a feature that could save them a few minutes, when another one could save them hours.
Am I Adding Value?
Unless your website is designed for frequent reading, like Medium.com, the odds of a dark mode being valuable are low. For websites like Netflix, the feature would be appreciated but unnecessary — especially on TV apps, where videos are played fullscreen.
However, that doesn’t mean every feature has to generate huge profits. Sometimes worth can be defined by morals, like adding inclusive features to help people with disabilities, or changing the words whitelists and blacklists to allowlists and denylists.
Am I Getting a Return on Investment?
Features cost time, which means money.
Example: Google Glass released smart glasses that would allow wearers with information and image capturing.
Unexpected outcome: Consumers had no idea about its practical use. While it seemed neat, it did not seem worth the price tag.
All that time spent on perfecting the design (which many customers hated) and features was wasted. The developers should have narrowed their view, focusing on solving a specific problem before adding the finishing touches. From the website, it appears they’ve shifted focus exclusively to businesses.
Am I Delaying Value?
Depending on the industry, the customer may be more concerned with solving an immediate problem than having a perfect solution. Every second a product is not released equates to lost potential revenue.
Revenue might not always be the goal. Imagine the CDC's impact of delaying the release of information about COVID-19 because someone wanted to add fancy animation.
Starting small with products, keeping them simple, and iterating on improvements after gathering customer feedback can help save time and money. Don’t waste time adding all the bells and whistles before you’ve validated your solution with customers; don’t build a car stereo before you’ve tested the engine.