It’s Time For ‘Maximum Viable Product’
“Feature creep” messes up a lot of good software.
We’ve all seen it happen to our favorite apps. We get an early version, we thrill to it; it does exactly what we want. We’re in love.
But then, over the years, the developers and product folks start cramming in more and more features. Maybe some features are useful. But before long, the designers are stuffing in gewgaws that overcomplicate the tool — and now it’s trying to do too much, crowding out its original clean genius.
I first noticed this back in the ‘90s with Microsoft Word. I was using it on the Mac, and when I bought Word 5.1, it dazzled me. It was crisply designed, doing every major thing I wanted, and no more. (Quite a few people felt that way, too: As one developer of Word 5 for the Mac later wrote, “even today, there are people who say that Mac Word 5.0/5.1 comprise the best version of Mac Word we’ve ever shipped.”)
Alas, over the next few versions, feature creep began to clot Word’s arteries. Microsoft added a slurry of new forms of formatting, new ways to view the document, tools for doing mail merging and adding complex layouts. Pretty soon the elegance and “just perfect” nature of that mid-90s app was gone. The toolbar metastasized into a three-inch high monstrosity that left you almost no room to see what you were, y’know, writing. That picture I showed above is a real, genuine screenshot; here’s another …
This has happened to countless products. Facebook began life in 2006 as a product with a simple premise: let people post what they’re doing online so friends can see. Soon, Facebook added new features, like posting pictures or “pokes”. But then in 2008 came the News Feed — which completely transformed the service into an addictive slot-machine of intermittent reinforcement. And soon Facebook’s product folks refined the algorithm to reward the most hotly emotional, “engaging” posts, creating the firehose of clickbait and misinfo we know today.