Friday, November 24, 2006

Feature ticklist trap

A great post on Tyner Blain by Scott Sehlhorst comments on the Fifteen Ways to Shut Down (Windows Vista). This enormous set of ways to shut down a PC led Scott to talk about how software that has every feature under the sun to satisfy every requirement actually makes everyone unhappy. Quoting Joel on Software

Inevitably, you are going to think of a long list of intelligent, defensible reasons why each of these options is absolutely, positively essential. Don’t bother. I know. Each additional choice makes complete sense until you find yourself explaining to your uncle that he has to choose between 15 different ways to turn off a laptop.

As I work with a well established product that has many customers, in a company that prides itself on customer satisfaction, the desire to provide functionality for every customer requirement and request is a challenge. There is little option in this environment but to implement the functionality, so it is fortunate that the development team have a huge amount of experience and handle this balancing act with the appearance of ease.

Even for a skilled team like this, the holistic approach that Scott talks about can be valuable to help ensure excessive complexity is not introduced to the software. He highlights ways to handle structured requirements that focus on the interaction by personas (categories of users), rather than directly trying to satisfy each requirement in turn:
Multiple requirements can lead to multiple, locally-optimized solutions or features. A holistic view needs to be taken to assure that we aren’t introducing too much complexity with these variations of similar features. Interaction design gives us a big-picture perspective to make sure we aren’t making our software too hard for our target users to use.

This persona based design is valuable not just to make sense of a vast array of requirements, but in general so that business analysts and software developers can understand what it is they are proposing and developing, beyond the individual feature / functionality of the standalone application, business process or composite solution. A while back I attended a Pragmatic Marketing course on Requirements That Work that introduces this really well, and was a really enjoyable interactive classroom day. I'd recommend this to anyone that has to work with software requirements.

The advantage that many enterprise software applications have is that they are supported, configured and customized to meet the needs of their own user base. This enables IT departments to hide the unnecessary features and options from their users. Windows Vista, Office and Outlook don't have this luxury. They need to meet the requirements of a disparate, varied audience, with a range of skills and needs.

It seems that Vista needs to learn from the potential failings (and subsequent enlightment) of the Linux world - that if a user doesn't understand an option or function they will ignore it, maybe select the default, then avoid using the software in future. The Debian OS gives skilled users everything, complete with the associated complexity - Ubuntu, which dubs itself 'Linux for human beings' gives 80% of users the defaults they would have selected anyway, and hides the rest. Debian is not well adopted by average desktop users. Ubuntu seems to be doing better in that arena.

Microsoft needs Windows Vista to be a success, and it will only be that if seen by users as being a worthwhile step forward. But it needs to fight its way back out of the feature ticklist trap if it wants to ensure user adoption. I hope that there are not 15 ways to buy and upgrade the OS as well. If there are I may not ever get to the point of selecting one of 15 ways to shut it down.

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