The tax of new

By Julie Zhuo , written on April 6, 2013

From The News Desk

There is something scream-out-loud-exciting about the allure of new. Just Google image search the word, and you'll see what I mean. New is declared (nay, yelled) in all caps, more often than not set atop a bright starburst, and heaped with exclamations. Nothing could be more exciting! New proclaims, "Look at me, all shiny and enticing! Observe how I gleam with a swirling future of possibilities. Maybe I will change your life! At the very least, I will breath some fresh new life into your old and ailing wardrobe/house/routine/product."

New is an irresistible potion, a kind of hope in disguise. We think new is better, and that's why we are always counting the days until that next big launch or obsessing about that recently-added feature or debating the latest new trend. Every day, I see and hear new ideas lobbed like tennis balls over desks, conference rooms and cafeterias. Wouldn't it be awesome if we added…? Oh man, it'd be so sick if our product had this new feature… I really think we'd make a gazillion dollars if we put a team together to build this…

Now, don't get me wrong -- I love the spark of a new idea. I love the creative energy and thumping bass of a good hackathon, where a hundred new dreams are being hatched into reality. I love that I work in tech, where a good idea is like the childhood-toy equivalent of those tiny capsule you put into your bath and watch grow into giant sponge dinosaurs. Rockstardom comes from the successful creation and execution of new, transformative ideas. It's how companies are made or broken. It's the backbone of our entire industry. So why would you be stupid and not try to build as many good ideas into your product as you can?

And yet. Run that line of thinking too many times and you get death by a thousand paper cuts. This is how good, simple products become quite the opposite. Like a Katamari ball gunning for a record score, your product picks up more and more features until one day, your typical user opens up your app to see 4 different toolbars and 50 icons littered across the UI. Or they look through your list of services and have to wade through 32 line items spread across 7 different pages. Or they click to open a menu and are presented with 20 different options. Your app becomes one of the ones that my mom needs to call me to figure out how to use ("Honey, what does 'release and trust sender' mean?").

Maybe that's why iA Writer feels like such a breath of fresh air compared to the complicated behemoth of Word, winning a "Mac App of the Year" award, garnering near-perfect reviews, and gaining fast traction among my writer friends. There's something to be said for understanding a product completely -- being at ease when you use it rather than having to navigate a maze of obscure features.

The tax that comes with introducing any new feature into your product is high. I cannot stress this enough. Sure, maybe the new feature isn't hard to build, maybe it only takes a couple days and a handful of people, maybe it can be shipped and delivered by next week. And maybe the additional cognitive load for a user isn't high -- it's just an extra icon here, after all, or an extra slot in a menu there. But once your new feature is out there, it's out there. A real thing used by real people.

Perhaps you will continue to develop and evolve it. Even if you don't (maybe your plan was just to launch it and move on), the fact of its existence will inevitably create more work for you. You will get user requests and bugs about it. You will spend time thinking idly about ways to make it better. It will likely pop up in the context of your next redesign or code rearchitecture.

Certainly, if the feature didn't turn out as well as you'd hoped, you can consider killing it. But killing something even a tiny fraction of your user base likes and enjoys is hard. The amount of time and energy it takes to decide to kill something and then execute upon it is nontrivial. Not impossible, but generally a heck of a lot harder than putting it out there in the first place. Just look at the upswell of support against killing Google Reader. Just look at all the times the answer to the question "How come we have this weird thing?" is a weary sigh followed by the reply: "Legacy."

So, what to do? Clearly the right solution isn't "don't ship any new things in the future, ever!" And neither is it, "launch every half-baked idea anyone has! Launch launch launch!" Here are two ideas for thinking about how to add new features to your product:

1. Define a green light criterion, and test a small launch against it. You have a new idea that you think will make your users happier or more productive? Grow your user base? Make the company more revenue? Great, build it and try it. Launch a small test or beta to a tiny percentage of your audience and have a criteria in mind for whether/when you should launch it to everyone. Is it if you get really positive feedback? X%+ more growth? Y%+ more revenue?

Clarifying these criteria as early as possible (before launching, ideally) lets you be more objective when the rubber meets the road. It's hard to decide not to fully launch something after you've already invested a ton of blood, sweat and tears. But testing against a rational criteria is one way to verify that your idea is all you thought it was before you commit to the cost of making it real.

At Facebook, this is pretty standard practice. We test many different interesting ideas that come out of hackathons or team brainstorms, like the ability to save posts for later, useful if you're in a hurry and see a post that you want to respond to or an article you'd like to read later. However, we only wanted to launch the feature if enough users used it and found it valuable. If not, then it wasn't worth taking up space as yet another action link on every story. A test helped us verify that it was, in fact, something only a small group of people used, so we decided ultimately to not launch it.

2. Define a sunset criterion. In some cases, it may not be practical or even possible to test your idea to a small group. If that's the case, ask yourself this: Under what circumstances would it make sense to kill the feature or product after it's launched? Again, it's easier to be objective about this earlier rather than later.

Nobody like to think about failure, and yet, if there's one thing that's certain, it's that some ideas will fail. This isn't to say that investing in the feature was a waste of time -- the lessons you learn from failure are often critical to unlocking success in the future. But letting unsuccessful features live on in stagnation is far more insidious than ripping off the bandaid.

Say it loudly and clearly: "We're launching feature X because we think it will do [fill in the blank here]. We'll invest on making it as good as we can for N months. If after that, less than Y% of people are using it daily, we'll remove feature X." This firms up what success looks like, and ensures feature X doesn't just languish in the corner collecting dust and taxing the mindshare of your company and your users forever.

At Facebook, this is the approach we took with the virtual gifts feature launched back in 2007. Three years later, the business of virtual gifts had not taken off in the way we had hoped, and in order to better focus on other things, the virtual gift shop was closed and the team moved onto other projects. (Two years later, having learned from those lessons, the ability to give gifts was reintroduced with real instead of virtual gifts!)

There's nothing wrong with being excited about New. Dream big, and even bigger if possible. Build and launch the good ideas, the ones that have momentum, the ones that keep you up at night until you can scarcely wait to jump out of bed and make it happen.

But clean up after yourself. Don't be that roommate who never takes out the garbage. If that new idea doesn't ultimately work out, don't keep paying the tax. Most importantly, don't let your product incur unnecessarily complexity, bit by bit, inch by inch, until it is a beast you no longer recognize, the kind of thing that intimidates people like my mom.

Because out of all the ways to die, death by a thousand paper cuts is the worst.