Feature Creep: What Causes It and How to Avoid It

Feature creep

Feature creep is a common problem that comes up in many projects. When it comes to product design, it's easy to assume you’ll create a better product if you include more features. More features will translate into more value for your users, right?

Actually, in most cases, the answer is no—it will not.

In this article, we’ll discuss what feature creep is, and the steps you can take to prevent it from happening on your project. This way, you have a better chance of staying on budget, finishing by your deadline, and making your end users happy.

What is scope creep (or feature creep)?

Feature creep, more commonly known as scope creep, refers to when you add excessive features to a product that make it too complicated or difficult to use. Any additional features that you introduce in to your product add to the complexity of your design. In turn, this can diminish the usability of your product.

Feature creep: Microsoft word 2000 interface

The Microsoft Word 2000 user interface is one of the clearest scope creep examples we could find. Here, you can see that there is a lot for users to comprehend, and it makes the software feel overly bloated and confusing. Image credit: amansinghblog.

 

Here’s where it gets even worse:

Feature creep is also a real problem when it comes to project management. It’s relatively easy to get over budget or miss deadlines when the team and (or) the stakeholders don’t understand the impact that changes in product backlog can have on available resources and schedule. This can continue forever where someone requests more and more changes to a product that never ends up being launched.

Other terms you may hear of referring to feature creep

While feature creep and scope creep are the most common terms describing this issue, you may also hear it described as:

  • Concept creep
  • Project creep
  • Project scope creep
  • Feature bloat
  • Featurism
  • Featuritis

These all refer to the same concept that you should work to avoid in your project.

What causes feature creep?

Feature creep is typically the result of poor planning, insufficient product strategy, and incorrect priorities. Typically, requests for new features are added after the project has started, are out of scope, and the changes are not properly reviewed.

You might also like: 3 Effective Ways to Help Your Clients Get Their Products Seen and Sold.

How to manage feature creep

It’s important to follow some guidelines to prevent feature creep from overtaking your project. Here are a few simple techniques that will help you:

1. Focus on the core features

The golden rule of product design is simple:

“Ship the right features to the right people.”

Although this rule is simple, it’s tough to achieve it in practice. You need to identify the parts of your product (the core features) that provide the maximum value to your target audience.

"The golden rule of product design is simple: Ship the right features to the right people."

Dan Olsen, the author of The Lean Product Playbook, stresses the importance of focusing on core features in his book:

“Swiss Army knives are incredibly useful, providing a set of tools to address a wide range of needs all in one convenient package. But at some point, as you add more and more tools, a Swiss Army knife gets wider, heavier, less usable, and less valuable. Focus is critical when defining a new product.”

To help focus your project on core features, you need to:

  • Start with user and market research. Identify your target audience, their needs, and their wants. Know what problem you are solving, and for what user.
  • Prioritize all features in your product according to the needs of your users. You should have a strong rationale for every feature that you want to introduce to your product. It’s recommended to use the Job-To-Be-Done framework to identify the key features that bring value to your target audience.
  • Ensure that your target audience is willing to pay money for the solution. If your potential customers won’t buy your product, all of your work might be wasted. Do some up front research to ensure that once the product is launched, people will actually buy it!

Even after going through these steps, the total number of features that you may want to include in your product might be overwhelming. So, the next step is to apply a Pareto analysis. The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80 percent of the outputs come from 20 percent of the inputs. It’s important to note that the 80/20 ratio is not exact.

Now:

You might find that the numbers change slightly, but there are many examples of this ratio coming up in a variety of fields, including marketing, science, and economics. This principle can also work for product design: you need to find 20 percent of the features that bring 80 percent of the value for users and businesses.

For example, if you have a MVP (minimum viable product) or fully realized product, you can measure the adoption per feature. Create a simple 2-axis chart to analyze the adoption per feature, where the X-axis shows each feature in your product, and the Y-axis shows the percentage of customers using the feature. You can then easily see which features are the most important for your users.

Feature creep: feature usage chart
By analyzing the feature usage chart, you will see which features are more useful for your target audience. 

The logical question then is what to do with the features that have a low adoption rate? If a large percentage of your users aren’t using a certain feature, get rid of it. This decision might be hard for products that have already shipped on the market—some users may already be using those features, and removing them from an existing product can be painful. However, keeping features and bloating the product is not a good practice to encourage.

You might also like: Data Visualization: Interpreting Uncertainty in Product Design.

It’s important to note that the process of removing a feature with a low adoption rate from a product can take many forms, but no matter what form you choose, do not tear it out from the UI without sending a message to the users who actually use it.

Send a message to your current users letting them know that you’re going to kill the feature, and give them time to prepare. Otherwise, you could create a large backlash from your current users, and lose a lot of trust in the process.

2. Create a roadmap and follow it

It might be hard to prevent feature creep when you don’t even realize that it’s happening. The chances of feature creep are much higher when product design teams don't have a clear roadmap. Not having a roadmap means that every problem that a team faces along the way will be solved reactively, rather than proactively. 

The universal law of product management is simple:

“To end well, you need to start well.” 

Planning ahead is vital to your project’s success. Here are a few simple things that will help you to create a roadmap:

  • Formalize the scope. It is vital that before a team begins to work on a project that it has a written scope of work. This should have also been approved by stakeholders.
  • Review our article on writing a product roadmap. This will give you a solid base to start with.
  • Identify the major and minor milestones of the project and put them on a timeline. Review milestones when scope changes are requested to ensure that the project won’t suffer from delays. 
  • Introduce a clear protocol for change implementation. Define rules on how changes are reviewed, approved, or rejected.
  • Use zero-sum game for incoming feature requests. When stakeholders ask to introduce a new feature into the scope, project managers need to make sure that some features come out of the scope to meet the product design deadlines. This may make stakeholders re-consider the value of the feature that was requested, or give a team an extension of time and project budget.
  • Create an Impact vs. Effort Matrix. The Impact vs. Effort Matrix is a useful tool mapping features against two factors: the potential value and the effort required to implement them. The matrix can serve a reference point for the team—you should show the history of product decisions as well as the rationale behind them.
Feature creep: impact versus effort matrix
The Impact vs. Effort Matrix helps a product team get the most effective results without putting in unnecessary work. Image credit: hygger.

3. Stay away from gold plating

Gold plating is the tendency of the product team to over-deliver on the scope and add features. When this happens, product teams introduce features that the stakeholders didn’t ask for just to try and make them happier.

Gold plating requires extra effort from the product team, and in many cases, the work is unnecessary. You might even upset your stakeholders when you add complexity that wasn’t originally requested, so be mindful and put a stop to it.

You might also like: 7 Essential Digital Project Management Best Practices.

4. Learn to say “no” to feature requests

The ability to say no is one of the most critical skills a project manager can have because it helps prevent scope creep.

Yet, for many people, it’s one of the hardest things to do.

All too often, product designers follow the idea that because stakeholders want this feature, and we want to make our stakeholders happy, we should include this feature. This introduces unnecessary features into the product roadmap.

Feature creep: user needs versus stakeholder ideas
Users needs vs. stakeholders ideas. Image credit: Anton Nikolov

Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” It’s tough to say no to your boss or colleagues, but you need to learn how to do it.

The ability to say no is one of the most critical skills a project manager can have because it helps prevent scope creep. Yet, for many people, it’s one of the hardest things to do.

Always remember to back your decision with good reasoning. For example, whenever stakeholders propose a new feature, evaluate it in accordance with the product vision, value for users and businesses, and the resources required to build it. Use this reasoning to explain to them why it does not make sense to add the feature, and the associated costs that come along with trying to add it.

5. Establish a quick build-measure-learn cycle

The old proverb says, “Measure thrice and cut once.” When it comes to product design, it’s essential to validate ideas before investing the time and effort in building them. When adding features, always test them with real users. Ensure that the features are linked to the users’ needs and they deliver value to your target audience.

Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup, perfectly summarizes the importance of validating design ideas:

“What if we found ourselves building something that nobody wanted? In that case, what did it matter if we did it on time and on budget?”

The simple task of validating your design ideas may save your team wasted hours and expenses down the road. Jeff Gothelf, the author of Lean UX, describes how to apply lean principles to improve user experience. Lean UX design is both a mindset and a process that embraces lean-agile methods. Teams who follow Lean UX implement functionality in minimum viable increments and determine success by measuring the results with their users.

Feature creep: the lean UX cycle
The Lean UX cycle consists of three steps—think, make, check. Image credit: Lean UX via UX Planet

Focus on simple design

Product teams that suffer from feature creep usually have good intentions—turn a good product in to a great product. Unfortunately, quite often, this good intention leads to bad UX. Additional features add to the complexity of a product, which in turn leads to overly-complex products that can be expensive, delayed, or in the worst case, not what the users want.

Feature creep: the featuritis curve
A featuritis curve demonstrates a relationship between features and user happiness. Image credit: plutora

It’s impossible to find any magic bullets for feature creep. But, it is possible to build up proactive defense mechanisms. The main goal of these mechanisms revolves around the KISS principle ("keep it simple, stupid" ): maintaining simplicity is something that every product team should have as their number one goal.

Simplicity should be a key goal in design because simple solutions have better usability. People love simple products because they don’t have to invest a lot of time in learning how to use them. That’s why, in most cases, designing a product with a limited number of features to prevent feature creep from happening is the best approach. In the end, you should carefully select the product’s features, and all of the features should work exceptionally well to provide value for your audience.

Have you ever worked on a project that suffered from feature creep? Let us know what happened in the comments below!

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