Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Product Tax

Your feature ideas are great, and your obvious passion is a tribute, I think, to what we've done so far. So I'm going to have another one of those "out on a limb" conversations here about product design. (It's possibly too much for a blog like this, but...) there was something in a few of your postings that comes up often, and it includes the expression that the solution to a problem is "obvious." This has triggered something in me. A number of new community features will roll out next week and it seemed like a good time to bring you deeper into my world.

There is this idea in product design that can be called a "product tax." It has a few components. The taxes are in addition to the more obvious cost of a new feature -- in terms of the work of designers and engineers. This is what most people think about when prioritizing 1/2 stars or movie privacy. I think inexperienced product developers are too highly focused on this as they prioritize what to build. The first small tax on this is the unanticipated amount of work it really takes to build and support the feature. Take our Movie Privacy feature.

As I said back when it rolled out, the creation was opportunistic: we had built it a year ago and it hadn't been released, it was not particularly "designed" - but it did solve a need and I felt it would be important to Friends users. And heck, Blockbuster even had it. Alright, so it wouldn't take too much time to finish it up and get it on the site, as long as I didn't spend a lot of time making it pretty and efficient. It just "is."

But once it was connected up to other pages, unexpected questions arose: if a movie is hidden, what happens if you review it? Does that "unhide it" or does the review show anyway. What about Watch Now movies? Are those hidden too? Someone discovered that hidden movies DO show up in the RSS Feeds. Should we hide the movies there? Each place where movies need to be hidden requires a little more work to implement. And in some cases, say RSS Feeds, there are engineering reasons why it's harder to hide something than in your Friends' sliders. Now I'm going to make up some numbers to illustrate this, but they are just made up: let's say 25% of our members use Friends. And 10% use Watch Now. It's possible that only 1% of Watch Now users are also Friends users. And not everyone in that group wants or needs privacy-- maybe only 10% of them. So to add this simple Movie Privacy page, and make it work "right" we have to think about and engineer this hiding for Watch Now even though it's highly unnecessary: 25% of our Friends users need Movie Privacy, but only a fraction of a % need Privacy applied in the Watch Now area. (And for the record, Movie Privacy DOES work on Watch Now titles). The point is that it was easy to create the page, but finding all the strings leading away is harder and creates a tax on releasing the feature. We tend to make something work only when a reasonably large percentage of people want and need the feature, or if common sense dictates we do it anyway, expecting more people to be using it later on. But as obvious as the feature is, one needs to be careful following all these strings and considering that additional work in the feature. But as i said, this is only the "small tax" here. I think product designers are well aware of this tax.

The larger tax is the one frequently missed. Once the new feature is created, it adds a lot of software to an already large pile of software that is our website. And now whenever someone working on any other part of the site has the idea for some cool new feature -- one that might be VERY important to lots of people, and VERY cool, the building of it must take into consideration all the other things it touches. As Steve goes and builds Watch Now features, he is belabored with the strings of Movie Privacy. If I want to add something about notes or reviews, I can't just build it quickly and get it out, i have to consider all the permutations that may involve privacy and make sure each is logical. And the more of these things you add, the more difficult and slow it is to do other features.

This is the hidden tax. It's starts small, but expands rapidly. Products (and websites) often get slower and slower to release new features because they spend an increasingly large percentage of their time just dealing with the baggage of the old features. If those old features are great, that's just business. But if those old features don't add much value, or only add value to the 1/2% of people who write reviews, use RSS feeds AND use Friends, then one must consider if the cost is worth it.

The discipline, therefore, is to generate new features, make them good for a lot of people, and keep an eye on how much value they really add. And after some period of time (it could be half a year, or a few years) if they aren't being used by many people, kill them. Otherwise they stack up in an endless pile that must be weeded through by customers and engineers alike.

And there is one more factor to consider: in many cases, adding more features diminishes the usability of the existing features. People only have so much attention (particularly for a website). If I have one button, you can click on the button. But if I add a second button, we have seen over and over again, that often people don't click on either button. There is confusion. There is choice where there was none. Overall user experience can get worse when you add features, and the exact opposite of what you want to happen occurs. We think we've added something people want, but fewer people see the features in total. Weird, but true. Less is more.

You are sincere when you suggest a new obvious feature, and it may even be clear to us the feature is cool. We consider the costs and benefits and then build them. But we also think of the tax, and need to think of the bigger picture, of a site 3 years from now that does all kinds of great things, things we KNOW many people (most people) want. If this cool little thing now is going to impact that supercool big thing then, we have to decide whether this thing is worth it. These are HARD decisions, there is no right answer in many cases.

As I mentioned, my brother is a Hollywood screenwriter, and I was a movie and TV editor in a former life. Writers have this notion of "killing your young" -- a rather crass way to describe the painful process of writing and editing out stuff that you like. For me as an editor, the way I learned it was like this: editing a movie is not about taking out the bad stuff. editing is about taking out the good stuff to make the remaining stuff better. You don't usually see all the stuff removed to make your favorite movies so good. But trust me, some of it is great, and you'd think they were idiots for cutting those scenes or lines. But the result is the thing.

Please keep your suggestions and debate flowing. We all read this stuff and it's good to hear. Many of your ideas are being implemented while you read this. So thank you.

Anyway, welcome to the inner conversation.