There is a peculiar phenomenon that I seem to be identifying in the research for the #sharingorg project – something that I’m provisionally calling the “Instant Messaging tipping point of functional uselessness”. It goes a little something like this…
A new tool or service is developed to address a particular need or niche. That tool is then seen as having some promise, but the functionality needs to be extended out to attract a commercial market. The extension of functionality increases its utility up to a point, at which stage it starts to become too complicated, and users start to seek new, simpler services. It looks a little like this…
Now I’m possibly being unkind in singling out IM as the tipping point for the descent into useless, but it does (along with Voice and Video) seem to be a fairly generic piece of functionality that gets bundled into platforms as a “must have” when, if I look at the tools I have on my desktop at the moment, I must have at least a dozen alternatives.
There are two pressures here, it seems, acting to bloat software products to the point of uselessness.
The first is the act of creating wish lists: organisations when looking to select a new product ask too many stakeholders about what they might like to see in a product, and therefore the list gets as long as your arm. Heavily specified products will win out, but over-specified from the outset, the selected product will struggle under the weight and complexity of its functionality to gain any sort of adoption.
It’s questionable whether this specification of requirements approach has ever been particularly effective, but in projects where the outcomes are unlikely to be able to be clearly determined from the outset, the concept of Minimum Critical Specification from Socio-technical thinking should be kept in mind.
There is a broader industry issue, however, that is driven by the assumption that more is better, and that’s that the models of procurement that exist for technology products expects functionality over utility. It seems to me that this issue is highlighted in services like the Gartner’s Magic Quadrant, which pitches product against product on the basis of the things that are delivered and the vision for the future. To be in the “top right”, you need to adopt the characteristics of an innovative sheep – having a strong future vision whilst simultaneously feature-matching all of your competition.
What drives this vague madness? Well, the need for software companies to grow – particularly to grow at exponential rates to strive to become the next Unicorn. Those sort of growth patterns determine companies too often to become generalists in what they do, to attract as big a customer base as possible. Whether or not that’s in the eventual best interests of the customer or not is seemingly irrelevant.