The Pull of Bloat and Feature Addiction

This one struck a nerve: This is by Jason Fried, founder of 37 Signals, in How to Kill a Bad Idea earlier this month at He’s talking about how software and websites grow too big.

The software grows. Version 2.0 comes along. It does more than Version 1.0. More features, more options, more screens, more stuff. Or the website is redesigned with more pages, more words, more images, more departments, more tools. Nothing has gone wrong yet. In fact, Version Two is pretty good, too.

But over time, yet more stuff is added. Remember our water bottle? Imagine what would happen if more stuff was added to it. Pretty soon it wouldn’t be functional. The physics would push back. Not so with software. You can just add more pages! Or you can just add more features or more settings or more preferences and hide them behind yet another button or menu. It’s just one more button, right?

This is where it all begins to fall apart. Future versions are loaded with more and more stuff. Nothing pushes back; nothing says no. And eventually, the product or the site becomes unmanageable. It’s too big, too slow, too confusing, but it’s still all subjective. Unlike the water bottle, the software can just keep growing. Software can’t overflow. It has no edges, so it can never be too big.

That is so true. I’ve been there. In fact,  I’ve been in the software business since 1983, and in the web business since 1994. We always want to do everything for everybody. What you’d like to do is have as many features in the software and there are users to suggest them, because you never want to say no. This is how Microsoft Excel, to cite just one example, does linear regression. And how many people use it for that?

As you might guess from the three paragraphs I quoted, Jason gets to the problem of when to say no. And that you have to say no sometimes. He says:

The only way to stop this perpetual growth of an object without physical borders is for you to create your own borders. Those borders are discipline, self-control, an editor’s eye for “enough.” The ultimate border is one simple word: no. Someone in charge has to say no more than yes.

If the laws of physics govern the physical world, the word no governs the virtual world. “No, that’s one feature too many.” “No, that’s just not worth it.” “No, no, no.”

I know. I was right there, at that very spot, for about 25 years. And just reading Jason’s spine tingling account of it, I know immediately he’s been in the same place a lot, and I’m glad that others are now doing that for the company I started.

Saying no was so damn necessary, and so damn hard, at the same time.

(image: istockphoto)


  • Bruce says:

    I notice you link Huffington Post, I must say, that has become quite bloated. I don’t even visit it anymore because interacting in any way with it is painful!

    • Tim Berry says:

      Bruce: Huffington eh? I love Huffington Post. I think it’s the slickest thing going, especially the iPad and iPod apps, and does an amazing job of streamlining a whole lot of information and opinion, about a lot of different subjects. I’m really surprised to see your comment. I also think they’re amazing at the integration of twitter and facebook and other latest-and-greatest social media platforms into the news. But I am biased, I admit it.

  • Dan Ness says:

    Great comments on this perennial issue.

    One of the key programmers and leads of early Excel, Chris Peters, was famous for saying “shipping is a feature”.

    Isn’t a lot of success finding that balance between too much and too little?

  • Jake P says:

    Within my writing/editing network, you’d probably find a consensus that the most usable version of Word was 5.1, circa 1995 or so. Ever since then, it’s gotten bloatier and more crash-prone.

    I will say that the most recent version of Powerpoint is dramatically improved, with the only drawback being that most people still stink at presenting…

    • Tim Berry says:

      Jake, re your “most people suck at presenting,” yes, and wouldn’t it be nice to have a tool that solved that problem … but I think you’ll agree we still need the people for that, not just the tools they use.

  • Matt Mansfield says:


    I’m totally with you on this point.

    For years as a functional designer and business analyst at many companies, I lived in the DMZ between the open borders of marketing and the closed borders of development.

    Oh it wasn’t like that 100% of the time – sometimes, marketing was closed and development was open, but for the most part, this was business as usual for both groups.

    Marketing listens to the demands of customers and wants to grow the product’s appeal and development listens to the demands of their systems and want to keep the product up and running efficiently and at good speeds.

    At the end of the day, I often wound up playing cop between the two. If marketing wanted to add a feature, I made sure they had a damn good business case which would return more value than the complexity they were adding and if IT wanted to shut something down, I made sure they had a damn good technical case why it would not work.

    The hardest part in all of it was that I straddled both worlds. I was at once excited about the new shiny things marketing wanted to add and the cold beauty of a well-built system.

    The mantra that supported me during this time was, “The more features you add, the more complex it is to use.” This is the core of usability.

    And usability is the key – the key to adoption and spread, success and growth. It means being the advocate of the user at all times.

    Because someone has to fight for the poor sod who is going to use your company’s products.


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