Deciding if a product feature is worth the effort

Neil Hunt, Chief Product Officer at Netflix, wrote a good answer on Quora to the question Why doesn’t Netflix offer “Advanced Search” on their site? It’s a great Product Management lesson:

Nothing is purely additive unless everyone uses it. If there’s an affordance to use a feature, the affordance is a distraction to everyone, while the positive value accrues only to the users and potential users.¬†The net value of a feature is the value to the users of the feature, divided by the distraction of the affordance to everyone.¬†Advanced search ends up being used by such a tiny fraction of users (sub 1%), that it can’t possibly pay for its cost.

This is a good way to decide if a feature is worth adding or not. The question isn’t simply “Can we do this?”, or “Will users like it?” The question is, “Will enough people use this feature to make it worth the development and maintenance cost?” In the case of Netflix, the cost/benefit calculation just didn’t work out on Advanced Search, so they wisely decided not to launch the feature. But Neil goes further to say this:

But let me share that what does work well is making simple search deliver the advanced results.

That’s an important point. Advanced Search solves a particular user need, but it solves it in an expensive way. The need doesn’t just go away though, so they spend their development efforts on developing solutions that meet that need for all users, not just those who might have used Advanced Search.

The lesson here is obvious. Instead of implementing features just because other products have it, ask what user needs are met with that feature, and then look for cheaper and/or simpler alternatives to meet those needs. Luke Wroblewski’s New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms come to mind as a good example of this approach.