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Summary:

Why do so many Apple products succeed when their competitors do not, even though they have more features? Because the company focuses its design thinking on several features that really matter, and ignores everything else, says Gmail creator and FriendFeed co-founder Paul Buchheit.

It’s a constant battle that entrepreneurs face when planning a new product or service: How do you know which features to include and which features to leave out? One of the hallmarks of a great design-oriented company like Apple is that it knows the answer to that question (or does a good job of pretending it knows) and pursues it with a laser-like focus, understanding full well that the days and weeks after a new product launch will be filled with criticisms about all the missing features. Witness the famous Slashdot review of the first iPod: “No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.”

If that’s something you think about a lot (and it should be), Gmail creator and FriendFeed co-founder Paul Buchheit had a great post recently entitled “If Your Product Is Great, It Doesn’t Need To Be Good.” In it, he says:

What’s the right approach to new products? Pick three key attributes or features, get those things very, very right, and then forget about everything else. Those three attributes define the fundamental essence and value of the product — the rest is noise.

So in the case of the original iPod, it was small enough to fit in a pocket, had enough storage to hold a lot of music, and was easy to sync with a Mac, but was missing all kinds of other potentially useful features (FM radio, voice recorder, etc.). “No wireless, no ability to edit playlists on the device, no support for Ogg,” says Buchheit. “Nothing but the essentials, well executed.” The former Googler says he took the same approach with Gmail: it was fast, had a lot of storage, and had an innovative interface based on the idea of threaded conversations. “The secondary and tertiary features were minimal or absent…if the basic product isn’t compelling, adding more features won’t save it.”

By focusing on only a few core features in the first version, he says, “You are forced to find the true essence and value of the product. If your product needs ‘everything’ in order to be good, then it’s probably not very innovative (though it might be a nice upgrade to an existing product). Put another way, if your product is great, it doesn’t need to be good.”

If you view the iPad in this light, Buchheit says, it looks well-engineered to do one or two things extremely well — namely, to make browsing media of various kinds easy and nice to look at, and all through a well-implemented touch interface, something that no other device apart from Apple’s iPod touch and iPhone have, but which could fundamentally change the way we interact with media. And it doesn’t have a lot of the features a laptop would have — in fact, if it had them, they would just get in the way. Think about that the next time you are designing something.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user ruurmo

Related content from GigaOM Pro:

Web Tablet Survey: Apple’s iPad Hits Right Notes

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  1. yeah you’re right! Why do all the brands that bump Apple ends with a grump in their sales. LOL. Well, Apple is a pioneer of computer technology, so it wouldn’t be so surprising if they would topple every competitor they have.

  2. Is this an opinion piece, analysis, journalism or simply ghostwriting for Buchheit? Lame and lazy.

    1. Sorry you didn’t like the post, Jared — just thought Paul had something worthwhile to say that needed to get more attention, so I gave it some. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Loved the Paul Buchheit quote. Just had a discussion today about this topic for a new product in prototype phase. So many ideas, so many possibilities. Decided we had to really focus on a few things and nail it. 3 sounds about right. More importantly, that focus helps find “soul” what you guys called “the true essence and value of the product.” Good post, thanks.

    1. Glad you liked it, Ho Nam. Thanks.

  4. thanks for the post. it’s a good one.

  5. It’s a little simplistic in thinking….

    If this premise was true, the Yugo (or now the Chevy Aveo) would have been overwhelming successes, because they handle cheap well (now not as much on the Aveo) and they are basic, efficient transportation…

    You will see neither in my driveway.

  6. I firmly believe in this type of direction….

    But… the example of the iPod is poor. The article explains why. “True essense and value of a product”. What is the true essence of a portable music device? Is it not to play and manage music? If it includes features that enhance that experience (such as OGG support, playlists) then that is good thing and not just noise.

    Or maybe I have the wrong idea of the essence of the iPod. Maybe the essence of it is to be a mainstream fashion vehicle for the Apple brand. Then the pieces all fit.

    On the other hand, the Lotus Elise, now that’s a fantastic example of this idea at work.

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  9. Matt, great blog and good pointer to Paul’s write up. These two posts got me thinking about the applicability of this thought process in the enterprise software world. Paul has a disclaimer at the end about enterprise software saying completeness might be more important. “completeness” or “three attributes done very, very right” is the way to go depends on whether it is a revolutionary new product to create some uncontested new market or an evolutionary product to one up a competing solution. I have elaborated on these thoughts here.

    Karthik

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