Don't Let Good Become the Enemy of Great

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 (s aapl) 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

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