Nov 2 2008

Substance vs. Appearance

I had dinner tonight at the Defrag pre-conference "Future of Email" gathering.  It was a great crowd that included a bunch of smart people working on interesting email / communication / collaboration stuff.

Around dessert, I got into a deeper conversation about features.  We were talking about one of the greatest challenges of any software company – how to decide what features to leave out of the next release of your product.  We immediately went deeper than the typical "do what your users say they want" paradigm as anyone that has sold software knows that there is a huge difference between "what your users say they want" and "what your users will pay you for".  This is especially challenging if you have a free, or freemium, model.

We concluded that there are two dimensions.  The first axis has appearance at one end and substance at the other.  The other axis has "what your users say they want" at one end and "what your users will pay you for" at the other.  Using this two by two matrix can help you prioritize features more clearly, while recognizing that you often can’t really determine what users will pay you for in advance.

As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that certain types of users are more interested in appearance while others are more interested in substance.  This will influence where your priorities will go as you have to understand what actually drives your users’ adoption behavior in the first place.

Ok – this now feels likes it trending toward being too theoretical all of a sudden, but the challenge of priorities is increasing in importance as companies operate in a more cash constrained world.