The Case for “Internet Glue”: Why We Need a Stable User Experience!

Posted on January 17, 2013 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

A sorely needed product

Here is a winning product I sometimes dream of producing: I call it Internet Glue.

Three glue tubes

What is it, you ask?

Well, it’s for use when you have a web site or a software application that works great, that you find truly useful. You pour the Internet Glue on it, and when it hardens it keeps the site or application just as it is, so it can’t change, so the user experience you love abides. Get it?

What it’s good for

Why do I want this admittedly fanciful product? Why, to fight that bane of computer tools: creeping featurism.

The jargon file, the repository of hacker culture linguistics, defines this problem thus:

Creeping featurism, n.

1. Describes a systematic tendency to load more chrome and features onto systems at the expense of whatever elegance they may have possessed when originally designed. …

2. More generally, the tendency for anything complicated to become even more complicated because people keep saying “Gee, it would be even better if it had this feature too”. … The result is usually a patchwork because it grew one ad-hoc step at a time, rather than being planned. …When creeping featurism gets out of hand, it’s like a cancer. …

This happens a lot: a software program that is simple, elegant, and useful starts accumulating new features in subsequent versions, then the user interface adds “chrome”, and ultimately the product becomes far less pleasing to use than the original – to the regret of its faithful users. I blogged about a specific case here.

Which is why my Internet Glue would be a killer product… if only it could be produced!

Keeping creeping featurism at bay

The phenomenon of feature creep is well known, and is discussed here. From the software vendor’s perspective it may be hard to resist, since to keep a site or tool unchanged in this day and age of hyperactive progress would make them look inactive and old-fashioned. Yet succumbing to thoughtless featuritis can be just as dangerous in a world where alternative products abound. A balance is needed, where innovation and simplicity are carefully considered. And some companies realize that and tread carefully.

A famous case in point is Google, whose fanatic stewardship of its plain white search page’s simplicity is legendary. Marissa Mayer, now CEO at Yahoo!, was in charge of that simple white home page, and her job was to defend it against additional links, ads or any stuff that would detract from its pure looks – and speed of access. Actually most of us don’t realize how often the Google page had in fact changed over the years (check out this nice pictorial review) – but it had stayed very simple throughout.

Unlike many programs you can easily name, whose makers did not invest a senior manager in preventing unneeded feature creep!

What this means to software developers

If you’re developing software products, you should take this post to heart: not everything you can do should be done, and not every feature that sounds like a neat idea is worth adding in. We users have other options for most products and web services, and if you make your product senselessly ornate we’ll just give up on it and move on to something else. Better give us what we need and improve it incrementally, carefully, and with due respect for our user experience. Of course, your best bet is to ask us – hold focus groups, do user testing, solicit our opinions on the social networks we frequent…

This issue can be even more pronounced with startups, since they’re both innovative and agile, so making changes in the UI, the feature set and the very essence of the product can be almost a way of life. Here the need for balance is even more important – and tricky: you certainly don’t want to kill the innovation and the exploration of new directions, yet you can’t work to a plan that is a completely moving target or you risk running out of control. In my work with them I’ve seen startups err on both sides of the equation. Startups are amazing, but many don’t make it – this may be one mechanism why some fail.

We won’t have Internet Glue anytime soon… but you can make it unnecessary by developing your product responsibly!