Deciding what features to implement

This is a guest post from roving software entrepreneur, Steve McLeod.

Each feature you add to your software product takes time to implement, adds ongoing complexity, and is hard to get rid of later. So you need to choose wisely when adding new features.

Here are some tips on choosing which features to implement.

Does your product really need new features?

This question might be surprising, but it is an important one to ask yourself. A software product is never completely finished. There is always scope for improvement. This makes it hard to know when to stop working on it.

If your product is mature and has stable revenue, there might not be much opportunity to increase sales. Adding new features would please some customers, but would not be a good use of your time.

Products that should be considered “done” can still have a large backlog. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your product will only be done once all existing feature requests are done.

Your product might have great potential to grow, but not by adding new features. Perhaps you need to improve your sales and marketing efforts. Don’t use your feature request backlog as an excuse to neglect the other important parts of running your product.

It’s okay to ignore your backlog

Feature request backlogs seem to never shrink. Implementing improvements leads to even more feature requests.

Looking at your backlog can be overwhelming. You’ll see feature requests that are years old. There are others that you intended to implement, but never did. It is okay to ignore these.

Don’t feel that the entire backlog consists of promises that must be kept. Some requests are no longer relevant. Some are from customers who no longer need your product. Some are simply not worth the substantial effort.

Keep your grand vision in mind

Prefer to implement highly requested features. But before you do, make sure each feature fits your long-term plans. Ask yourself:

  • who is your ideal customer? Is the feature relevant to them? For example, your enterprise customers might be asking for “single sign-on”, whereas you are more interested in working with small businesses.
  • will this be an ongoing cost- and time-sink? For example, a particular feature could require HIPAA (a US health industry regulation) compliance, while you have no interest in the extra workload and costs of HIPAA compliance.
  • does this proposed feature agree with your marketing angle?

Each new feature has ongoing costs

Remember that each additional feature comes with ongoing costs in support and complexity. Each new feature is an additional place for bugs to hide, adding to your future workload. Take these future costs into account when deciding if a feature should be added.

Features interact with each other, sometimes in unexpected ways. Even one additional checkbox in a settings panel can lead to ongoing confusion.

Be wary in particular of features that require integration with third party products. For example, many a product owner was burned when Twitter turned off some parts of their public API. Another example is my own experience adding support for connecting to customers’ email inboxes. I then found myself supporting not just my own product’s problems, but those caused by customers’ email service provider.

Sales-blockers are high priority

Not all feature requests are equal. Requests for feature A might come only from long time customers of your product, while feature B is requested only by your trial customers. It sounds ruthless, but you should prioritise the feature requested by trial customers.

When running a business, you do need to care for financial concerns. Take into consideration that:

  • A trial customer is likely to report a showstopper (for them). When you implement features requested by several trial customers, you are likely to increase revenue.
  • An existing customer is likely to report an inconvenience. You probably won’t lose the customer by delaying the improvement they asked for.
  • You need new customers to keep your business healthy.

It is important, of course, to care for existing customers. Don’t take this as an argument to ignore existing customers altogether in favour of potential customers.

Identifying and fixing sales blockers as a matter of priority is especially important for new products. It takes time to find the right balance of features a new product needs to meet the demands of the market.

Prefer the easy things, but not always

Let’s say you are deciding which of two features to implement next. Both feature A and feature B have been requested dozens of times. Feature A will take a week’s worth of work, and feature B will take a month’s work. Which one do you do?

Feature A, right? Maybe not.

Feature A is usually the correct choice. But you’ll be repeating this scenario over and over. Your product will gradually gain many relatively trivial features, while never getting the important features you need to create a compelling product.

Sometimes you need to do the hard work to add the features that are difficult to implement.

Listen to your customers…

Your customers are a great source of ideas for improvements to your product. As they use your product they discover what’s missing and what’s poorly implemented.

Therefore make it exceedingly easy for your customers to get suggestions to you. Consider adding a “Suggest an Improvement” link to your support page and to your help menu, if applicable. This makes it clear to your customers that you are actively seeking suggestions. My experience has been that customers notice these links and use them.

A “Suggest an Improvement” link can be as simple as a “mailto” link. A basic dialog or web form also works well. If you are seeking inspiration on how to do this, look at the “Report an Issue” form linked from the Google Chrome’s Help menu.

Another way to get customer suggestions is by asking them via a survey. This is okay, but it requires people to imagine back to when they last used your product. Us humans tend to be pretty poor at recalling things. It is much better to encourage customers to send suggestions as they encounter difficulties, while it is foremost in their mind.

I found collecting and organizing feedback for my own product, Poker Copilot, to be a pain. So I launched a new product to help manage feature requests. It allows your customers to suggest and upvote improvements for your product.

…and not your competitors

You’ve probably already heard that you should “listen to your customers, not your competitors.” I’m repeating it, because forgetting this can be deadly to your business.

Feature-envy leads us to believe we have to add every feature our competitors offer. Like regular envy, it is best to ignore it.

When your competitor announces a new feature, it can be demoralising. You feel you are falling behind and unable to compete. If the feature looks impressive, you’ll be tempted to add it to your product as soon as you can.

But wait. Have any of your customers actually requested this feature that your competitor added? If not, it is probably because it is not all that useful to your customers.

Your competitor might eventually regret adding that feature, as it turns out that only a small but demanding percentage of their customers use it. By not adding it, you could be giving yourself an advantage.

I’ve discovered that customers often learn about the good features my competitors have. They then tell me that they want these features. Only then do I start considering adding them.

Small tweaks versus major features

I just recommended listening to customers. But be careful of only using customer requests as a source for improvements.

Your customers tend to ask for incremental improvements. Customers are more likely to ask for an additional option in a drop-down menu than they are for a innovative new way to view their data.

If you rely on customer suggestions alone, you’ll never get the innovative new features that can make your product something much grander.

Make sure you balance your customer-contributed requests with your own innovative improvements.

Beware of preferring “pet” features

I just argued in favour of choosing innovative improvements. However this comes with a warning. Innovation can be used to justify poor choices. When you are in charge of decisions for your product, you are in danger of choosing improvements that you find interesting instead of those that have a strong business case.

Be careful. You could spend months working on a feature that is not very helpful to your business.

This is the type of feature that only one customer requested, but because it sounds more interesting to you than anything else in your massive backlog of feature requests, you immediately start working on it.

My own experience with this: I added scripting to a product even though no-one had asked for it and my target customer was not the type of person who would be interested in custom scripting. When I announced the scripting feature, not a single person seemed to use it. I eventually got rid of it.

How do you decide?

The tips I’ve offered you in this article come from my own experience. Do you have tips of your own for deciding which features to implement? If so, please add them in the comments below. I’d love to read them!

Steve McLeod runs a small software company in Barcelona, Spain. His products are Poker Copilot, a desktop analytics app for online poker players, and Feature Upvote, a web app that allows your customers to openly suggest and upvote features they want to see in your product.

Flying in a f**king jet

In January of this year I got to fulfill my long-time ambition of flying in a fast jet (that’s me in the picture above). I got a lot of questions from friends and family about it. So I thought I would write about it here, in case anyone else is interested.

What was the plane?

An Aero L-39 Albatros advanced jet trainer. Developed in Czechoslovakia, it is the most widely used jet trainer in the world and similar in size and performance to the Hawk used by the Red Arrows. Maximum speed Mach 0.8. This particular plane was apparently ex-Ukrainian Air Force. To my untrained eye, it looked it in excellent condition. The picture below is of the actual aircraft on the day.

albatros

Where did you do it?

At fighterjets.nz in Tauranga, New Zealand, while on holiday.

What happened before the flight?

The first scheduled date was cancelled due to low cloud. We rescheduled to a few days later and the weather was beautiful.

I was kitted out in a flight suit, helmet and a small life jacket (!). I was then given a briefing by my pilot, JC, a serving Air Zealand Airlines long-haul pilot and ex New Zealand Air Force pilot. When I was asked what sort of flight I wanted, I opted for ‘Top Gun’ (aerobatic). There doesn’t seem to be much point in getting into a fast jet and then going sightseeing.

As I have a history of detached retina, and accompanying eye surgery, it was decided that we would only do positive G manoeuvres (where the blood flows away from your head, e.g. a turn with the cockpit on the inside), no negative G manoeuvres (where the blood flows into your head, e.g. a turn with the cockpit on the outside).

I was helped into the back seat of the plane (it is a bit of a climb), strapped in and attached to the intercom. As mine was the first flight of the day we did various checks before take-off, including powering the engine up and down. We then got clearance from air traffic control and off we went.

What happened during the flight?

We flew out over the sea and did a succession of rolls, turns and loops. I have been in various small aircraft before (propeller driven planes, gliders, helicopters and a gyrocopter), but this felt quite different to all of those. Much more powerful and responsive. It was also the first time I have been upside down in aircraft. Looking up at the earth is a very surreal experience.

it was a beautiful day in a beautiful part of New Zealand and the views were stunning (pretty much all of New Zealand is beautiful). I couldn’t see the pilot at all because of his seat, but he kept telling me what was going on and checking I was ok via the 2 way intercom. I guess he was pretty keen to ensure that I didn’t panic or redecorate the inside of the cockpit.

At one point I looked down at some small white shapes flying below. I thought they were seagulls. But then I realized they were other aircraft.

At the end we did a low pass over the town before landing.

How did you feel afterwards?

Exhilarated. Tired. Relieved.

What about the G forces?

We got up to +4G in the loops. When you do a positive G manoeuvre the blood tries to drain out of your head. This can cause a loss of consciousness. I had been briefed to do the ‘Anti G Straining Manoeuvre’ during turns and loops, to reduce the chance of passing out. It is pretty much like straining to do a tricky poo (but hopefully without the actual pooing). You can see a video of someone doing AGSM under +9G of acceleration here:

I didn’t feel the G force much on my torso, which was tightly strapped down, but my arms felt incredibly heavy if I tried to move them during the loops. I did feel a little light headed at one point and my hands tingled. But I tried to be conscientious with my AGSMs and I didn’t feel close to passing out.

Did you feel sick?

I was starting to suffer a bit on the last couple of manoeuvres. In retrospect I probably should have asked him to go easier on me towards the end, rather than trying to tough it out. But thankfully I didn’t need the sick bag provided (‘do a Clarkson’).

Did you get a G-suit?

No. They are made to measure, so the pilot got one, but I didn’t. On balance, it was more important that he didn’t black out.

Did you get a go on the controls?

No. The plane was dual controls, but I was under strict instructions not to touch anything. I have had a go at the controls in a glider, but a jet is too high performance for a rookie.

What was the view like out of the canopy?

Amazing. I couldn’t see directly ahead because of the pilots seat, but otherwise the visibility was excellent. Comparable to what you can see from a glider.

Did you take a camera?

No. You probably wouldn’t be able to hold onto it during the manoeuvres. If you dropped it, then it could have bounced around inside the cockpit and possibly got wedged somewhere disastrous (e.g. under a foot pedal). However there was GoPro in the cockpit and they sent me a high quality video of the flight a few days later as a memento. The image above is taken from the video.

Was there an ejection seat or parachute?

The plane has ejections seats, but New Zealand civil aviation rules required them to be deactivated. The pilot told me that bailing out with a parachute was complicated and impractical for people who weren’t experienced pilots. So we didn’t have parachutes either. We would both be landing in the plane, whatever happened. In the unlikely event of loss of engine power, we would probably have enough height and speed to glide back to the airport. If not, we would probably head for a beach.

Were you scared?

I was a bit apprehensive on the morning. But I wasn’t going to back out on a long-time ambition. Especially as there was no refund for cancelling on the day. Also I was reassured by having a very experienced pilot and the fact that his safety was intimately linked to mine.

Was it loud?

It wasn’t very loud from inside the cockpit. Partly due to me wearing a helmet and the cockpit pressurization might have also made a difference. My family said it was pretty loud from where they were standing though.

Did they play the theme music to Top Gun?

Sadly not.

How long were you in the air for?

I think something around 25 minutes. That was enough!

What were the takeoff and landing like?

Surprisingly smooth.

How much did it cost?

Somewhere around (cough) $2,500 US. That is a lot of money (although an order of magnitude cheaper than flying a Mig-25). But I prefer to spend my money on experiences, rather than things, and I have a very understanding wife. I am probably still going to be banging on about ‘that time I flew in a fast jet’ when I am in a nursing home.

Would you recommend it?

Yes. If you have got a strong stomach and the sufficient bank balance, it is a pretty amazing experience. However flying in a glider is also pretty amazing and much cheaper (your local gliding club will probably take you up on a flight for around $100). So I recommend trying that first.

l39-jet

Second 2 photos by Claire Brice. Post title inspired by Andrey Butov.

Volunteering Your IT Skills

There is a lot to be said for running a small software business (just me, with my wife doing some of the admin). For a start it gives me a great deal of flexibility, which I used to spend 2 months travelling abroad with my family last year. It is also low in stress, as I don’t have any employees to manage (my wife manages herself!). But even with some consulting work, going to the occasional conference and running some face-to-face training courses, I was starting to feel a little bit isolated after 13 years working mostly on my own. At that time the news was full of heart-rending stories of the suffering of refugees trying to flee war and repression. I don’t like the way the world is heading at present and wanted to do something to help these people in whatever small way I could. So I started volunteering at a charity for refugees and asylum seekers in my home town.

I initially tried to avoid doing computer things for the charity. But it quickly became clear that my IT skills were much more useful to them than anything else I could offer. Consequently I have been sorting out various IT issues, teaching people basic IT skills and have built them a simple CRM and reporting system, based on Airtable. Replacing the previous paper system with an electronic one is saving the staff and volunteers a lot of busy-work, which frees up their time to do more useful things. It is also giving the charity a lot more insight into how they are doing. And it has got me out from office and meeting some really great people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Win-win. Sometimes I feel spread a bit thin with my various work, charity and personal commitments (which is partly why the blog has been a bit quiet recently) but overall I am very glad I started volunteering.

So, if you are feeling a bit isolated, consider volunteering for a local charity. I suspect many small charities are desperate for volunteers with IT skills. Even if you are a programmer with quite specialist skills (like me), it is easy to forget that you are still an IT systems god compared with 99% of the population.

Bundlefox review

I have been using bundles and 1-day sales as a useful way to increase the exposure for my visual planning software. I have had positive experiences with BitsDuJour, Macupdate and BundleHunt. Once you put your software in one bundle you inevitably get approached by people who run other bundle promotions. I was approached by Bundlefox and agreed to put Hyper Plan in their Mac software bundle. I wish I hadn’t. It has been a pretty miserable experience from start to finish. In brief:

  • I never knew when the promotion was going to start or end. I was told it was going to start on 27th February, but it eventually started on 20th April. It was supposed to run for 3 weeks, but actually ran for 6 weeks. This is a problem, because it means you can’t put your software in other sale or bundle that require an exclusive discount.
  • Communication was poor. They generally took several days to reply to emails.
  • The number of licenses sold was very low, especially compared with sales of Hyper Plan on BundleHunt.
  • Worst of all, they only paid me 60% of what I was expecting per license. When I queried this they emailed me back “It’s **% revenue share after fees, most of the sales came in through affiliates and we had to pay them off before sharing the revenue”. I went back through their emails and their ‘Vendor Manual’ and there is no mention of affiliate fees being subtracted. It just says “You would receive a percentage of the total payments received for the bundle minus PayPal fees”. In fact I had emailed them “So if you sell 2000 bundles for $12 of which 500 choose Hyper Plan, I get **% of $12×500 = $***?” and they replied “Your calculation is correct”. I feel deceived.
  • The low number of licenses sold and the low payout per license means that it wasn’t worth the effort to setup.

I don’t know what Bundlefox are like to deal with as buyer, but I recommend vendors give them a wide berth.

It’s OK not to have a social media strategy (really)

I have heard various product owners beating themselves up about how they don’t have enough of a social media presence. Well, I have been running a profitable one-man software company for the last 12 years and I am here to tell you that neither of my products have a social strategy worthy of the name – and that’s OK.

My seating planner software, PerfectTablePlan, has a Facebook page and a Google+ page. Whenever I publish a newsletter for PerfectTablePlan I publish a link to the newsletter on these sites (which is a few times per year). That’s pretty much it. My visual planning software, Hyper Plan, has an even smaller social media presence than PerfectTablePlan. To be honest the small amount I do on social media is intended mostly for the benefit of the mighty Google.

My forays into social media have not been encouraging:

  • I once sent out a newsletter to over 3000 opted-in subscribers and encouraged them to follow a newly created PerfectTablePlan Twitter page. Exactly 0 of them did.
  • I created a Pinterest page for PerfectTablePlan and paid someone to post to it for a few weeks. It generated a bit of traffic of questionable quality, but the traffic dried up as soon as they stopped posting.
  • I have tried paid ads on Facebook and Twitter and the results were miserable.
  • The PerfectTablePlan Google+ page has just 14 followers.
  • The PerfectTablePlan Facebook page got a miserable 4 views last week.

The question isn’t whether social media can bring you traffic, but whether that traffic will convert to sales and is social media the best use of your limited time? Social media is a productivity black hole and the opportunity costs of noodling around on Twitter should not be underestimated. Also various studies show that email still out-performs social media by quite a margin.

“E-mail remains a significantly more effective way to acquire customers than social media—nearly 40 times that of Facebook and Twitter combined.” McKinsey

People go on social media to chat to their friends and look at cat videos. Not to buy things. They use search, Amazon and Ebay for that. When is the last time you even looked at an ad in the Facebook sidebar? Or clicked on a sponsored post in Twitter? Exactly.

Making an impact on social media is hard. 90% of tweets are not retweeted. And even the followers that are real humans may only be interested in discounts:

“The IBM Institute for Business Value found that 60-65% of business leaders who believe that consumers follow their brands on social media sites because they want to be a part of a community. Only 25-30% of consumers agree. The top reason consumers follow a brand? To get discounts – not exactly ideal for a company’s bottom line.” Forbes

A lot of the ‘engagement’ on social media is fake. You can buy 1000 Twitter followers for less than £10. The BBC advertised a fake business with “no products and no interesting content” as an experiment on Facebook and got 1,600 highly suspicious ‘likes’ within 24 hoursCopyblogger deleted their facebook page due to the amount of fake followers and the low level of engagement.

A thread I started on the Business of Software forum showed that many other small software product companies had tried and failed with social media. Why do you think you will fare better? Most software products just aren’t inherently social. There is a limit to how much you can usefully say, day after day, about seating planning. I could try and create a social media presence talking about the latest wedding and catering trends and try to sneak in some references to seating plans. But I would rather commit suicide with a cheese grater.

As a rule of thumb it might be worth putting serious effort into social media if yours is the sort of product people are likely to talk to their friends about down the pub. In that case social media may be able to usefully enhance your visibility and reach. But for the vast majority of software that doesn’t fit this description, you are trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole. At the time of writing the pop star Taylor Swift has 74,638,154 Facebook likes. While Intuit, one of the world’s largest software companies, has 221,130 likes.

Next time somebody tells you that you must have a social media campaign ask yourself:

  • Is your product a good fit for social media?
  • Do they have an agenda, e.g. a social media tool, ebook or consultancy to push? Or an article quota to fill?
  • Have they produced any real evidence that a social media campaign translated into actual sales?
  • Is social media the best thing you could be doing with your valuable time?

Ignore any vague waffling about ‘engagement’. Nobody ever paid their mortgage with engagement.

Why you should create a ‘honeypot’ page

Software piracy is a fact of life for vendors of desktop software. Take a look at Google’s helpful suggestions if you search on the name of one of my products:

google

Trying to make your software crack-proof is a fools errand. But one simple thing you can do is create a ‘honeypot’ page to try to convert people searching for a cracked version of your software. If you search for a crack for my software, here is what comes up in first place:

ptp_honeypot_page

Yep, it’s a page on my website. If you click the link you will be taken through to a page explaining the (very real) dangers of downloading cracks and why you should buy a licence. I did some basic on-page SEO to get it to rank for my product name and terms such as ‘crack’, ‘keygen’ and ‘warez’. Then I linked to it from the website sitemap. Nothing clever, but it works. I have averaged a sale per month for the last 10 years from people clicking through onto this page. Given the inadequacies of conversion tracking, the real number of sales could be significantly higher. And it didn’t take long to create the page.

I can’t remember where the idea for a honeypot page came from, but it wasn’t my idea. Feel free to make a version of the page for your own product, but please don’t copy the exact wording. That would be copyright infringement. ;0)

How much code can a coder code?

Lines of code (LOC) is a simple way to measure programmer productivity. Admittedly it is a flawed metric. As Bill Gates famously said “Measuring programming progress by lines of code is like measuring aircraft building progress by weight”. But it is at least easy to measure.

So how much code do programmers average per day?

  • Fred Brooks claimed in ‘The Mythical Man-Month’ that programmers working on the OS/360 operating system averaged around 10 LOC per day.
  • Capers Jones measured productivity of around 16 to 38 LOC per day across a range of projects.
  • McConnell measured productivity of 20 to 125 LOC per day for small projects (10,000 LOC) through to 1.5 to 25 LOC per day for large projects (10,000,000 LOC).

It doesn’t sound a lot, does it? I’m sure I’ve written hundreds of lines of code on some days. I wondered how my productivity compared. So I did some digging through my own code. In the last 12 years I have written somewhere between 90,000 and 150,000 C++ LOC (depending on how you measure LOC) for my products: PerfectTablePlan, Hyper Plan and Keyword Funnel. This is an average of round 50 lines of code per working day. Not so different from the data above.

I also looked at how PerfectTablePlan LOC increased over time. I was expecting it to show a marked downward trend in productivity as the code base got bigger, as predicted by McConnell’s data. I was surprised to see that this was not the case, with LOC per day remaining pretty constant as the code base increased in size from 25k to 125k.

loc

Some qualifications:

  • I give a range for LOC because ‘line of code’ isn’t very well defined. Do you count only executable statements, or any lines of source that aren’t blank?
  • My data is based on the current sizes of the code bases. It doesn’t include all the code I have written and then deleted in the last 12 years. I have just spent several months rewriting large parts of PerfectTablePlan to work with the latest version of Qt, which involved deleting large swathes of code.
  • It doesn’t include automatically generated code (e.g. code generated by the Qt framework for user interfaces and signals/slots code).
  • I only counted code in products shipped to the user. I didn’t count code I wrote for licence generation, testing etc.
  • All the code is cross-platform for Windows and Mac, which makes it more time consuming to write, test and document.
  • Programming is only one of the things I do. As a one-man-band I also do marketing, sales, QA, support, documentation, newsletters, admin and nearly everything else. I have also done some consulting and training not directly related to my products in the last 12 years.

Given that I probably spend less than half my time developing (I have never measured the ratio), my productivity seems fairly good. I think a lot of this may be the fact that, as a solo developer, I don’t have to waste time with meetings, corporate bullshit and trying to understand other people’s code. Also writing desktop Windows/Mac applications in C++ is a lot easier than writing an new operating system with 1970s tools.

50 lines of code per day doesn’t sound like a lot. But the evidence is that you are unlikely to do much better on a substantial project over an extended period. Bear that in mind next time you estimate how long something is going to take.

If you have data on LOC per day for sizeable projects worked on over an extended period, please post it in the comments. It will only take you a few minutes to get the stats using Source Monitor (which is free).