It’s Cool To Say No To Features


By: Aaron Overton

In: Project & Time Management

The marketing guy was breathless with excitement.

“This is going to be the killer feature!” he enthused. “Customers are totally clamoring for this thing, so if we can just get it into the next release, sales will skyrocket!”

My role was “program manager,” which in some more primitive languages is translated as, “wet blanket” or “I hate that guy.”

This role included owning the schedule and the feature list, so the product couldn’t have a new feature until I was sure it was sensible and achievable.

Sometime later, I nixed the feature because the clamoring horde of customers turned out to be one vocal and likable guy named Jake that had been adamant about it to our excitable marketing guy. He might also have just mentioned it in passing, but the marketing guy wants to please him, so it gets translated into him being adamant.

Yeah, just one guy. Let’s call him Vocal Jake.

One Into Many Syndrome

If you have 1,000 regular site visitors and 800 of them upvote a new feature via a survey, that’s a legitimate mandate for implementation.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to conflate that one vocal person into many with just a slightly different phrasing. Program managers function in a stopgap role to help prevent One Into Many syndrome.

A common version of Vocal Jake in the non-profit world is the lone, influential board member or executive. He has no shortage of outrage or enthusiasm about a specific feature or design element, and he is going to let you hear about it.

Although it might seem like the path of least resistance is compliance, treating one influential user or site visitor as if he is representative of your audience is highly risky.

Statistically, the user’s priorities are almost certainly different from your typical audience. There’s no evidence that he is right about the outcomes from the desired change or feature.

If he is wrong, you not only waste limited resources building it, but you could end up losing audience or failing to maximize potential.

The solution is straightforward.

How do I say it politely? It’s okay to say no when he speaks in isolation.

The Gold-Plated Feature

It’s worth noting something about features that do get a large volume of support. Despite the popularity a feature might gain, you still need to do some research on development and future impact.

One common pitfall is it could be popular but end up producing nothing of value for the organization’s bottom line. No new sales, no new donations, no greater site traffic, and so on.

In the software business, we call this a “gold-plated feature.”

It looks great on the outside, but that value is only skin deep.

Deciding what to build and what not to build takes a thick skin. The pressure to just do it, because influential Vocal Jake wants it but knows nothing of budgets and schedules, can be fierce.

Most nonprofit arts organizations won’t have full-time program managers who are skilled at handling these situations.

But that doesn’t mean you’re defenseless.

I believe in you.

You can say no (except to me).

Pushback Toolkit

The first order of business is learning how to spot gold-plated features. There are two main indicators:

  1. Me, too: The feature is rarely mentioned without prompting. That is, you might get one or two people that bring it up, but most of the enthusiasm comes from people who hear about the feature and say, “yeah, me, too, I want that.”
  2. Complex: Gold-plated features often are complex to build and even complex to use. In reality, users prefer simplicity, so complexity to them is likely to be a feature seldom used. Complexity to build just means it’s more expensive. If it costs a bunch for something few will use, it’s definitely gold-plated.

Next, develop reliable strategies for saying no.

  1. Metrics: Rely on data from your Google Analytics (GA) account to support/refute gold-plated features. Visit ArtsHacker’s GA article archive, it’s a great resource for learning how to use GA’s features and interpret metrics.
  2. ROI Analysis. Work out the costs in both money and time. One key item not to overlook is your direct departmental staff time. Here’s an ArtsHacker article that explains how to use a web app designed to do nothing but calculate staff time.
  3. Yes, and… This is a tool right out of the improvisational comedian’s toolkit that espouses accepting what someone says and expanding on that line of thinking. In this variation, you can use it to help steer the conversation away from the original gold-plated feature toward something you may need or already have, but can be tweaked. Getting Vocal Jake to support a budget increase helps snatch victory from the jaws of gold-plated defeat.

Just like any skill, the more you use it, the more effective it becomes.

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Aaron Overton
Aaron Overton has been building websites and web applications since the web was first open for commercial use in the early 1990s. Mostly, Aaron is a freelancer (his company is called Heatherstone) for a wide variety of clients from small to enterprise in size. He also spent three years building web properties at Microsoft. His interesting side gigs have included teaching computer programming at a public high school and publishing tabletop miniature wargames. If you are having trouble finding him, find his wife, Nhu, and he's usually no more than 20 feet away.
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