24 October 2005

At what point is an extra feature 'bloat'?

Summer 2005 saw Invision and vBulletin launch new versions of their extremely popular board softwares (2.1 and 3.5 respectively). These two market leaders were faced with the same problems faced by any company releasing a new product or service at the same time as a rival company: how do you make sure people buy your product, and not the rival one?

Invision jumped the gun, releasing first but having to issue a series of new versions to fix bugs not fixed or discovered in time for the release. It's now on v2.1.2, with 2.1.3 imminent. vBulletin released 3.5 two weeks later, and is yet to release a bugfix update - although, given how full its bugtracker is, one suspects they know the moment they do release a bugfix, they'll lose the reputation for thorough pre-release testing they're currently enjoying.

Appearances may be everything, but I dunno to what extent their customers are happy about having these bugfixes withheld from them because of marketing pressures.

Headline-grabbing with new features is a second strategy that's probably more important to the market (that's you and me) than release timings. A lot of the development this summer, both on IPB and vBulletin, was AJAX implementation, which makes forum pages more dynamic by doing stuff like being able to post a quick reply or edit a post without reloading the page (on vBulletin) or checking that a username isn't already in use at the same time as someone types it into the registration form.

Very nifty, certainly; it's certainly made life easier for moderators, who can edit titles and topic descriptions at a click of the mouse, as if they were files on a desktop (in Invision). AJAX has been used a lot - after all, it makes the software look real swish to the pros like you and I, and definitely boosts the attractiveness of the featurelist.

But the acid test for a feature, one every cynical admin should be asking himself when reviewing a featurelist, is 'Will this make my board more successful?'

At the end of the day, that's what a feature's value always boils down to. If it's a feature that will make it easier to keep the site well moderated, there's little value if your site is already well moderated; for a forum with threads in ALL CAPS the AJAX one-click title editing will be handy, sure. But has adding two edit modes (for the poor scared user to choose from) really added value? I say no. Adding complexity and pointless features like vCards will just confuse the user or divert them from doing what your site is there for: participating in the community. If your community is so specialised that it would actually gain from a vCard feature, add it as a mod!


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