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The trade-off between quality and features and its significance for service business

The motivation

The value of a service greatly determines the success of a service company. The promise of the service’s value attracts customers, while the delivered value keeps them. These two sides of value affect everything a business needs to do to thrive. Sales and marketing is all about the promised value. The sustainability of growth and business is all about the good the service delivers in users’ daily lives.

So, the value of a service drives companies’ ability to reach market share, to price their services, and - ultimately - their success. Yet, if the greatness of the service is critical for success, how can one craft a great service?

In this blog post: I seek to drill into a rather important topic of service development, that is the critical, yet deceptive trade-off between quality and features. This trade-off is faced often in the daily decisions of service development. It is centric to the development effort and it has wide and somewhat non-obvious implications on the services, the development process itself and the service business.


The fundamental

Consider, how it’s plausible to halve the time it takes to capture a photo, while you cannot double the inherent value of a picture of your son; as the value is not in the extra pixels, but in the captured smile. Also consider, how the revolutionary iPhone really brought nothing inherently new and how every function it serves could be satisfied perfectly with the old means. Our desire for learning, communication and entertainment remains constant and there have always been ways to satisfy these desires. No service is inherently irreplaceable and new.

Yet while technology merely brings easier and faster ways of satisfying old desires, one cannot exaggerate the marvellousness of the saved energy and time. The time saved is the time spent on achieving new and different things. So halving the toll of our labour doubles the rewards we can reach in limited time.

Certainly, we wish to reach as many desirable things as possible with our limited energy and time. This implies that we can build better services by either providing greater value or by saving the user’s energy and time. Yet, if providing greater value is hard and saving a user’s time is easy, then investing in the latter must be more rewarding and actionable.


The competition

Investing in saving users’ energy and time is not only easier, but it’s also critical. The basic needs can be fulfilled with many ways, and the competion is surprisingly broad. No service is irreplacable, customers have options, and they will use the service that offers them best value.

The value in using your service is all about the extra value you provide compared to the competition. Yout value offer to customers equals the benefit divided by its cost, where the cost includes money, energy and time. Money, time and energy drive customers' choices with an equivalent force. They are all limited and interexchangeable. Time is exchanged for money and money for rest. People are also willing to pay to save their energy and time, and a small investment in saving customers' energy and time can bring great returns.

So the competition is broad, and if your service is not competitive: the customers will walk away. You can compete either on A) value, which is difficult, B) cost, which undermines your business or C) the easiness and speed, which is easy and something people may even pay for.



The trap

Yet, if user frustration and inconvenience are the most actionable and critical; they are quite deceptive as they are easy to ignore. No one seeks inconveniences so these are absent in our plans and consequently also absent in our minds. In our imagination we see the good our service offers as bright and real, but we rarely bother to imagine the frustrations of using our service. Therefore we fail to imagine how fundamentally the frustrations will impact our service.

There is a serious risk of becoming blind to inconveniences and their significance, unless you interact daily with the service and its users. And this implies that key people for the service may become blind to the most important aspects of the service.

And this is one of the basic challenges and traps in the service development. The thing easiest to ignore is also the thing most fundamental for the success.

The problem

This trap plays badly with the observation that often the critical decisions around services are done by people inexperienced with services. The service owners do not always have a service development background. Sometimes major decisions are done outside the development team by people not fully familiar with the service and its users.

Because features are easier to measure and quality is easier to ignore, people inexperienced in service development tend to overemphasize features and even measure the progress through implemented features. This has two negative side effects: firstly extra features steal time from fixing bugs and polishing the UX, and secondly they tend to introduce complexity to the system and the UI. Extra complexity may slow down the service, make the service more difficult to use and introduce new issues. Service management through feature lists can lead to complex low quality applications that cause frustration in users.

Also if the importance of UX design and quality is not understood, these get easily cut to save expenses in this rather cost conscious world of business. Yet regardless of whether the quality is cut, because of overemphasizing features or expenses, the consequences are similar: frustrated users walk away from the service.


The solution

Overall, it often makes sense to focus on an application’s core features and try to provide the core service with rather good quality, but here lies another challenge: It is not always obvious what the core features are and how to best craft them. A solution to this challenge is involving the service designers and engineers closely in the service related decision making, because the people working daily on the service have the best insight into the service.

Still, giving your experts great responsibility over your business critical services may not be an easy call. If you wish to grant them that responsibility, they better be worth your trust. Also, great design and software tend to come from great designers and engineers. So if you seek quality in services, then you should seek quality in the service developers as well. The common wisdom of the software engineering world is that great engineers are well worth their price and this principle should apply to great designers as well.

The importance of quality may seem contradictory with the early and often half-baked MVPs of the startup world. Still the focus on providing excellent minimal service is actually supported by the startup process, which provides market feedback as early as possible. To optimize a service you first have to understand it, which is why many startups prefer to invest in analytics, data and insight early on in the process. While users will not love anything half-baked, the early insight makes it possible to craft improved versions later on that gift the customers what they most desire: the services they want and their own preserved energy and time.


The offer

Many of these ideas are familiar to the people daily involved in service development. Also as the craftsmen and the craftswomen we - in Futurice - seek to make services of great value and of great quality. And this is not only because of professional pride, but also because this best serves our clients.

Many critical aspects of service development do not lie in our hands, so the understanding of the service development fundamentals must be shared. Help us help you in building the great services of this age!