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Friday, July 3, 2015

Coal Chutes in Your Software Product

I live in Heidelberg, Germany, an "old" city (since the 5th century!) that wears many of its "wrinkles" with pride. Plenty of old buildings in the oldest part of town have coal chutes that were used years ago to deliver coal for long defunct heating systems. Staring at one of these anachronistic mechanisms as I write this, I've begun thinking about how many things that were once an absolute necessity are now obsolete. What can software product managers learn from these quaint reminders of a bygone era?

1. As your product evolves, the value of many of its critical features will erode
Keeping yourself aware of your product as a whole rather than focusing on its newest, most exciting features will help you identify its "coal chutes". Paying attention to trends in users' needs and habits can help make you aware of the darker corners of the product that are collecting cobwebs. Having statistics related to users' habits can provide critical data in this respect.

2. It's impossible to foresee all the features that will become obsolete, but that doesn't excuse you from thinking about them
As you design your product, ask yourself what assumptions you're making about what users need and how they accomplish their goals. Revisit these assumptions regularly to identify those that have been invalidated and begin planning the best ways to address these changes.

3. Sometimes out-of-date features represent threats
Just as some nefarious types will use an old coal chute as a point of entry for questionable activities inside of the building, your out-of-date features may provide unforeseen access points to your product or at the very least least project an image that isn't consistent with your product's current value proposition. Think seriously about the threats these old features represent and the cost of continuously mitigating them. Sometimes "bricking them in" or removing them all together is  a wise choice. These "remodels" may be expensive but can pay off in the long run.

So what do you think? Does your product have a coal chute or two that require some of your attention? Are you aware of the assumptions that underlie your products features and functions, including its UX? What is your plan to deal with them?

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