More with less: Why Bump, others kick features to the curb

Bump launches version 3.0, a major redesign that yanked most major features. It's not the only company to find that products can be better with fewer tools rather than more.

With Bump 3.0, users of the hit iPhone and Android app now have fewer features to choose from--but a better user experience. Bump Technologies

More is not always better.

Bump Technologies said today it has radically overhauled its hit iPhone and Android apps, ditching little-loved tools that allowed users to trade music and app recommendations and concentrating Bump 3.0 entirely on enabling photo and contacts sharing.

When Bump launched three years ago, it took off immediately by making it dead easy for people to share contact information with others: simply bump iPhones with another user of the app and voila! Since then, the company added Android support, expanded its feature set, and racked up more than 75 million downloads.

Along the way though, as the Bump team looked for new tools to give their millions of users, their app got bogged down with a slew of features that clearly didn't go over well. Now, the team is acknowledging they went down paths that were probably best avoided and with Bump 3.0, the app has been significantly redesigned with a simple user-friendly interface and a laser focus on just two core tools.

In Bump 2.0, the app had what was called a "springboard" approach that showcased six different things that users could share. But users tended "to latch onto one or two things at most, and showing all possible options on the homepage only resulted in confusion," Bump wrote in a blog post today about the new version. "Bump 3.0 now uses a beautiful swipe-able layer to allow the user to toggle between the different functions of the app while always being ready to bump, no matter where you are in the app."

Bump 3.0 also adds "mutual friend discovery," a feature that highlights two Bump users' common friends. Given the spotlight on apps sharing users' data without permission, Bump is sensitive to privacy concerns. In a statement to CNET, CEO Dave Lieb said, "Users who want can turn off this mutual friend discovery feature in the app's settings if they don't want the app to access [their] address book."

Still, what may be most notable about Bump 3.0 is that the company decided to strip out several features that were integral as recently as yesterday. And doing so is something that flies in the face of what is often assumed is a requirement for new versions of software--adding new features.

Yet that's not always the way to go. Microsoft has long been famous for its penchant for piling feature after feature into new versions of its software, a practice that years ago led then-Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy to refer to Windows as "a giant hairball."

And that's why Bump and many other companies realize that while users do often clamor for new toys in their favorite products, it's sometimes much better to iterate by taking things out. And the data will usually lead developers to figure out which features to kill.

Focus on what users want
According to Lieb, Bump users share about 2 million photos a day. By contrast, they send just 7,000 to 10,000 daily calendar events and about 100,000 song recommendations. The latter two numbers are not insignificant, but in evaluating the success of features in Bump 2.0, Lieb said, the question was how often people use features again.

Bump 2.0 gave users six major features. Now there are just two. Bump Technologies

There's no question Bump users love sharing photos. But when it comes to sharing calendar items or music recommendations, there was very little repeat usage. "It made it pretty clear we shouldn't be using space and real estate [in the app] for that kind of feature.

The problem, added Bump co-founder Jake Mintz, is that the marginal features "can be a distraction from what [the app does] best, and set you up for failure with new users."

Other companies, too, have learned this lesson as they've grown, and as they've put out new versions of their products.

Take the example of HotelTonight , a service that helps people find last-minute accommodations. According to CEO Sam Shank, an old version of the company's mobile app allowed users to auto-fill a registration form, a step that was designed to reduce taps by as many as 10 to 15 per booking. Users would tap the auto-fill button, and the app would grab their name and other key information from their address book.

But as useful as the feature was, it never took. Worse, it may have driven away users. "We put that feature in and it never got used," said Shank. "It was used maybe one out of 100 booking events. And there was high abandonment. People were confused."

HotelTonight maintained the tool for three versions of its app before finally abandoning it. Eventually, the company added Facebook's single sign-on to address the same issue.

Or take an example from the hot social browser company RockMelt . According to CEO Eric Vishria, the company has on multiple occasions let go of features that users never cottoned to.

Vishria said that RockMelt's development process depends in large part on reviewing metrics around new features and asking the question, "Did it do what we expected it to do, or not, and what did we learn from it."

In one case, RockMelt developers added a chat window that had two tabs. The first was for chatting and the second allowed users to monitor their friends' Facebook activities. But after the feature was implemented, the stats showed that users rarely looked at the activity view. The company experimented with different designs, but users still didn't respond. In the end, the feature was yanked. And good thing. Afterward, Vishria said, the stats showed that users opened seven chat windows a day. Before the feature was pulled, the figure was just three per day.

Some users were clearly bummed--they had loved the feature. But RockMelt let the numbers do the talking. "With Internet scale, you're always going to find people who miss something," Vishria said, "and you really have to think hard about how you address people's needs. There's always going to be somebody who's unhappy, but you want to make the most people happy."

Apple does it 'extremely well'
There's no question that yanking features is something most tech companies have to do from time to time, and that's true of everyone from the smallest startups to the largest public companies.

Even Microsoft has been known to pull features that people love. Steve Krug, the author of "Don't Make Me Think," a book counseling streamlining whenever possible that is required reading for all new engineers at online doctor booking service ZocDoc , laments a favorite Microsoft Word tool that automatically added up a list of numbers and that ended up disappearing one day.

Apple, too, is known to remove features--often without warning. With the recent release of Final Cut Pro X, the company initially pulled multicam editing before restoring it at users' request.

RockMelt's Vishria said that Apple is known for often removing features from public releases if they're not ready for prime time. "In the last few weeks of a development cycle, most companies jam in additional features," Vishria said. "I think the thing that people are waking up to is that Apple doesn't. In the last few weeks, they cut anything that's not fully fleshed out."

But it's often hard for companies to accept that a feature that is well-liked internally doesn't cut it in public. As a result, many miss the opportunity to get rid of tools that don't deserve to be included. And that may well hurt the products over the long term.

"It's just human nature to value things you've invested time in, and when you've spent a lot of time and creativity and energy on code," Shank said, "to admit that it didn't work, and to say we're going to toss that away and admit that we didn't invest those resources appropriately, a lot of people don't like to do that."

 

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