To Kill or Not to Kill

After my rant last week about product managers, the excellent Joshua Porter (@bokardo) made a great point about it. He said, “In my own experience the hard part is knowing when to kill something vs. when to give it more breathing room, as sometimes a really new idea can’t really be tested in low fidelity.”

As much as I’d love to send my pageviews soaring by starting a flame war with somebody popular on the internet, I have to admit that he’s 100% right. Killing a feature or product is exceptionally difficult. It’s tough to know when to do it. It’s tough to figure out if you made the right decision. And it’s tough emotionally to let go of something you really thought was going to be great.

First, let’s talk a bit about why you kill products or features. You kill them because they’re not succeeding or because you don't expect them to succeed. That could mean that they’re not getting enough traction or because you’ve determined that they’re never going to turn into an important part of your business. You kill them because the ROI isn’t high enough to justify investing more resources in them. You kill them because they are using resources that would be better spent in other places.

They’re hard to kill precisely because you never know whether they’re just a few days away from taking off and turning into everything you thought they’d be. After all, every successful product went through some period of time before everybody found about it.

So, let’s look at a few questions to ask yourself before killing a product or feature. For the purposes of this post, I'm just going to talk about killing existing features or products. I'll probably address how to decide to kill things before you build them in a future post.

These questions won’t make killing easy, but hopefully, they’ll make it possible.

Why Isn’t Everyone Using It?

There are four reasons people don’t use your product or feature. Yep. That’s right. There may be thousands of reasons that people do use a product, but there are really only four basic reasons that they don’t.

People don’t use your product because:
  • They don’t know about it 
  • It doesn’t solve a problem for them 
  • They don’t understand that it will solve a problem for them 
  • The problem it solves isn’t worth the investment of time, money, or effort
Before you kill your existing product or feature, figure out why it’s not popular. For example, if you’re simply not getting any traffic to your page, it means not very many people know it exists. On the other hand, if you’re getting tons of traffic, but none of it is converting or engaging, then your problem is one of the last three. People are finding your product, but they don't want it or understand it enough to convert.

You can find out if the product solves a serious problem for people by talking to the types of people you expect to have that problem. Develop a persona that represents the sort of person who might suffer from this problem, and interview them about that portion of their lives.

Don’t just ask, “do you suffer from x problem?” Have them tell you stories about their real life experiences in situations where they might have experienced the problem. For example, if you’re testing to see if people need turn by turn navigation on their phones, you might ask them to tell you about the last time they were trying to get somewhere and they got lost. Then you might ask how often that happens. If it’s extremely rare, they probably don’t have the problem you’re trying to solve.

If you’re trying to figure out if they understand the problem your product or feature solves, you can do that by showing them your product or feature (or a mockup or prototype) and asking them to tell you about it. Don’t prompt or prep them. Just show them the product and say, “Tell me what this does. Who do you think it’s for?” You will be shocked by how often your perfectly crafted prose and imagery cause nothing but blank stares.

When determining whether or not your product is worth getting, don’t forget that money isn’t everything to your potential users. Sometimes there are switching costs that they’ll have to deal with or just the cognitive load of learning how to use a new product. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen people stick with a completely suboptimal solution to a problem, just because that’s what they’re used to.

Regardless of which it is, determining the reason people aren't responding positively to your product will go a long way toward telling you whether to kill it or keep it. 

Who Is Using It?

So, once you’ve determined that there are people who are using your product or who you expect will use it because it solves a serious problem for them at a price they’re willing to pay, it’s time to look at who those people there are and how many of them exist.

A great company with a very engaged group of users recently killed a feature. Unsurprisingly, there was a huge outcry. They got many, many complaints telling them how sad users were that the feature was going away. If they had gone entirely by the comments on the blog post about removing the feature, they would have been justified in thinking that they were making a huge mistake.

Luckily, they didn’t do that.

It turned out that the number of people using the feature was an incredibly small percentage of their user base. More importantly, the people using the feature were not, by and large, paying customers. In other words, a couple percent of very vocal users who didn’t earn a cent for the company were upset by the removal.

While it’s always best to avoid making your users angry, there are certainly users that it’s safer to anger than others. Keeping a feature or product that is disproportionately useful to people who aren’t benefitting your business in some real way means that you have fewer resources to devote to things that might make you some money. 

The other thing to consider here is how many people you might reasonably expect to have use this product if everybody knew about it. Unless there is a huge potential market for your feature or the small market that exists is willing to pay quite a lot to use it, you may want to consider killing it.

Note: for those few people who inevitably write to me and complain that “it’s not all about money,” I would like to point out that it very frequently does have to be about money or you will go out of business. If you want to keep your 10 free users super happy, you go right ahead. I’m going to cater to the large number of folks who pay me. 

And yes, I do understand the difference between long term and short term gains, and I expect my readers do, as well. Assume I'm optimizing for lifetime value here and not simply what makes the most money right this second.

What Is the Actual Cost of Keeping It?

Now that we’ve determined that people are using your product or feature, we should figure out how much it costs to keep your product or feature alive.

Of course, if you’re talking about your whole product, this math is relatively easy. The only hidden cost to keeping your product alive is the opportunity cost of building something else. If you’re working on your current product, you can’t be working on something more promising.

However, if you’re talking about a piece of your overall product, sometimes it can be harder to figure out how much it costs to keep a feature alive. Obviously there is the cost of the engineers or customer support people or sales people, but often they’re working on other things as well, so it’s not clear that cutting any particular feature will really save you any money. If even a few people are using a feature and it’s already built, why not just let it hang around indefinitely?

Well, consider some of these hidden costs to keeping a feature:
  • Bug fixes 
  • Customer support 
  • A more complicated code base 
  • A more complicated user interface (more features means more cognitive load on your new users) 
  • Server and infrastructure costs 
  • Additional work if you decide to do a site redesign or visual refresh
These may seem like small things, and in some cases they are, but don’t ever think that a feature is free just because you no longer are actively building it.

Of course, there's another alternative, which is to continue to iterate on the feature or product. This obviously adds hugely to the expected costs. Let's say that you create a new search feature for your product, and very few people end up using it. The actual cost of that feature needs to include all the iterations and changes that you're willing to try before people start using it or you give up on it. 

What Is the Actual Cost of Killing It?

In a similar vein, sometimes things can cost more to kill than you think. Unhappy users can cause trouble in forums or for support staff.

Of course, I did mention above that it’s sometimes acceptable (and inevitable) to annoy some of your users, but don’t underestimate the work that it will take to keep that unhappiness from spreading throughout your entire community.

There are engineering costs to turning off a feature, as well. Either you need to pull it out of your code base or leave it there to rot. Neither of those options is free, although both can be ultimately cheaper than maintaining the feature.

If you’re killing your whole product, you are often throwing away a huge percentage of your customer base. Just because you’re pivoting doesn’t mean that all of your users will pivot with you.

And the same goes for your employees, if you’re lucky enough to have any. Killing a product or significant feature can be absolutely terrible for morale. Obviously you’re not going to keep a failing product just to make your employees happy, but make sure that you are prepared for the fallout – and possibly resignations - when you do decide to make a major change.

So, Should You Kill It?

In the end, it really comes down to the expected ROI, and the future is notoriously difficult to predict. Good customer development techniques can help you get a clearer idea of the eventual potential of a product or feature that seems to be failing. An honest assessment of real costs can help you determine the investment that you're really making into the product.

But it's an art, not a science. In the end, you're still going to have to make the decision. And it may be the toughest decision you ever make as an entrepreneur. Good luck!

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