Do you need to make it customizable?

If you want to be a bad product manager, make sure your product is infinitely customizable. Why run the risk of losing customers because it doesn’t work exactly the way they want? What’s more “customer focused” than letting customers tailor their experience of using your product exactly to their needs? Not sure if it’s better to have lists of items sorted alphabetically or by date? Let users do both! Can’t decide if it’s easier to read text that is dark blue or dark grey? Provide both options! Don’t know if there are any standard shortcut key combinations? If you let anyone customize the product to suit their needs, how could anyone not be happy with it?

If you want to be a good product manager, don’t substitute customizability for making difficult decisions. Allowing customers to configure the product seems like a great idea in that it will allow it to adapt to different user needs. Unfortunately, often customizability is not included for the customers’ benefit but because the product manager was not able to make a decision.

There are many cases where product managers improperly will choose customization over decision-making. Maybe the product manager can’t get all the stakeholders to agree. Maybe the product manager is in the middle of a dispute between a developer and a designer. Maybe the product manager does not have enough knowledge of the customers or market to know how a specific feature should be best implemented.

In these cases, customization is often chosen as a cop-out. Ignoring the bigger problems — stakeholder disagreement, feuding team members, lack of market research — the product manager attempts to compromise and make a certain element of the product configurable by customers or the users. Unfortunately, that pushes the decision making to the customer, making the product more complex and potentially confusing.

The initial and long-term impacts of adding customizability — extra design, engineering, development, testing, and maintenance — are usually not explicitly known or discussed, so the true cost of additional complexity in the product is likely to be vastly underestimated.

Roger Cauvin also notes that customizability should not be used as a major selling point:

While [customizability] can be a very important and powerful attribute, it can also be a sign that your product doesn’t address a focused set of problems in the marketplace. If you can’t point to three or fewer compelling problems in the marketplace that would be enough to drive customers to buy your product, you might be tempted to make your product “customizable” so that it addresses any need a customer might have.

In Chapter 3 of User Interface Design for Programmers (a great read online, or in print, and not just for programmers), Joel Spolsky declares his “second major rule of user interface design” to be

Every time you provide an option, you’re asking the user to make a decision. … Asking the user to make a decision isn’t in itself a bad thing. … The problem comes when you ask them to make a choice that they don’t care about.

Unfortunately, “customizable” options that are provided to users are often aspects of the product they don’t care about.

Finally, talking about The Problem With Configurability, Jeff Atwood notes that

You might come out ahead by intentionally choosing to make things not configurable:

  1. It forces you to carefully select good default values
  2. It forces you to pick a strategy and run with it rather than hedging your bets and trying to satisfy everyone
  3. It’s one less thing for the user to think about when using your software

Product management is filled with difficult decisions, but those decisions need to be confronted head-on rather than avoided. Any time you feel yourself leaning towards making part of your product configurable or customizable, ask yourself whether that is really the best option for the customer or whether you are trying to avoid a tough decision.