The Bullwhip Effect in Continuous Delivery: When Good Features Go Bad
In the field of industrial operations, The Bullwhip Effect posits that small upstream changes can have an amplified downstream impact. With a bullwhip, the energy originating at the handle becomes intensely concentrated and by the time it reaches the tip, it is so intense it creates a small sonic boom — the “crack” of a whip.
Seemingly small changes can have unexpected, amplified downstream impacts. This is a useful metaphor for considering the unintended consequences of continuous deployment, one of the more dominant models for modern software development and delivery. The problem is that in a rush to release new software features, we too often forget about the actual users of the software, putting the urgency to ship over the reality of what that means for users.
A recent Pendo study found that 80% of SaaS product features are rarely or never used, costing companies an estimated $30 billion in wasted R&D. Many features fail to correspond to a real user need, while others are simply hard to use. Still, others fail to gain traction because they’re lost in an onslaught of updates.
From Features to Experiences
As product people, we’re taught that building a great product requires empathy for the customer. The best product managers deeply understand the need they’re solving for and are obsessed with making life easier for the customer. Matt LeMay, author of “Product Management in Practice,” defines one of his four key principles of product management as “living in your user’s reality.”
The reality for users is that even good and worthy features can, and often do, create bad experiences.
Continuous deployment is a good faith effort to meet and exceed customers’ expectations, but it is too often translated to unending waves of change inside the product. A feature that improves a task or workflow does not necessarily improve the whole experience, particularly when users aren’t prepared to adapt to the change. The reality for users is that even good and worthy features can — and often do — create bad experiences.
The rush to push new features is endemic in software, partially because of the perception that more features means a better product. Even (or particularly) industry giants like Microsoft have fallen victim to this: extraneous features in Vista crippled performance; and early versions of the MS Word toolbars barely left room for, well, words. Product development needs to move beyond continuous deployment and also embrace a philosophy of continuous adoption.
From Continuous Deployment to Continuous Adoption
Smart software makers stay focused on these whip-end effects. They understand that all features affect the entire user experience. Gmail is still the dominant email app after 15 years because it has remained focused on solving core user needs. Slack has been a champion of simplicity and consistency in the user experience, leaning on partners to expand its scope without cluttering the experience. The driving force behind Zoom’s meteoric rise is an amazing product that users love. It’s simple — and it simply works.
Others have taken more direct steps towards continuous adoption strategies. SaaS provider SiteCompli used in-app feature announcements and walkthroughs to make users aware of new features and guide them through the steps to get value. The result? A 20x increase in feature adoption and a 47% improvement in overall user engagement. Similarly, PagerDuty uses in-app analytics and guided engagement to design targeted beta programs and receive customer feedback on new functionality. They use this feedback loop to prove the validity and future impact of new features before they invest heavily in a general release.
The software products that will be around for the next 15 years will not be those with the most features; they will be those that have shifted their focus from continuous deployment to a methodology that, to use LaMay’s phrase, lives in their users’ reality. The reality is that users are harried, distracted and hardly capable of consuming every feature you throw at them, and that reality demands a thoughtful and rigorous approach to continuous adoption.