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Taming Scope Creep in Product Design

Joe Arcuri
By Joe Arcuri on 16th December, 2015 Updated on 1st February, 2017

We’ve all been there. The design and development teams have all agreed on the core feature set, wireframes, etc.. and then you hear these innocent words:

“You know, wouldn’t it be cool if the app did…”

Those words spark an intense brainstorm with lots of ideas that are white boarded and sketched out, leading to even more previously unplanned features. But you all agree that these additions would make the product more valuable for the user. Everyone is excited as the teams begin plan these features without a second thought about how it impact the project timeline long term.

Whether you know it or not, the beast is staring you right in the face: Scope Creep.

While scope creep happens way too often with clients in the agency world, even in-house teams can suffer from unrestrained enthusiasm as they strive to make a memorable first impression. In product design, scope creep not only prevents you from shipping on time with features your users can test and offer feedback on, but also scatters the focus of the team.

Let’s explore a few quick ways to keep the beast at bay.

Use Your Product Roadmap As An Anchor

For the best results, use collaborative tools like Asana or even Google Spreadsheets to create the first draft of your product roadmap. Once you’re done, gather the team for feedback and revise the draft to account for any new constraints.

Now, instead of tucking the roadmap away in a PDF on your hard drive, anyone can see the initial plan as well as all future iterations.

Screenshot of Asana’s app user interface

Photo credit: Asana

As you move through the timeline and hit milestones, comment in Asana (or send a weekly email) so that everyone can see at a glance the accomplishments versus outstanding tasks.

Plan for the Unexpected

But in order to better evaluate whether they will improve the user experience (and add value to the business), you first need to pad your timelines with enough time to evaluate new ideas.

Of course, you always need to evaluate each feature idea based upon effort required (and possible launch delay) versus potential impact.

Photo of designers working

As Mubashar Iqbal, co-founder of quuu.co and the top maker on Product Hunt states,“ My favorite approach to handle scope creep is to NEVER say no. It always seems to rub people the wrong way when they hear it.”

Instead, as Iqbal suggests in his podcasts, you should acknowledge the possibility of building the feature while also reiterating to stakeholders all the opportunity costs (e.g. launch delays or cutting other features).

For example, during the initial design of Quuu (a content curating platform for social media), the product team decided to delay launch in favor of building in a referral system. They realized the feature wouldn’t add much value if implemented after launch, so the delay was worth the potential value.

Encourage new ideas from the product team, but always respond with the required tradeoffs.

Create a Collaborative Impact vs Effort Matrix

As described in The Guide to UX Design Process & Documentation, an Impact vs Effort matrix is a useful living document for tracking feature requests versus feasible features.

Once you’ve initially clarified the tradeoffs with the stakeholder, ask them to plot out the feature request with sticky notes on the matrix. Share the matrix with the whole product team so they can see the current features as well as the “features graveyard”.

The matrix now shows anyone at a glance the history of product decisions as well as the rationale. You’ve essentially created a decisions dashboard. Anyone can understand the product direction within a matter of seconds.

Diagram of an action priority matrix

Photo credit: Time Analyzer

Quality Not Quantity

Every new feature you add doesn’t need to just function as planned and add value to the business – it also must make sense to users within the overall product architecture. Even when you do start planning for updates (or even a full redesign), don’t stray too far from the behaviors users have already formed with your product.

Otherwise, your feature creep soon develops into a much more dangerous experience creep.

You won’t find any magic bullets to feature or experience creep. But you can certainly build up proactive defense mechanisms. Keep your eye on timeframes, give the team time to evaluate ideas, and empower stakeholders to see the opportunity costs on their own.

Once stakeholders understand that great product design is always the sum of smart tradeoffs, you’re on your way to building a culture that can better manage its own innovation.

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