The Zone of Suck and how your SaaS platform can avoid it

In Say NO by default, Derek Sivers writes about a presentation Steve Jobs attended with various record labels. They were asking about features, and he essentially told them to stop asking.

“I know you have a thousand ideas for all the cool features iTunes could have. So do we. But we don’t want a thousand features. That would be ugly. Innovation is not about saying yes to everything. It’s about saying NO to all but the most crucial features.”

There exists a trap in software development. One you might call the Zone of Suck. It’s where platforms end up when they fall into the middle ground between two different ends of a spectrum.

Here we’re going to focus on one Zone of Suck in particular – the one which lies between simplicity/focus and complexity/functionality.

What is the Zone of Suck?

The Zone of Suck can be incredibly easy to fall into. After all, every SaaS platform has to evolve and iterate over its lifecycle. Software development is a journey into the wild, and there’s always uncertainty ahead.

All we can do as developers is run with an idea and a vision, test, iterate and see just how far we can go.

In the face of the unknown, iterating to appeal to more types of users might look like a good idea. But if you’re not mindful of the Zone of Suck, those good intentions can quickly lead your platform astray.

Let’s take software used to build websites as an example. It usually falls into two categories. Either it’s web design software, created primarily for a professional developer or designer. Or it’s a site builder, designed to give a small business owner an accessible way to take their custom online. Complexity lies at one end of the spectrum, Simplicity at the other.

If you stray into the middle ground, expert users find that some of the technical features they need laid out before them are missing, or have been tucked out of sight behind an unnecessarily slick, beginner-friendly UI.

Meanwhile the rest of your users still stumble across those advanced features, but instead of an added bonus they clutter the experience – and the application feels like it has an unforgiving learning curve. They just want to get up and running – they don’t want to become a web designer.

It’s the best of platforms and the worst of platforms – trying to do everything at once, and appealing to no one in particular. In other words, it’s sitting square in the middle of the Zone of Suck.

Beware the feature request trap

What makes the Zone of Suck so easy to get drawn into is the fact that it’s difficult to keep a piece of software simple while meeting the evolving needs of users. You need to keep a close relationship with those customers, and building and maintaining that relationship isn’t wholly within the remit of developers – that’s why UX research exists as a discipline.

It’s tough to manage the relationship, too. There will always be a user who wants exactly what you have, with just one more feature for something only they do. But while adding that feature might help them, does it add value for the majority of your users? Or do they end up with all the complexity and none of the benefits?

Decisions about adding features need to be based on a clear understanding of who your audience is, what they really care about, and what their larger goals are outside of your product. Otherwise your application will quickly become bloated.

37 signals advocates a similar philosophy in their book Getting Real. “The best software takes sides. When someone uses software, they’re not just looking for features, they’re looking for an approach.”

You can see high profile examples of tools that have strayed from their focus. Google Analytics, for instance, was once a tool that any professional marketer could try to get to grips with. But its latest version, GA4, offers so much granularity those same marketers now need to hire specialists. Marketers have taken to Reddit using words like, “unintuitive”, “trash fire”, and “one of the biggest failures in Google’s history.”

The BaseKit journey to simplicity

We’ve learned that our end users – small business owners – will rarely find value in complexity and granular features. They need different products from those offered to web designers and other audiences.

For our small business end-user, time is the most precious resource. So almost all of our updates and all of the iterations of our software are designed to win them back more time – whether by providing easier integration with other tools, or by refining our UI, or streamlining our onboarding UX.

We know our audience of small business owners are wearing multiple hats and might be using dozens of different tools to keep their operations running. Since they have workflows beyond our products, joining up our products to fit their workflows is important. And if there’s any way we can get more of the right, simple tools in one place, we want to explore it.

We’re looking for SaaS partners

If you’re running with a vision of simplicity, and if small business owners are in your sights – whether they’re accountants or hairdressers, yoga teachers or software solopreneurs – we’d love to see how we can support your vision.

For example, if you already have an application that serves small business customers, you can use our API to bring our robust, secure, well proven technology into your existing application – giving your customers a smoother way to manage their business without hopping between software.

Our white label website builder is also yours to offer as part of a package or as a separate product, so you can scale your offering while maintaining your vision for simple, elegant software.

For more thoughts on software development and partnership, see our blogs on the huge potential of open ecosystems and our guide to scaling: build vs. buy vs. white label.

You can also request a demo of our software, or get in touch to discuss what a BaseKit partnership could look like.


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