"This would be better without feature X"--said no one, ever.

734 words • reading time 4 minutes

During the day, I work making a top-quality flight and hotel search Android application. On May 8th, we launched a major redesign to the Play Store. New UI, vastly improved hotel product, and the addition of in-app booking. Since then, we’ve received great feedback from users. Much of the feedback will be familiar to most producers of consumer applications or developer APIs.

This is really cool, but it would be better if you could do x, y, and z.

The knee-jerk reaction is to think—let’s add all these features overnight, push an update, and all these users are going to be so impressed and happy. Nothing but five-star reviews for us. If that sounds to you like walking into a trap, you are right.

You must resist.

Turns out this trap has a name, and it’s called the availability heuristic. In short, it boils down to:

Memes. Memes everywhere

All the user feedback asks to add stuff, and nobody is asking to remove anything. So obviously adding features is what users want, right?

Nope!

Adding new features indiscriminately will lead to feature creep. It will make designing harder and possibly make the outcome be worse. It will add noise for all of the users that don’t care for the feature. It will make it harder to change the product. It will add more code. It will increase the risk of bugs. It will increase complexity. It will limit future-you.

Users do not like it when features they use are taken away from them. For a spectacular example you may relate to, Spotify’s recent desktop client removed the ability to see a list of all your friends and what music they like—along with many other features that users had come to like. The community response was not good. Maybe you’re not Spotify-sized and don’t have that many users. Maybe you have metrics in-place and know only 1% of your users utilize feature X. But as a general principle, once a feature exists, removing it will annoy or anger a non-trivial portion of its users.

To decide which feature requests you should pay most attention to, you can separate requests into pseudo-features, that make current functionality more convenient to use, and truly new features that facilitate entirely novel actions for the user. If you make a messaging app, a request of the former type might be to add to add a “clear chat history” button so that users don’t have to delete messages one by one. A request of the latter type might be user-drawn image sharing, so you can send people doodles . In the first case, the user could already clear chat history, but only by doing something really inconvenient. In the latter case, the users will be able to draw on pictures, which they could not do before.

The first kind of feature request is easier to deal with, and it is usually a good idea to implement them, if opportunity-cost is not too high. There’s a few things to consider, like how long it would take to implement, how risky the code changes would be, and how many users would be benefited. In practice, you will probably also have to take into consideration if you even want to make an action easier to perform. There’s still good reasons to not add features of this kind, but these features are less insidious.

The second kind of feature requests is more complicated. Many of the questions just mentioned still apply, but the possibility that this kind of feature will add lots of new code is greater. The most important question to ask yourself at this stage is whether this feature furthers the vision or goals of your product. A great product is simple-to-use and focused on solving a few problems well, not all of them, because it is always better to solve one problem beautifully than one hundred problems badly.

By ruthlessly triaging features, you take a big step to making a great product. You get that much closer to a tidy experience that gets out of the way, that delights, and that solves a few problems very well. You get closer to—in one word—excellence.

Additional Reading

For a much more thorough exploration of the subject of feature selection, I recommend Getting Real, a book by Basecamp maker 37signals. It was written about web applications but the concepts are universal.

My Beloved Cuba

2437 words • reading time 14 minutes

I have wanted to write for a very long time about something close to my heart. One of the difficulties was finding what the purpose of the essay would be. What point am I trying to make? By now I’ve realized there is no point—the point is simply to share. This is hard for me to write. For whatever reason, I am quite emotionally attached to all of this. So with hoping this does not turn into a rambling mess, here we go.

I was born in the small island of Cuba in 1991. That same year that the Soviet Union dissolved. The Belavezha Accords—which dissolved the Soviet Union and established the Commonwealth of Independent States—were signed about five weeks after I was born. This no doubt brought great ramifications to the world, but it deeply impacted Cuba.

The years immediately after 1991 are dubbed in Cuban history as the Special Period, or periodo especial. This is mostly in reference to the specially poor living conditions most Cubans went through. The conditions of the special period are those I lived with from ages zero to six. Remarkably, I remember enough of life there that when I visited for the first time, fifteen years later, I remembered my way around my old neighborhood and could point out my pre-Kindergarden school (now a farm of sorts).

The Special Period was a time of great rationing. Much of the food was obtained through la Libreta de Abastecimiento, or la libreta for short. It means the notebook and it referred to the booklet all Cubans kept and used to obtain basic foods like rice, eggs, and meat. The portions were most of the time not enough to avoid hunger, but the ever-inventive and resourceful Cuban would usually find a way around it. If there ever was—and is—one thing abundant in Cuba, it is corruption. When the wages are less than $20 a month and the rationed food is little, you steal to get by.

Then there was and remains the issue of social oppression. As a toddler and kid, I did not notice this. But my parents, grandparents, and entire extended family certainly did. They talk of the forced mass gatherings that people had to do on weekends. They gathered in Havana under the hot Cuban sun and listened to Fidel Castro speak. They swore fealty to El Che. If you did not attend, your neighbors would start wondering why. There’s a member of el comité, the Cuban Communist party, in almost every block. All of this sounds very Orwellian, and it is.1

Young teenagers spent their summers in what can aptly be described as labor camps. Cubans call it el campo, or the fields. They spend much of the summer working these fields and living in dorms with relatively poor conditions.

At these camps, the teenagers go largely unsupervised. Young teenagers with raging hormones are left unattended and explore sex at eleven or twelve. Bullying is brutal and anyone slightly odd is a target. Gays used to be particularly punishable, although in recent years this seems to have changed. Parents are certainly aware of this, but what choice do they have? The children have to go. My twelve and thirteen year sisters were born in Mexico. The one time this subject came up with my father, he could not imagine what he would do if they had not.

At school, the Communist Party did a great job with de-education. Kids swore fealty to el Che and Fidel and all the great so-called heroes of the revolution. I only went to school one year in Cuba, but even by then I was underway to indoctrination. Two years after arriving in Mexico, I still ardently defended Fidel.

My family was not communist. My mother, uncle, and father were all quite critical of the government. My uncle and father in specific went to jail for a short time after a poor decision to quite publicly decry their detestation for the regime. My great-uncle was a military mechanic. He serviced helicopters that Fidel and Raul Castro regularly flew in. I remember asking him, when I was five years old, why he didn’t sabotage the helicopters to kill them both. He did not reply. Why I defended Fidel years later I do not know. It is hard to understand what the effects of exposing a young child to conflicting ideologies are. It is not hard to imagine that over time I would have leaned more towards the Communist Party than towards my own family.

Fear is omnipresent in Cuba. You do not speak badly of the government to your neighbors. And preferably not to your own children either. When some of the population still believes in the ideals of the party, and the rest are afraid to speak, not knowing who is in and who is a chibaton, a snitch—there can be no unrest.

I mentioned that the teenagers in the fields explore sex very early. This has consequences that reach far beyond the edges of the campos. I want to pause here and apologize to all the young Cuban males who are not this way. Lo siento, voy a generalizar un poco aquí. Young Cuban males—and frankly, I am using young loosely—talk about how many women they’ve slept with much the same way we might talk about how many countries we’ve visited or how many different beers we’ve tried. It’s a pissing match, and if you’re not fucking, you’re not a real man. And this is not the only societal pressure that women face. A very common question for a young woman in Cuba, ages twelve to infinity, is hay niña no tienes novio? Do you have a boyfriend? Oh, why not? This very cultural attitude persists there to this day, and even carried over into many Cubans in Miami. Cultural views of women and sex are a serious problem.

Health is another. Free healthcare is provided to everyone, but it is not prompt. My uncle at this point has suffered serious back and hip aches for a number of months. His surgery has been delayed month after month. It was last schedule for last week, but then they ran out of the medical supplies needed for it so it’s now been pushed back. This is typically the rule, not the exception. People live long, but not well. You get free cancer treatment—eventually.

Then there’s the problem of education, or its lack of purpose. While Cuban education is generally lauded and pointed to as a good outcome of communism, the reality is quite different. First off, there is a huge divide in the education that sons of Communist members and those with money receive, and the rest of the people. The rich and well off send their kids to international schools, where they pay $5,800 each year because they know the public schools are terrible. Keep in mind the average monthly salary in cuba is probably around $15 each month. The poor get the bottom litter. Like in most aspects of life in Cuba, the idea that everyone is equal and there are no social classes is one of the biggest lies of the Communist regime.

The other problem is that the public education is a highly corrupt system where children of Communist families are generally better able to advance. This reaches a peak when it comes time to enroll in degree programs or career tracks. Children of ambassadors and other government officials are given their first choices. Everyone else fights for second.

The biggest problem though is that young people don’t see hope or purpose in their education. Some of my own family members did not finish school because what is the point of studying hard and acquiring rare and valuable skills when you will make almost the same as those who put their effort into stealing? One person makes more money in a week running an illegal gambling ring, than someone else makes in a month as a very highly-trained medical professional.2

This is probably what chokes me up and most deeply saddens me about the whole thing. It is not about the appalling living conditions, the hunger, the shabby buildings, the potholes, the dirtiness, and the outstanding amount of people asking for money everywhere you turn. The sad part of all of it is the loss of hope. What we call the American Dream, the idea that by working hard, your children will lead a better life than you did, is completely absent.

The biggest damage that the last fifty years have done to Cuba is the fundamental cultural impact it has had in its young people. Communism could fall tomorrow. Cuba could become a U.S. state in the next five minutes, nothing would change for a long time. You can see this in the trouble Cubans in Miami have adjusting to a nation of laws. Where you don’t have to skirt legality to get ahead. Where hard work, useful skill, and a dashing of luck will take you far. And even without the luck aspect, you will probably do better than your parents did. This is what makes me cry. The U.S. is far from perfect, but with one look to Cuba and despite a general dislike of patriotism—I can only feel pride in this country.

Older Cubans generally had a few exemplary traits. I am going to generalize and write with rose-tinted glasses, but I don’t think the following will be far off the mark. The older generation of Cubans are made up of people who are extremely hard-working, resourceful, and proud. They do a lot with very little. They keep cars from the 1930s running in 2012.3 They are scrappy to no end and they withstand a lot of adversity. In fact, I am almost describing an ideal startup-founder. I have no doubt if you took smart Cubans from the 50s and threw them into Silicon Valley now, great things would be built.

And so, despite all of the problems and issues and heart-breaking conditions I can recite, I refuse to let this negative outlook be the conclusion of my thoughts. Cubans have a saying: La esperanza es lo último que se pierde.4 The last thing you lose is hope. While much of the Cuban youth is disillusioned, if things will ever change, it has to start with them. There are respectful and intelligent young people in Cuba. Walk by el Centro de Estudios Maritanos in Havana, an institution dedicated to studying Jose Martí’s life and work, and you will meet some of them.

Perhaps even more inspirational are people like Yoani Sánchez who found a way to exercise a fundamental human right, free speech, in a nation designed to prevent just that. She writes a blog called GeneracionY. At one point the Cuban government blocked her website inside the island, so she started emailing entries to friends in Miami that then post it for her. She has also found ways to utilize Twitter, presumably through SMS.

As of late, the Cuban government has begun relaxing many long-held regulations. Cubans have seen this many times before. These kinds of changes have been promised time and time again, with real changes happening only on paper. But there’s some reason to believe (or maybe only hope) that this time will be different. For instance, Yoani has actually been granted a passport, due to new legislation which now allows Cubans to leave the island with just a Visa to their destination country.

Something is stirring in Cuba. Living in the island is like living with blindfolds on. You don’t know anything about the outside world. You imagine that the world is as you see it, or don’t. A Cuban that leaves and gets access to free media and internet is forever changed. I hope that with the relaxed legislations, many Cubans will expand their minds and go back to the island, enlightened of how the world really is and with knowledge about freedom, and democracy, and free speech.

As Yoani Sánchez describes in her New Year’s list of reasons to stay in Cuba:

Pero alguien tiene que quedarse para cerrar la puerta, apagar la luz y encenderla nuevamente. Muchos tienen que quedarse porque este país tiene que volver a nacer con ideas frescas, con gente joven y propuestas de futuro. Al menos la ilusión tiene que quedarse, la capacidad de regeneración debe permanecer aquí; el entusiasmo aferrarse a esta tierra. En este 2013, entre los muchos que se queden tiene que estar definitivamente la esperanza.

Or in English.

But somebody has to stay to close the door, turn off the lights, and turn them on once more. Many have to stay because this country needs to be born again with fresh ideas, with young people and proposals for the future. At least aspirations have to stay, the ability to regenerate needs to be fixed here; enthusiasm needs to cling to this earth. In this 2013, among the many that remain, there definitely needs to be hope.

My values and beliefs have been shaped by the United States. There’s no country I really rather live in than this one. I consider myself an American. But perhaps one day I could be both. Perhaps one day the people of Cuba will rise anew, be reborn with their old values and work ethic. Perhaps the Silicon Valley of tomorrow will be the gorgeous valley of Pinar del Rio. It’s a long shot, but why not hope?

-Yarian

Notes

I spent a month in Cuba studying photography last summer—among other things. Some of the images I took are captured in my 500px portfolio. But this is a small sample. If you are interested in seeing more let me know and I can process and upload them.

1 I do not have source materials to prove much of what I share. But I do not see why my family and all of our Cuban family friends would make up the same stories and details. A lot of them also come directly from my own experience last summer, when I visited for a whole month.

2 Actual example with people I know.

3 I personally saw this when I visited. It amazed me how proud the owner was. Sadly I have forgotten the make and year of the car, but I have pictures so you may be able to figure it out.

4 This saying is almost certainly actually Spanish. Cubans very often use it. A lot of Cuban sayings in fact come from Spain. Even many of the swear words are the same.

In Defense of The Best

928 words • reading time 5 minutes

A while back, Dustin Curtis wrote a post titled The Best. It is an argument for quality over quantity, taken to a certain extreme. Dustin contends that when everything he owned was of the highest quality, he never had to worry about his belongings once. He describes it as liberating.

The discussion that spurred in HN seemed to somewhat misunderstand his point. About a week later, Moxie Marlinspike posted a very thought-provoking reply. Yet he frames the discussion in terms of money and makes a few points invalid in my experience.

Money

While generally speaking, the best of something is usually not the cheapest, and the worst of something is usually not the most expensive—The Best is not about money. It is not about the absolute highest quality in some objective scale that probably does not exist. The best can be summed up as: Which of all possible items in this category would bring me the most utility? Dustin apparently cares about how steel feels on his teeth, and how well his flatware slips in his food. I do not personally care about those things—but it matters to him, so those forks are the best for him.

Yet the argument inevitably focuses on money. Moxie claims that a normal person will feel constrained by a $50 fork. He seems to think there’s no way you can buy something expensive and not feel attached to it.

I love my Macbook Pro, but the bottom aluminium pannel is severely scratched. Similarly I’ve never understood the idea of putting a case on a phone for cosmetic reasons. I really enjoy riding my road bike. But I’ve also scratched the crap out of it. I’ve used it, taken it on adventures, and it still serves me well. My nicest pieces of clothing are actually my t-shirts. I take them rock-climbing, get them muddy, and sweat into them. Objects don’t bring happiness, what you can do with them does.

The best is not about objects, even when it is. The point of researching quality, spending time thinking about a purchase, and potentially buying something quite pricey is that it creates a high barrier of entry for objects into your life. Which in turn leads to not owning anything you don’t really need. Which leads to time to spend doing what you love.

Back to the flatware example. Moxie advocates for partisans of the worse to buy fifteen sets of cutlery for fifty cents. I don’t know that Moxie really meant fifteen sets—maybe he was illustrating how cheap they are. But for most people, that’s exactly what they’d do. And not just for cutlery, for just about everything. Buying the worse of everything provides such a low barrier of entry for owning things that it is easy to accumulate possessions.

Experiences

What bugged me most about Moxie’s response was his claim that “the best means waiting, planning, researching, and saving until one can acquire the perfect equipment for a given task.” He then lists several experiences that he presumably went through. My outlook paints this differently. I would love to visit race-tracks more often. I cannot afford a Ferrari 458, which would be the best race-track car for me. Does this mean I will spend my life outside of race-tracks. Of course not! I will probably rent a Ferrari one day, and on all the other days, use whatever car I happen to own to do it anyways.

When I first went snowboarding I went with borrowed snow-pants that were XXL. I used rope to develop make-shift suspenders which worked sort-of well for all sixteen snow-days that season. I simply could not afford the best.

Applicability and Conclusion

That’s the one bit where money and The Best are most closely linked. You can’t always afford the best. If you’re a single mother, you are not going to spend four hours researching which baby food is best and then buying that one, even if it is quite pricey.

For one, I think Dustin’s audience is the white, middle to upper class, tech audience. I can’t speak for him but I would not recommend his philosophy to people in Africa, or single-mothers struggling to get by. It’s simply not realistic. I am extremely lucky and chances are if you are reading this, you are too. By no virtue of my own I live in an affluent society and in a relatively privileged position.

Any efforts to show how Dustin’s philosophy fails because it does not apply to a carefully-chosen audience is disingenuous. He is claiming that it works for him. He clearly acknowledges that his approach is unreasonable and insane. I personally do not apply it to quite that extent.

On the other hand, I also don’t want to seem like I am down on Moxie’s approach either. He seems like a person that values people and experiences over things. In that sense, he’s one from my tribe. I respect that. Dustin and Moxie’s proposals are two ways to attain the same thing—freedom from consumerism.

But de-emphasizing the things we own doesn’t prevent us from acquiring more of it. Moxie proposes that the things we own make no difference one way or another. But they do. A cluttered home actively hurts me, in time, and mental load.

To reword Dustin’s original claim: “’The best’ isn’t necessarily a product or thing." The reward is minimalism, owning less, and the peace of mind of knowing your possessions will perform.

P.S. It is also about an appreciation for craftsmanship, which is a topic of its own.