Why it's wrong to implement features by popularity

posted 29.01.2010

Over at the Area51 forums on phpBB.com, where most of the public discussion around phpBB4 development is held, I overheard an argument saying that we should deploy a page where user incentives to new features should be listed and it would be possible to vote on them. While the idea of developing a products accustomed to users using their own opinions is nice, it simply will not work. There are several issues which I find blocking such a workflow. First it is the participation of the users themselves. Only a handful of users from the whole userbase of phpBB participates in the development discussions and they do not represent a significant part of the community. This is natural, as following the background discussions of every piece of software you use is simply impossible. What more, these users (I often include myself in this description) usually have a deformed view of what the product should look like and lack the necessary distance which could give them a better and more general view of what the product needs. Having a vote on a feature suggestion will certainly not bring a representative result usable to make a decision about implementing a feature. There have been a few very interesting ideas that came up in the discussion of the new product. One of them was the separation of core features and moving them to a pluggable level. The main positive effect of this measure I see is that the already feature-filled interface can be simplified on each installation giving administrators an option to opt-out from using some of phpBB's features and not bloating their board with them. Most of the features that users will suggest and have suggested in similar experiments before were basically adding up of new features that would be useful for only a limited amount of users. Such features and add-ons should be provided in form of modifications, which allow every administrator to customize his board. The phpBB development team on the other hand should provide an intuitive and working modification interface, which would easily allow users to add such modifications. If I return to the example of the current discussion about phpBB4, in my opinion, the discussion should be led about key structural and feature concepts. Feature themselves should be kept to a minimum. To bring up a topic and proposal that will be implemented, it is necessary to provide a well thought through concept. This means thinking about the target audience, the effect on the board as whole, maintainability and usability. It certainly is not about getting a long list of users to support your idea.
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