The death of the functionality matrices

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Functionality matrices. If you work in enterprise and evaluate software for purchasing you can’t miss them. I’m talking about those ubiquitous spreadsheet like grids that list products on one dimension and features on the other, with ticks for every feature a product has.
Vendors love to tout their offerings against the competition in this form, and review sites love using them in comparison reviews. Heck, even a lot of buyers swear by them. There’s only a little problem: they’re completely useless, and can also be downright deceptive. Why? Read on to find out,as this is the very topic of today’s blog post.

Not all features are made equal

You should not evaluate a product, be it an LMS or anything else for that matter, by its mere “feature count”.

The features that you need are much more important than 100 extra features that you’re never gonna use, or have marginal utility. If you’re buying a car, for example, an air-conditioner is a must-have feature, whereas a coffee-cup holder not so much.

In the flat world of functionality matrices, however, every feature of a product is presented as being of the same importance as any other, and customers are conditioned to merely check which product got the most “ticks”. Manufactures know that and engage in a “specs war”, adding tons of features to their products, with little care for their implementation quality, and even less for ease of use.

There’s even a word among industry pundits for that, chosen to sound like a disease (which kind of is): featuritis.

Two products having the same feature doesn’t mean much

We discussed how not all features of a product are of equal worth. But the reality is that not even the same features, as implemented in different products, are of equal value.

To expand on the car analogy, a BMW and a Fiat both have an engine. Does that make them equally capable on that department? I’d say no. In the same way, two LMS products might both offer the features you need, but that doesn’t tell you anything regarding how well those features are implemented in each.

What you need as a buyer is a qualitative description of the product. What a functionality matrix gives you is a list of features various products have or don’t have.

The creator of the functionality matrix gets to pick the features

It gets worse. If you’re reading a functionality matrix in a vendor’s website or printed brochure, you’d find that it’s product does very favorably in the comparison.

Of course it does. Its own marketing team has chosen the features you see in that matrix. Unless its comprised of unusually honest marketing persons, they obviously emphasized features and attributes that their product is strong at, and omitted essential or enticing features that competing products have and theirs doesn’t.

A functionality matrix on a vendor’s website is as truthful as said vendor’s marketing copy. In other words, you shouldn’t rely on it. Hands-on experience trumps any marketing copy, specification list or functionality matrix. Ask for a demo, and evaluate the product yourself, preferably under the same conditions that it will be used in.

Less can be more

Enterprises buying software, discover time and again that it’s the simpler solutions that get mass adoption within the company and that lead to the bigger productivity boosts. Overly complex, “enterprise-y” software often gets abandoned and ignored by their employees.

Of course they can be forced to use it, and may even do so, reluctantly, but they will always find a way to bypass software that isn’t simple and pleasant to use. E.g. a complex collaboration software might see some token use at first, but will soon have users reverting to doing most of their actual collaboration through emails and chat.

It’s the simple solutions that usually win the hearts of users ― and piling feature upon feature rarely makes for a simple to use product. Sometimes the best offering is the one with the less ticks in the functionality matrix.

Of course less features might also mean a bare bones offering, but if it’s done properly it could be a sign of a mature, fat-free product. In software, especially, less features also mean less bugs (all other things being equal), and less user interface complexity.

Are you sure you even need all those features?

We discussed how the product vendors try to lure you by listing tons of features you probably don’t need. But are even the features you think that you need actually essential or even useful?

Often, influenced by marketing, fancy new gimmicks, peer pressure, old wives tales, etc, buyers think they need more features than they actually do.

Have you really evaluated each of those features you consider “essential”? Unless you already have experience with using a similar product (so that you really know what you want and what your actual needs are), you’re probably asking for features you’re not really gonna use, ever.

It’s like that CD drives that all vendors used to offer. Apple killed it first from their laptops, and everybody went “how they dare take away such a useful peripheral that everybody else’s laptops have?”.

It turns out most people discovered they didn’t really need them — and those that did could just buy a cheap external one. In exchange, their laptops became less bulky, with room for a larger battery and less weight. Things not easily translated into ticks on a functionality matrix, but which are nonetheless improvements that people who carry their laptops around daily appreciate.

Our little rant above don’t mean that a functionality matrix is totally worthless. Executed correctly (and honestly) it can be a useful, supplementary tool, offering lots of information about competing products at a glance. The key word here is “supplementary”. But it should be just the first step in your quest in evaluating an LMS — or any other product.