For Army Rangers, casual campers and budding serial killers the Swiss Army Knife is an attractive tool. Knowing that you have a single product that can do a variety of tasks averagely well is quite comforting. It represents a highly portable way to **get by** in an emergency – which clearly has value. But given the option, it’s unlikely a 3-inch nail file would be your number one tool of choice if you needed to skin an otter – or whatever people do when they’re surviving in the wild.
One of the biggest mistakes I see when companies are working on their digital product strategy is to fall into the Swiss Army Knife mindset. It usually goes something like this:
Employee A: We’re going to launch our new Web site this year. It’s going to be amazing.
Employee B: Great, what are you planning to build?
Employee A: We’re going to have quizzes, polls, video, image slideshows, social media, games, email newsletters, more social media, user generated content, related content, tips, quotes, fun facts…and animation.
All too often when people approach a new digital product or Web site re-launch they simply aim to include every single digital feature and/or trend they’ve read or heard about in the last six months. This – in effect – is akin to building a digital Swiss Army Knife – something that does a bunch of things **averagely** well, but nothing **really** well.
This is a particular problem within traditional media companies who instinctively want to keep adding more features to a product, and are terrified of leaving anything out. From my experience many traditional marketers equate more features with more excitement, which is a bit like saying that if only Starbucks would add three more sickly sweet unpronounceable hot-drink hybrids to it’s already unfathomable menu that my experience there would be more enjoyable.
The most successful companies in the digital space are the ones that have a clear, highly focused….dare I say it boring product focus. Think Google, Twitter, Craig’s List or E-Bay – all hugely successful companies that did one thing very well. There aren’t too many people making comments like “If only Twitter would let me tweet a 140 second video poll that I can film on my phone and then send back real-time pictures of people answering who are within a 400 yard vicinity of my location”. That wouldn’t make the service more exciting, it would make it more stupid (not that I think Twitter is stupid in the first place!).
Perhaps the biggest offenders when it comes to Swiss Army Knife mentality are large/content media companies. Look at an average Web page on any large media brand site and you’ll be inundated with an overwhelming barrage of modules, widgets, features and graphics. It’s almost as if the creative brief read something like this:
“The goal of this site is to cover every single pixel on the screen with something. We need to include at least 50 different ways to distract the user from focusing on the page they specifically made a point of clicking on in the first place.”
Yahoo has come to represent the ultimate in Swiss Army Knife Syndrome. A brand that was once known for search is now known for….welll….not knowing what it actually is. By trying to be all things to all people, it is rapidly becoming nothing to no-one.
Digital product development is never easy because there are – by default – very few constraints and limitless possibilities. But ultimately focus and simplicity will always win the day. So next time you embark on a major digital initiative ask yourself this – do I really need the fishing hook, mini-corkscrew and retractable toothpick?
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