Theoretical vs. Actual Functionality

Posted on May 19, 2006

The functionality of software exists in two dimensions: theoretical and actual.

Theoretical functionality is everything a piece of software can do. Actual functionality is what you’re actually going to use. The gap between what a piece of software can do and what you actually use it for is something I’m arbitrarily naming the “functionality usage gap.”

In desktop software, Microsoft Word has probably the biggest gap between theoretical functionality and the average actual functionality a user gets out of it. Word can do some amazing things, but it generally operates at maybe 5% of it’s theoretical functionality.

Fact is, most people use Word like a big typewriter. Fully 95% of Word users could get by just fine (probably better) with Microsoft Works. If not for the lack of spellcheck, a lot of people could just use Wordpad.

In content mangement, workflow is way, way oversold and over-hyped. The functionality usage gap is bigger on this than any other feature, I think.

When I was working with Documentum, their system came with a workflow editor that looked like Microsoft Visio. You drew boxes and linked them together in bizarre and arcane ways – it was so theoretically functional that when it came time for me to do a simple, serial workflow one day (Person A submits, Person B approves), I couldn’t figure it out.

Ektron is the total opposite. It has “approval chains,” which are simple serial workflows. Someone submits, and the content floats up to an approver (or a group – any member of which can approve), then to another, and another, etc.

When I first got a look at this, I remember thinking, “This is ridiculously simplistic. How do they expect to sell this?” But you know what? It works perfectly. It works because 99% of the workflows in most organizations are serial – they go from A to B to C to published (and I would say that 90% of those are just one stop – Person A submits, Person B approves, and it’s published). The gap with this is very small.

Software sales reps “exploit the gap.” They’re very good at scaring people into thinking they might need this theoretical functionality sometime in the future. Sure, serial workflow works now, but you’re going to need a 180-step, multi-dimensional, Flux-Capacitated workflow sometime in the future anyway, so you don’t want to paint yourself into a corner, now do you?

Additionally, customers simply like knowing that the power is there. It’s the same reason people buy Corvettes and SUVs. Most of them never need to get to 60 m.p.h. in five seconds or go off-road, but they love the idea that they could if they wanted. Having that option – that power in the reserve – makes them feel good. Knowing that you can create a master document with 100 sub-documents is pretty cool, even if you’re just writing a letter home to Mom.

I’m suddenly in the mood to rebel against the functionality usage gap. My experience with Ektron workflows has really opened my eyes to what I need and what I don’t, and I’m wondering where else in my software library I’ve paid for theoretical functionality I’ve never used and probably never will. You?

This is item #235 in a sequence of 357 items.

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