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Features vs. Design: The Great SaaS Debate

October 14, 2021
Kevin Giffin
8 min

Salesforce, Slack, Copper, Monday.com. What do these applications all have in common? They’re all evidence ready to be deployed in one of the longest running debates in the SaaS space: when developing new software, should you prioritize design or features? Find yourself in the right corners of X (Twitter), Discord, and LinkedIn, and you’re never more than a few hours away from an opinion. And despite the debates, one thing seems abundantly clear when you look at the array of applications entering the market. “Feature-first” is winning.

To this, we humbly ask: Why? 

Why do so many apps seem to focus on features to the neglect of their own design? And why don’t they seem to notice (or care) about the potential issues that can arise from that approach?

It just doesn’t make sense to us, and we don’t think we’re alone here. We wanted to weigh in on why most platforms focus on features over design and usability, and why we put design front and center as we developed Ledger. So consider this our first foray into the great SaaS debate. Do your worst, Twitter.*

*Hi, Twitter! Us again. Please don’t do your worst. That really isn’t the energy we’re going for around here.

The Case for Feature First 

In reality, most apps end up heading down the feature-first expressway before an engineer has written a single line of code. And it happens pretty naturally.

  1. Founder notices something (e.g. – a problem that needs solving, a process that could be easier, a gap in a market)
  2. Founder proposes a solution
  3. Founder brings a team together to create a solution
  4. Profit?

From the inception of most new SaaS products, the whole design process is geared toward realizing the feature itself. How do we have to design x to solve y?

And is there anything wrong with this process? Not at all. It’s basically the tried-and-true method for founding any new business, whether it’s a work application in the SaaS market or a sandwich shop on Main Street.

Keeping your feature central to your development process is critical to bringing that vision to life. But doing so at the expense of design and usability can cause you to get in the way of your central feature in the first place.

The Issue with Feature First

Focusing on what your product does without focusing equally on how your product does it can run you into all sorts of problems. Just look at a CRM like Salesforce.

Is it powerful? Sure. Is it popular? Unbelievably. But is it intuitive, easy-to-use, and all that fun to look at? Not even close.

Many large SaaS products went all in on their feature to the neglect of everything else. And in Salesforce’s case, the result was a CRM that works, but is inflexible, hard-to-learn, and so burdensome and boring that most users view it as a necessary evil, not the most powerful tool in their work toolbox.

Or take Basecamp, a project management standard that is swiftly being chipped away by newer SaaS entries like Trello and Monday.com. All three offer their own, unique approaches to help teams manage their projects. But Trello and Monday.com have done so with a greater customizability and design focus that empowers users to do their best work.

When you neglect design, what you’re really doing is neglecting your feature. But from our view, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Best of Both Worlds

Ledger came about a bit differently than most SaaS products. Rather than a founder’s idea springing from a gap in a market, it sprang out of a need for a return to simplicity. To handle every need his team had, Ledger’s founder (Hey, Light!) had to add product after product, exhausting his team and wasting everyone’s time. And that was to come pretty close to finding the perfect solution. So instead, Light decided to build it in-house.

With Ledger, the design is its primary feature. Its design is intentionally geared to remove excess and return people to the essentials. This means no random add-ons, hundreds of icons everywhere or overly cluttered screens. Just the essential tools in one place to handle all your discussions, tasks, events and ideas. Packaged in a simple and open design.

Ledger is designed to reduce clutter and return you to simplicity in your work. No visual noise. No pricey add-ons. Just a simple, powerful workspace for teams of all sizes that anyone can pick up and use right away.

Design vs. Features: Is there even a winner?

Is there a “right” side to the great SaaS debate around design vs. features?

Probably not. To us, that’s because we think it’s kind of a clumsy debate to begin with. Even the greatest, most innovative SaaS product is nothing without design that connects its features to its users. And if it does nothing new or interesting, the most intuitive and smartly designed app in the world won’t hold onto its market.

But when you find the sweet spot—a product for which the design and aesthetic serve as its central feature—it turns out that’s actually pretty revolutionary.

Unify your teamwork.