In-store good or at-home good? Matt 05 Sep 2006

23 comments Latest by TL

feature fatigue

Stu is your customer. The problem is there are two Stus. There’s Stu 1: Stu before he uses your product. And then there’s Stu 2: Stu after he uses your product. Stu 1 and 2 want different things. Stu 1 cares about features and capabilities. Stu 2 cares about ease of use. The problem is Stu 1 makes the initial purchase decision. Stu 2 has to live with the consequences. The dissatisfaction that results is the subject of Feature Fatigue: When Product Capabilities Become Too Much of a Good Thing (PDF), a research paper published in the Harvard Business Review.

According to the paper, companies need to realize that too many features can make a product overwhelming for consumers and hard to use.

Marketers see every new feature their company dreams up as a point of differentiation (however fleeting) and every feature competitors dream up as a necessary parity point…If companies conduct market research by asking consumers to evaluate products without using them, too much weight will be given to capability, and the result will likely be products with too many features…Firms should consider having a larger number of more specialized products, each with a limited number of features, rather than loading all possible features into one product.

Smith Business summarizes the article and interviews Debora Viana Thompson, one of the authors:

There is a trend in the market to pack a lot of features into one single device, like cellphone which can do everything — take photos, connect to the Internet, manage your calendar. Based on our results, this may not be the best strategy, especially for firms interested in building long-term customer value…When it comes to keeping a client over the long term, product satisfaction may be more important than just having an initial sale.

Every company/product has to choose priorities: In-store good or at-home good? First-minute good or lifetime good? Stu 1 good or Stu 2 good? Going for the second option means sometimes saying no to customer requests and feature ideas, even reasonable ones. Caring for Stu 2 means you need to say no to Stu 1.

Capability, usability and feature fatigue, a quick summary of the paper by Gene Smith
Feature Bloat: The Product Manager’s Dilemma

23 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Kieran 05 Sep 06

Hey! I guess that means that ‘simple’ is best… though what happens when it doesn’t do what you need it to?

DHH 05 Sep 06

You change the perception of what you think you need or you pick another product.

Jeff 05 Sep 06

When your simple product doens’t do what you now need it to do, you do what Every Good Consumer(tm) does.. throw it out and buy a new one.

The problem with the many-products-with-different-features is that, as a consumer, I don’t know which to buy. Which one will meet my needs for the lifetime of the product? Look at Quicken — do you need the basic, standard or deluxe version? Which one will you need in 6 months? One year? Add that to the rename-the-product-every-cycle mentality of most marketers, you have a failing recipe, you’ve traded product complextity for purchase complexity.

Erik Dungan 05 Sep 06

Great points. How do you think referrals play into this? If you focus on pleasing Stu 2s, are they likely to make referrals to Stu 1s - possibly even offsetting the sales you lose by not competing in the “arms race” of features?

Kenzie 05 Sep 06

Personally, I like basic products with Add-ons or Plug-ins, to expand and tailor the product as I become more comfortable with it.

ML 05 Sep 06

Jeff: …you’ve traded product complextity for purchase complexity.

Fwiw, seamless upgrades let people grow with your product. Not an option for everyone but works well for us (e.g. a customer starts with Basic plan for Basecamp and then upgrades as they need to manage more projects). Simplifies purchase complexity: “Don’t know where to start? Pick any plan — you can upgrade/downgrade at any time.”

Tom 05 Sep 06

The main point I object to is the notion that more features equals less usability.

There is an art (or possibly a science) to making things usable. You can have two products where one has less features and is less usable, and another has more features and is more usable. There are reasons people (Neilsen, Tog, etc) write books about usability - it’s to help people create products that are both featureful and usable.

As I understand it, the 37signals crowd are big fans of Macs. It seems to me you all should then know what a usable, featureful product is. Does a Mac really have substantially fewer features than Windows, OR did they do a lot of work to give you the same featureset in a easier to grasp way?

Jough Dempsey 05 Sep 06

Changing plans or software packages is really easy compared to other purchases, though. If I buy a digital camera and decide that I need a better lens or more light-sensitive imaging sensor because I’m shooting indoors in low-light and my camera doesn’t handle that well, there’s really no upgrade path. You can’t change those things after purchase.

When buying a laptop, what if you decide that the 12.1 in. model really is too small after all? Your only recourse is to get another laptop.

I’m curious - what happens with customer data if they downgrade their accounts? If an upgrade allows management of XX number of projects do some of them disappear if they switch to an account that allows for fewer projects?

The real problem with multiple product lines is that what is good for a business is usually not good for a consumer. It makes sense for a company to try to sell to different customer segments, but if people change segments during the lifespan of using that product it’s often difficult to make the switch, especially if the customer shifts downwards. It’s always easier to add more capability than to take some away.

Try to buy a computer from Dell’s website. They immediately throw an obstacle in your path: are you a home, small business, or corporate user? The laptop doesn’t care whether the email that you read on it is business-related or not, but Dell wants to charge business customers more for the same products. What if you use your laptop for both business and personal uses? What if you’re a small business now but are hoping to use the computers they sell you to grow bigger?

Anonymous Coward 05 Sep 06

This is reminiscent of Kathy Sierra’s post last week about the quality difference between brochures and manuals.

Haven’t had time to look at the resaerch yet, did it address how much usability affects loyalty? I imagine a usable product inspires loyalty but an unusable one does not automatically create disloyalty at the time of the next purchase. After all, if all a segment’s products, e.g. digicams, are subject to featuritis and are equally unsable, features are as good a measure of quality as anything.

Dave Whittle 05 Sep 06

I’ve been a PC software consumer, analyst, and marketer for over 25 years - and I agree that less is usually more. It took me 10 years to learn Photoshop well enough to make it my application of choice - until then, the ultra-simple, but still full-featured MGI PhotoSuite 4 Platinum Edition was plenty good for me, the expert, and millions of beginners as well. Now, I see a ton of apps out there trying to compete with the ultra-simple but elegant muvee autoProducer 5, which only does one thing, but does it better than anyone else: turns your photos and/or video into professional-looking video productions for web, e-mail, PC or iPod playback, or to burn to DVD or Video CD. Nothing simpler - nothing better. Contrast that with 3D Album, which is a great product that makes eye-popping 3D slide shows, but has so many features in more recent versions (including trying to compete with Photoshop) that it practically overwhelms almost anyone trying to use it. muvee wins, hands down. But that’s great for focused-purpose software.

Now some software simply needs to be laden with features to be more useful - namely software for desktop publishing, web design, pro-level photo editing, presentation software, spreadsheets, database software, etc. - but even such software needs to have an elegant interface to make all the features EASY TO GET TO.

Compared to 20 years ago, however, things today are in MUCH better shape. Software is far and away better. The biggest problem is that software companies (especially Microsoft) got addicted to regular infusions of revenue / profit from new versions, and it’s reached the point with most software that it’s almost impossible to improve most of it except on paper - hence, feature-itis. You need paradigm-shifting software (like muvee autoProducer) or platforms (like iPod), which are getting harder to come by these days. All in all, what’s great is to have choices - which is why Microsoft is still to be feared and why Linux and Open Source are to be cheered.

Martin Young 05 Sep 06

A “test drive” alleviates the problem somewhat:

- Stu is attracted to a car because of its features (Stu 1).
- Stu isn’t going to buy the car before he’s given it a test drive (Stu 2).
- Car looks awesome and is laden with features but is terrible to drive. Stu 1 says yes, Stu 2 says no.
- Stu makes his own decision about what’s important to him.

Problem is, you can’t test drive everything. Is this where WOM comes in?

Brittain 06 Sep 06

Playing devil’s advocate here … who cares what Stu thinks when s/he gets home? S/he’s already bought your product? Where’s the math on first sale dollars vs. resale/upsale dollars?

Don’t get me wrong, I completely buy into the idea of satisfying your customer(s) - aka Stu 2, but if they never become a customer in the first place (aka Stu 1) then the point is moot.

Andy 06 Sep 06

Birttain, your analysis is correct is you look at it from a short term perspective.

Even if Stu 2 won’t be giving out his cash immediately, a happy Stu 2 will be positive about your product and company and probably tell his friends about your product and encourage them to buy. Also, on the long term, Stu might need another product from your company or an upgrade to your current product - and he’ll factor in the experience of Stu 2.

I can relate to this myself very well. The first MP3 player I bought (begin 2000 or something) was from Creative, and I chose it purely on size and features: it had a built in FM radio, voice recorder, etc, etc.
I then discovered that it was terrible to operate and started using it less and less. I never recommended it to friends.
Then I bought an iPod (2G), which had none of the cool features of the Creative. But because it was great in daily use, I started telling everyone about it and bought 2 new ones in the long term.

David B 06 Sep 06

Has anyone considered creating software that unveils itself the longer you use it? For example:

* When you first begin to work with the program, only the 5 most important features are available to you.

* After a few weeks (during which time you have become confident using those initial 5 features) 2 more features pop into the software’s menu… A pleasant surprise!

* A few more weeks later, 3 more features pop into view…

With this time-release software, the experienced user gets all the benefits of more features, whereas new users aren’t overburdened with stuff to learn.

Relating back to the origional post, Stu2 is happy because he gets to keep that “new car smell” and have more stuff to play with, and Stu1 only sees a program that looks easy to use but does everything he needs at the outset.

Sebhelyesfarku 06 Sep 06

I like feature packed products. I’m not retarded like average consumers.

Scott Meade 06 Sep 06

The study does look at customer lifetime value and presents a tool for managers to use to determine optimal feature level based on first sale and recurring revenues and found:

_1. Maximizing initial choice/sales/profits results in the inclusion of too many features_
_2. Maximizing repurchase results in the inclusion of too few features._
_3. If the number of features is sufficiently large, then additional features should not be added, even if they may be added at no cost._
_4. As the emphasis on future sales increases, the optimal number of features decreases._

Summed up: the studies formulas support what was said by some discussing here: lower feature levels maximize repurchse (customer satisfaction), higher feature levels maximize initial value, and feature levels in the middle maximize customer net present value (npv).

David - Regarding adding more features as users become more expert, the study actually recommends not adding more but changing which ones become important and which ones would likely not be used. It found that expert users still did not want more features, they simply wanted different ones. Expert users still felt the tradeoff of complexity vs. features.

Tom - Regarding the relationship between complexity and features, the study looked at the perception from users and found the people - even experts with a product - perceive a correlation between complexity and features and that that perception is enough to drive purchase behaviour. I think you have a great point that the actual experience once the product goes into use could change the results.

Scott Meade 06 Sep 06

Matt - Aren’t potential customers afraid to even start using the products of a company that they know they might outgrow? Decision makers should be looking at feature sets not only for today but also for tomorrow. What happens when a product meets my needs now, but a year or two from now I outgrow it and I (and my consituents) are kicking my but because we have to convert to a new vendor?

Pascal 08 Sep 06

more users you have, more you need tools and features, same as life

Ben 09 Sep 06

Hey I know a company with a totally flawed product. They are called Apple. They make this thing called a computer. I don’t want a web browser and a calendar and a movie studio! It is too complex. I would much rather have my desk space taken up by distinct devices for each purpose.

Also I have a nice shiny Radio Flyer wagon to keep my discreet devices with me. When I am away from my desk. I much prefer this solution over a General Purpose device. Those things are the Tools of the Devil.

(The point I am joking about is made much more eloquently by Paul Robinson’s blog post linked above. Simplicity is great, I admire 37signals’s products, but I have a hard time taking seriously anyone who believes the quantity of features available, rather than the interface to them, is the problem with cell phones. Another way to put it is that when it comes to physical things, especially frequently transported things, combined-mass-of-devices is important to Stu 2, in addition to interface simplicity.)

TL 15 Sep 06

Off topic here, but that chart reminds me of a great one by Michael Porter (if I recall correctly) targeted at consultants. Especially those who develop software or websites.

The red line represents your client’s level of interest over time. The black line is your ability to do anything about it!

Of course the trick is to get your clients more interested early on — or find ways to be more flexible later on.