In Features sell products (but don't get used), Heidi Adkisson says most people never use the features they pay extra for due to the “paradox of the active user.”

A few years ago I did an extensive in-home study observing use of a particular computer hardware peripheral. Most people had high-end models with many features. But in my observation of use, only one “power user” went beyond using anything but the core, basic features. These people had paid a premimum for features they didn’t use. However, when describing their purchase experience, it was clear they aspired to using these features and sincerely intended to. But, once the product was out of the box, the paradox of the active user took over.

What’s the paradox of the active user? It’s the term for a behavior pattern observed during studies at the IBM User Interface Institute in the 1980s…

Users never read manuals but start using the software immediately. They are motivated to get started and to get their immediate task done: they don’t care about the system as such and don’t want to spend time up front on getting established, set up, or going through learning packages. The “paradox of the active user” is a paradox because users would save time in the long term by taking some initial time to optimize the system and learn more about it. But that’s not how people behave in the real world, so we cannot allow engineers to build products for an idealized rational user when real humans are irrational: we must design for the way users actually behave.

Related: The CEO of Philips asks, “Do people need the gizmos we’re selling?” [via GE] He thinks manufacturers should draw inspiration from the clarity of Google and Craigslist.

Spending hours learning to use a new gadget is the last thing most of us want to do. The ability to take a product out of the box and just have it work, without the need to read a manual for hours, is now high on most consumers’ priority lists when deciding on a purchase.

The attitude behind “RTFM” reveals an interesting bias. It assumes there’s one manual…THE manual. But that’s a company perspective, not a customer perspective. Customers have to use dozens of products each day that come with manuals, not just the one product you make. It’s not that they’re lazy bums who don’t want to read the manual. They just don’t want to read all those manuals.