Why Feature-Creep Occurs

Great article in the New Yorker by James Surowiecki on why the feature-count keeps going up and up on products. Partly it is about the people designing the products not being the ones designing them, as is often discussed, but there’s also an unexpected cause: users themselves.

You might think, then, that companies could avoid feature creep by just paying attention to what customers really want. But that’s where the trouble begins, because although consumers find overloaded gadgets unmanageable, they also find them attractive. It turns out that when we look at a new product in a store we tend to think that the more features there are, the better. It’s only once we get the product home and try to use it that we realize the virtues of simplicity. A recent study by a trio of marketing academics—Debora Viana Thompson, Rebecca W. Hamilton, and Roland T. Rust—found that when consumers were given a choice of three models, of varying complexity, of a digital device, more than sixty per cent chose the one with the most features. Then, when the subjects were given the chance to customize their product, choosing from twenty-five features, they behaved like kids in a candy store. (Twenty features was the average.) But, when they were asked to use the digital device, so-called “feature fatigue” set in. They became frustrated with the plethora of options they had created, and ended up happier with a simpler product.

Actually this is not really news to anyone that has done much user research. As the saying goes, users ask for features like kids ask for candy — and like candy too many features are bad for you.  Surowiecki goes on to talk about how people are generally rather poor at assessing their skill level with a product (even one they have used before) and how often they will use a particular feature. This is why user researchers seek to get behind the symptoms (which features typically address) to understand root causes. This often allows you to reduce complexity by dealing with underlying needs.

There’s another cause for feature creep: retailers. Retailers love features. The longer the list of checkbox items, the better. And if someone tries to enter the market with a reduced feature set the retailers often reject it because they don’t think they’ll be able to sell it easily in comparison to others. They know that a) their staff sell on features, and b) customers buy on features. Everyone has been trained to use the length of the feature list to evaluate product quality.

It doesn’t always work that way, however. The Motorola Razr had a relatively poor feature set (mediocre camera, mediocre battery life, OK call quality), but emphasized other fresh elements (dramatically thinner, innovative use of materials and lighting). Here’s a great article on the development story of the Razr.