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The Feature-Usability Trap

When you start a new business and define its scope, it inevitably comes with an endless list of feature ideas: what the service will do, how many buttons/settings/options do you want to add to its interface, will you enable users to do whatever they want (instead of understanding what they actually need), and… where do you draw the line?


Woluwe Shopping Centre Parking Payment Machine

Remote controls are case in point: though their core function is to change the TV channel and adjust the volume, “smart” engineers kept adding new features up to the point where users need a PhD to operate it.


Or just take a look at this machine, “serving” customers in a Brussels shopping mall, supposedly performing a single and simple task: letting drivers pay for their parking tokens. The number of features, options, colors and buttons its designers have added to it, with an utter lack of visual hierarchy, lead to long lines, frustration, and above all, lost time and money.




It doesn’t matter who designs your product or service – a rookie or an expert – it requires serious discipline and the ability to say no to escape the Feature-Usability tradeoff curve.



Featuritis Curve


So how do you avoid this trap?


Perhaps you can fight it by organizing additional features smartly, but eventually you’ll start losing out. More features mean wider business categories: if a TV can do emails, it’s harder to define what product it is after all.


Or think of organizing your files on your computer: when you add music to your “Videos” folder, you need to rename it to “Media” which also means widening its scope and losing its depth.


When you start serving meat at your pizzeria, it becomes a fully fledged restaurant that is harder to distinguish from others.



On the web, additional features almost instantly bring about navigation (and ultimately, business) problems.


What should you do about it?


1. If users don’t complaint about missing features – you probably already peaked your feature-usability curve and heading downhill. Work on simplifying what you have.


2. Identify the absolute-minimum features/steps needed to complete the problem your service provides a solution for. Windows Notepad is a good example. The task clients need to perform: taking notes. Therefore, the absolute-minimum features are an empty digital document and a save button. Putting these two features together make up the core product. Applying this analysis on your product or service should help you identify what’s necessary and what’s not.


3. Additional features change the business focus: if we add bullet points to Notepad, we change it from a note capturing software into a word processing one like Office. Pay attention how additional features change your product’s scope.


4. Rely heavily on already established navigation frameworks: people use Windows, Office Word and Google every day! This means you can replicate similar design features into your product service thereby making its’ usability self-evident. Radical new navigation or features nobody has ever thought of will take years to catch on, if at all.


5. Single purpose is better than multi-purpose: people rather use a product or service that exclusively performs the job they need to get done instead of using product or service that does other things as well (serious photographers still buy a digital camera even though their mobile phone has one already built-in). This is because we naturally believe that task-exclusive products have a simpler underlying mechanism and thus perform better than task-comprehensive products.


Simplification…is indeed the ultimate sophistication!


Posted in E-business, Marketing

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