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Friday, May 25, 2007

Feature Creep

The Financial Page

by James Surowiecki, The New Yorker

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, allowing us to do things more quickly and efficiently. But too often it seems to make things harder, leaving us with fifty-button remote controls, digital cameras with hundreds of mysterious features and book-length manuals, and cars with dashboard systems worthy of the space shuttle. This spiral of complexity, often called “feature creep,” costs consumers time, but it also costs businesses money. Product returns in the U.S. cost a hundred billion dollars a year, and a recent study by Elke den Ouden, of Philips Electronics, found that at least half of returned products have nothing wrong with them. Consumers just couldn’t figure out how to use them.



Featured Comment by Robert Roaldi: "This really hits a nerve with me. I'm not a technophobe. I know how to set a VCR. I worked as a software developer for 25 years, sometimes in low-level systems design.

"I have owned two cell phones and still have the second one (though I only use it on vacation) and I cannot for the life of me figure out why people buy new cell phones a couple of times per year. I have yet to meet anyone who knew what their phone's features were or what they were for.

I'm over 50 now and am sick and tired of reaching for my glasses when I am using a camera. I need them to read the menus, read the LCD's, stick the USB cable in, and have to wear them around my neck all the time. I hate this. With my Pentax MX, I needed only to turn two dials, the shutter speed and the aperture ring. Other than ISO, those are still the only two parameters that need adjustment when taking pics so why are modern cameras so finicky to use?

"No one, but no one else I know in my circle of friends and family has the first clue about what the buttons do on all their camcorders and digicams. I have never met anyone, other than other geeky photographers, that has ever read a camera manual. Not one.

"'Feature creep' is the opiate of the masses. It fools us into thinking that we are making choices. Since we don't use the features, having the choice is an illusion. It is a con game that takes places at the point of purchase. It's a come-on.

"We can't buy a large sensor small footprint digicam with a 24–70 mm (equiv) lens. Now that's a choice I'd like to be able to make.

"(I feel better now, thanks.)"

Featured (partial) Comment by MHMG: "...I find myself growing very 'new interface' weary. On a recent trip I stopped at a gas station/convenience store that had just installed an LCD touch screen panel at the food counter. Not realizing this apparent inventory control interface existed for my 'benefit,' I tried to order a hot dog from an employee at the grill behind the counter. The employee said, 'you have to enter your choice on the touch screen over there and then pay for it at that counter over there.' I looked at the computer screen and then said, 'Well, I guess I didn't need the hot dog that bad.' The employee curtly remarked, 'What's so hard about ordering on the screen?' I replied, "What's so hard about giving me the hot dog I asked for so that I can now go over there and pay for it?'

"I suspect that machine interface overload is going to get a lot worse before it gets better!"

(You can read MHMG's complete comment in the comments section.)


Blogger stanco said...

One of the promises of technology has always been that it frees us to do more work in less time, therefore allowing us more leisure time. If anything, it allows us more time to do more work.

10:15 AM  
Blogger smthng said...

This is one of the things I run into in my job a lot. We're currently going through a "phase" of people deciding if they want a Blackberry or Windows Mobile device. It doesn't matter which one you personally prefer, that's not what this is about. Our users generally "get" the basics of both types of devices. Then two weeks after they get one, I can guarantee that someone is going to get a call from the user saying that they don't like some esoteric feature or that they can't figure out how to use the device to post a picture on Flickr or something like that. Our stock answer?... "Stop doing that, it's just a glorified cell phone."

Users who want all the features and bells and whistles are generally smart enough to figure out the two needed pieces of information... First, that the feature is available in the first place. Second, how to use it. Anyone who can't get through that process needs to just make phone calls, read email and leave it at that.

The same applies to me and my camera... My Rebel XTi is definately NOT the most complicated beast on the market. Yet, there are still plenty of settings that I never use. Most of them aren't worth figuring out, IMO. Picture Modes, White Balance Bracketing, Softening, Sepia Tones, etc. I'm just going to do all that stuff on the computer after I get the shots downloaded. Ignoring all that on the camera allows me to concentrate on the photography, not the technology. I'd rather control the changes after the fact than guess about them beforehand.

I know what I needed a camera to do and I bought one that does it. If people did the same for other electronic gadgets, "feature creep" wouldn't be a factor.

Sorry about the rant, it's just kind of a pet peeve of mine. ;)

10:37 AM  
Blogger JRG said...

Well, I've gone back to using classic film cameras almost exclusively. And that's because a) they feel like real instruments rather than cheap plastic toys, and b) they don't have a zillion buttons and features that I never use and don't want. Film may not last much longer, but I'm gonna enjoy it while I can, with cameras that actually make sense to me.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Seungmin said...

"The strange truth about feature creep is that even when you give consumers what they want they can still end up hating you for it."

The simple truth of that statement probably keeps many "New Products" division heads at many firms up many nights.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Klifton said...

Kinda like every user who expects miracles out of their auto focus system automatically blames their problems on "backfocus issues" because they read about it on a forum.

12:49 PM  
Blogger monarch said...

There's actually another dimension to feature creep that this article didn't really explore. Companies who actually do develop simple, good solutions face a problem: once they've released it, what do they do next? How do they get customers who may be immensely satisfied with their current generation of product do want the next?

The answer: invent features and tell customers that they should want them. Wedge new doodads into their simple solutions, no matter how complex or unreliable that makes them.

That's one reason good products rarely last these days. Once a company builds something that people really want and really use, they have to "keep their momentum". They'll gladly water down their quality to keep the revenue streaming in. (Is that a mixed metaphor?)

2:11 PM  
Blogger Max said...

there's also a moral issue about all this, also related to the taxes post. People are just buying things they don't need. Basically, disguised as something useful, but in truth the central motivation is anything but. So, there's a sort of complicity between product designers and consumers. Designers could choose to try and educate consumers so they understand the simpler product can satisfy their main need, and for a longer time too. But that would only cut down their profits.
All in all, it's a huge waste of resources to satisfy the most stupid tantrums.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I'm a big fan of beautifully simple things. The problem is, one person's beautifully simple thing is not always another person's beautifully simple thing. We all have different uses in mind for our equipment, different past experiences of various features (Burt Keppler of POPULAR PHOTOGRAPHY still writes longingly about front-mounted shutter buttons that he experienced on a Contax S and liked), and different ways of working. So if you took a "stripped" camera design, one person would say "I like it just as it is, but I really wish it had feature A," and another person would say, "I like it just as it is, but I really wish it had feature B," and yet another person would say, "I like it just as it is, but I really wish it had feature C." So to satisfy all those people, the company has to add features A,B, and C, and has just provided all users (well, in this scenario) with either two or three features that go beyond beautiful simplicity.

See how it goes? And for people who like the simple product WITH added features A, B, and C, some subset will say, "I like it just as it is, but I wish it had feature D...." And off we go.


3:17 PM  
Blogger doonster said...

I actually like the way that Philips is going with their Sense & Simplicity stuff. Not too long ago i bought a new TV, a Philips, to replace the previous Philips. Whilts the new one can do more stuff, has fancy image technology etc, it is easier to use. How so? first off, the basic functions are easy to reach and right there in front of you. A lot of stuff is automated (very well, too). If you want infinite control, there is a relatively simple to use menu system.

I get the best of both worlds: a TV so easy to use my granny could work it yet powerful enough for a real techno-nerd (that'll be me then) can fine tune it precisely.

the other thing about it is that it doesn't have features that aren't related to showing pictures. No fancy sound, web surfing or other gubbins. And this is quite a high-end device.

More of that please: simple at the front end, simple to drive functions, no extras unrelated to the basic function of the deveice.

4:01 PM  
Blogger BlankPhotog said...

I like your blog, but I wish it had a feature where you could kill dumb things people post on it.

And maybe you could make it compatible with WiFi, or BlueTooth, or SomeDumbConnectingTechnology?

Yeah, that would be nice. Then it would Web 2.0, which they tell me is the next to last big thing.

4:34 PM  
Blogger MHMG said...

I'm OK with additional features on a device I don't use. What I"m not OK with is double function buttons and buried menu systems. When a machine interface has unintuitive steps to invoke a feature that is desired, then one must either be using it every day to keep the correct sequence fresh and familiar, or have the manual ready every time the device gets reused.

Also, I find myself growing very "new interface" weary. On a recent trip I stopped at a gas station/convenience store that had just installed an LCD touch screen panel at the food counter. Not realizing this apparent inventory control interface existed for my "benefit" I tried to order a hot dog from an employee at the grill behind the counter. The employee said " you have to enter your choice on the touch screen over there and then pay for it at that counter over there". I looked at the computer screen and then said, "Well, I guess I didn't need the hot dog that bad". The employee curtly remarked "What's so hard about ordering on the screen". I replied "What's so hard about giving me the hot dog I asked for so that I can now go over there and pay for it?"

I suspect that machine interface overload is going to get a lot worse before it gets better!

5:04 PM  
Blogger Max said...

About the machine interface overload, I find particularly "evil" (yes, it is this time, hahahaha) the increasing amount of customer support services that rely on endless menus. Those people over a certain age and who aren't especially fond of technology become virtual castaways, since the said systems seem in fact designed to discourage you if you're not absolutely certain about what you want and prepared to make an investment in time and effort playing with machines before getting to hear a human voice.
This is purely a reduction in labor costs, and it's sold to the consumer as an improvement in service quality, as probably the touch screen in mhmg's post is. A nice scam.

6:36 PM  
Blogger PeterMQ said...

We could say that the product of which the most people say dismissively "that's obvious" is the product that was designed by the smartest person.
The really great design, invention, political system, whatever, usually requires *lots* of false starts, reinventions, new companies to kill the historical reasons why an idea didn't work in the initial context, etc., etc. The VCR became the TIVO, so there is some hope. The film camera, with aperture, exposure time, and the "take a picture now" button, became the modern "too many buttons to care about" digital camera, but simplicity will again and again emerge and again and again be wiped away. It's very, very hard to do simple, but it's beautiful when it happens.

9:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Robert Roaldi

Robert, I couldn't agree more. I have been working in software for 15 years now myself, and, while I am in the technology industry, I still look at it and shudder at the overabundance of needless features.

I recently acquired a Leica M8, since I get the benefit of digital storage and convenience, with the (even more beneficial) convenience of a classic body (1 knob, 1 aperture ring and 1 focal ring). I sold off my DSLRs, and can't tell you how happy I am to return to a more "fundamental" means of making photographs.

This change has actually renewed my interest in my 20 year old Pentax 120 format body among others. I really think that the "digital revolution" in cameras has still really failed to materialize for a broad audience. That is not to say that there aren't people making great photos out there, but it sure as heck does not replace more traditional equipment.

Also on this note, despite having used Photoshop as a core tool for my work and personal life for 12 years now, I am very impressed with a product called LightZone. For anyone familiar with the Zone System, this tool is a marvelous piece of work for those working in RAW. And, perhaps most importantly, the user interface is simple and focused on the task at hand -- making great photography possible.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert Roaldi wonders why we can't buy a "small footprint, large sensor digital camera with 24-70mm lens".

Apart from manufacturers apperantly not being interested in any larger sensor digicam (where is my Olympus XA-D!?) there also is a problem with that zoom lens.

You see, 35mm compacts had those kinds of lenses, but there is a reason Kodak sold "Max" (ISO 800) film to these people; on the long end these zooms' apertures are often in the double digits - yes, f/11 at the long end. You could put such a lens on a digicam, but you'd lose all the noise advantages of the large sensor to the slow lens. If you would like it to be faster, you would end up with a lens - and camera - a lot bigger than you would probably tollerate.

That said, an "Olypus XA-D" with FourThirds sensor and a 18/2.8 lens (36mm equiv) should be perfectly doable in a small enough package.

Can I have one please?

2:10 AM  
Blogger Monza76 said...

I started in 35mm photography with a stop down metered, screw mount, SLR. From there I took a giant leap to a Pentax ME Super and a K1000. Although both were available to me I found myself drawn to the simplicity of the K1000. Since then I spent a brief period using early Minolta Maxxum gear and now I use Pentax DSLRs. I would truly love to have the simplicity of a K1000 in a digital SLR.

Simplicity does not mean lack of control, it just means there are fewer complications added to achieve that control. The traditional Leica, such as an M6, was a totally mechanical, simple device which left the decision making up to the photographer. This is one of the reasons the camera has remained a favourite of many film photographers, it puts less complexity between you and the image. Many have criticized the Fujifilm Finepix S2 as being rather crude because it was just a Fuji digital device hung onto the back of a Nikon N80, but think about it, after setting the digital device to the parameters you wanted you then handled it just like a film SLR, no further menus to deal with.

I don’t think a digital camera will ever exist with the simplicity I would like to see, yet the control a photographer really needs, because of this marketing “Catch 22”. If it is perceived as having fewer features it will not sell, yet if it has too many menu driven features it will confuse the user, so we can add buttons for the features to make them simpler to use, but then it will look complicated and people will not buy it.

I guess Joseph Heller was really onto something.

7:40 AM  
Blogger Boris said...

I can recall two very funny things about feature creep.

One is two folks and me trying to remove exposure compensation from Canon EOS-30 (if I remember correctly) camera and not being able to do so. While of course one of the people involved was owner of the camera and another was also a Canon shooter, simply having owned another model, and yours truly having an idea of what had to be done in general ;-). Still we did not manage.

Just the other day I received a new Toyota Corolla (as a company lease car). It has many bells in whistles (in the literate sense of the word), such as it whistles when you switch your gear to reverse or unlock your seat belt if car is running. Also the vanity mirrors - they have covers and a lamp that goes on when you completely open the cover. Yet, for some reason the dash board plastic quality is rather low, lower than previous 2004 Corolla I used to drive. I really wonder if anyone would actually care to replace the vanity mirror lamp after it goes caput.

To return to the "topic" of this forum, what I like about Pentax cameras is that the more immediate controls are very understandable - they are actually well thought through...

10:41 AM  
Blogger rochkind said...

Adding features is a requirement if the product is successful, because it will attract more potential buyers, and their needs will vary. To attract them and then the next group of buyers takes more features. Otherwise, the product ends up as the perfect solution for a niche market.

In addition, product reviewers, especially for software, focus almost entirely on features for their evaluation. They can't evaluate quality or support (no time), and they can't evaluate usability because they are new to the product and would be evaluating learnability instead.

But "creep" is a pejorative term. The responsibility of the designer is to add these features in a coherent, usable way... not to just let them "creep" in.


12:15 AM  

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