The Line Between Useful Features and Overcomplicated Devices

6 01 2009

I’m a geek, and I love gadgets. I used to have an entire phonebook of everyone I knew programmed into my watch, which could also double as a heart monitor, stop watch, alarm clock, and of course a device to keep time in multiple timezones. There is however a point where one stops wanting to see more features crammed into a device and just something simple.

I had this realization when trying to cook some chicken for dinner. I misplaced the usual timer that I use, and instead remembered that the oven has a built in timer. Why do I ever use a timer in the first place then? I’m not really sure. I could also use my watch for that matter, there’s a timer built in somewhere. Or perhaps my cell phone, it has timers and alarms, but that’s beside the point. After pressing buttons for a minute, possibly setting up the oven to self clean itself at 7:00am, switch to broil after the food is done, and change timezones, I managed to set a timer for 14 minutes.

After this I glanced at my microwave, which has more buttons and keys than the average TV remote, and came to the realization that I don’t use any of them either. My microwave has some sort of moisture sensing magic built in which allows you to automatically cook food without even entering a time. There are buttons that say things like popcorn, sensor reheat, and turbo defrost. The problem is, it’s easier to just punch in the number of minutes and perhaps heating level and press start than mess with all these buttons, plus risk my popcorn turning to flavorless burnt kernels because it wasn’t giving off the correct amount of moisture. It’s not that I don’t know how to use these features, it’s just that there’s no reason to. My future career will likely be integrating computers into everyday devices, but they should help serve the purpose of the device more often than provide a handful of other features.

Microwave Control Pannel

The number of items and devices that exist in my house which I never use half the features on could fill this entire post. They’re side features. They serve purposes unrelated to the primary function of the device.  I’ve realized this more than once and opted for simpler devices. When my watch containing the address book died, I just got a regular watch. I never actually needed it, my cell phone could store just as large of contact list. Actually, so can my MP3 player… When my multitool started to fall apart I started carrying a folding knife instead. The screwdriver sucked, and all I ever used was the blade. I don’t drink, and have never actually seen a bottle that needs a bottle opener or a cork popper, so why carry them around? Do they even make such bottles anymore?

So why do I have more timers than I have things to time? The answer is feature creep. Wikipedia puts it well, “feature creep is the proliferation of features in a product such as computer software. Extra features go beyond the basic function of the product and so can result in baroque over-complication rather than simple, elegant design.” Features just tend to creep in bit by bit. Both the designers and the consumers are at fault.

It’s partly human nature to go for the more complicated gadget. Afterall, it may be a little more expensive, but it has more features. Does it matter that you probably won’t use half of them? No, not really, it still fills the advertisement space well and sounds neat. If two products are otherwise identical, including price, but one has some extra small feature like a timer built in, who wouldn’t go for it?

Make it simple and people won’t buy. Given a choice, they will take the item that does more. Features win over simplicity, even when people realize that it is accompanied by more complexity. You do it too, I bet. Haven’t you ever compared two products side by side, comparing the features of each, preferring the one that did more? Why shame on you, you are behaving, well, behaving like a normal person. –

The designers don’t intentionally put useless features in, it just happens, I’ve done it myself. My IRC bot was a great example of feature creep. Maybe 5 features were actually used on a daily basis, the other 40 were just there because they might come in handy during a rainy day when the stars line up correctly with the moon. I even forgot how to use most of them, just like my oven, and I was the one that programmed them. One reason is because as technology progresses, it becomes easier to implement features. Modern computers have between 2GB and 4GB of RAM and a 2ghz CPU usually running at about 30% of it’s full potential, so why not use more of it up by adding little aesthetically pleasing bouncing icons and a button to do things with spreadsheets that only 0.2% of the users will actually have a use for. Afterall, that could turn into 0.2% more sales, and what do you loose?

Is the future doomed to produce MP3 players with built in orange peelers and text editors? It’s hard to say. Even if human nature seems to go for the complex, simple devices are becoming extremely popular lately. For example, the Flip video camera contains three buttons and a navigation button. It records and plays video, and easily lets you move it to a computer. That’s it.

The Flip is dead simple and remarkably popular. Much as we’d like the excuse to make a pun about the Flip flopping, it’s actually been flying off the shelves. The main reason for this is that it’s stupidly easy to use. In fact, it’s such a straightforward gadget they’re even selling it in Toys R Us.

A few other examples include the Ipod Shuffle and the Netbooks. Netbook is the term used for a small and simple laptop designed primarely for surfing the net. That is afterall what most people do with their computers, especially now that email clients are quite often being replaced with online storage of emails which can be viewed from the browser.

It may not be human nature that determines if we’ll go for simple or complex, but if it’s just preference, I think those of us who admire simplicity won’t win. People like me use Fluxbox because it’s simple and light. Most people just use it because they have old computers that won’t run anything else.



2 responses

6 01 2009
Eric Lee


I like your site and wanted to know if you would be interested in exchanging blogroll links.

Thanks in advance

31 01 2009

Sure, I’m interested.

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