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"Summertime. And the livin' is easy." – Unless you are trying to download a ringtone to your Razr.

And if you feel frustrated that this could possibly be difficult, you are not alone. Last month, in a widely distributed Associated Press story, "Some Cell Phone Owners Spurn Gadgetry," it was reported that a 2005 J.D. Power & Associates survey found that, overall, consumer satisfaction with mobile phones has declined. They linked some of the largest drops to the usability of the Internet and email functions.

Just a little somethin' to hold my slojams (but not my phone, please)

Does it seem that making phones calls is no longer the primary function of cell phones? Between photos and iTunes and email and GoogleMaps, it's not surprising that consumers find it increasingly difficult to find and execute "core" tasks on their cell phones. (How long did you stare at your newest mobile phone before you figured out how to turn it on?) Yet, phone companies are racing to add new, advanced features to their data stream offerings, in an effort to entice new customers and maintain old ones. And consumers are buying them. Don't consumers see it? More functions make things harder to use.

The news reported recently that a number of people wagered real money (via the Internet) that June 6th (6-6-6) would be the end of the world. Hmmm. If they had won that bet, one wonders how they planned to collect. Human logic is a fragile thing.

Similar ironies emerge when we try to explain customers' attraction to products with unlimited features. A recent series of experiments (Rust, Thomson, and Hamilton, 2006), explore how added features, ability to personalize, and ultimately hands-on experience affected consumers' satisfaction with a product.

We had 'em. And we lost 'em.

In the first experiment, consumers were asked to rate perceived capability, usability and utility across digital audio/video products with varied feature sets. Then participants were asked to select the product that they would want to own. Consumer-participants stated that adding features to a product increased perceived capability. They also predicted that adding features would decrease the perceived usability. Then they overwhelmingly indicated that they wanted to own the product with the most features. It is especially interesting to note that this holds even for novices, who anticipate a larger usability challenge than experts, but still want all those features.

Sounds like hours of fun...

In their second experiment, Rust and colleagues compared consumers' satisfaction of the digital audio/video players before and after actual use. They found that perceived capability and usability collide during experience. Before using the feature-rich product, consumers focused on capability more than usability. After direct experience, usability became paramount. Satisfaction was higher with the simpler product. In this subsequent experiment, most participants rejected the high-feature model.

This feature/usability trade-off appears to play out outside the lab as well. For example, the BWM 7 Series iDrive system includes more than 700 features. Simple tasks that used to require a simple button push or knob twist now require a reference manual. In fact, there is an abridged instruction sheet in the glove box to give to the valet so he can park the car. Industry reports indicate that vehicle sales decreased 10% for the first half of 2005 as compared to the same period the previous year. Frustrated owners apparently talk. And marketing studies demonstrate clearly that negative word of mouth is as powerful, or more powerful, than positive word of mouth advertising.

Mercedes-Benz just removed more than 600 functions from its cars. They found that integrating all those additional features caused critical electronics to intermittently malfunction anyway.

Oh. THAT kind of better...

Do you give consumers what they want now? Or develop products that will increase the lifetime value of customers? This seems to be an interesting conundrum for organizations providing services and products – ranging from mobile phones to software to Internet service to cars – with the unlimited feature potential.

If selling to everyone once was a sustainable business model, our cell phones wouldn't be so complicated.

Too many features yields unsatisfied customers who will call support lines or, worse, return the product and tell their friends. (The Consumer Electronics Association reports that only 1/6 of product returns for complex products were because of faulty or broken equipment. Most were because people just couldn't get the thing to operate.)

Not enough features and your marketing team will bemoan the lack of differentiators (or perhaps even parity).

Realistically, products will continue to add features. (Whether they need to is a different question.) Balancing features and usability IS possible, but it requires understanding both the product use and the customer lifecycle. That means understanding the triggers to buy, but also knowing and prioritizing the features customers need and use.

My mom may be intrigued (and even swayed) by the ringtones, but she won't download one. But she wants to be able to answer the phone.


Rust, R.T., Thompson, D.V., and Hamilton, R. (2006). Defeating Feature Fatigue. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 84, No. 2.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments

Abraham Williams

This illustrates well the lack of awareness humans have of the difference between their behavior and their desires.

Every workday in my software world, I'm working with marketing focusing on the customer desires and tech support working on customer behavior. I'm working on features that profile a user's behavior and then ask the users if they are interested in things that match their behavior.

I'd like for my teams to have a common understanding... focus on users' desires for the sake of the buy AND focus on the use for the sake of keeping the customer. I supposed I can clearly see how we could go wrong just focusing on the customer desires (adding more and more features), but could we go wrong just focusing on the use? My mind puts the use as a higher priority because of the positive word of mouth generated.

Rajesh Ghodke
India Times

I purchased a Motorola wireless phone system on Monday. It will be returned today because its usability is dismal. To add insult to injury, the instruction books has errors (e.g., install 4 AAA batteries in the base unit but it takes 4 AA batteries instead). Lots of text explaining advanced features for which I have no need, but no mention of how to make a simple telephone call or what to do when the phone rings and you wish to answer it. Nothing, absolutely nothing said and guess what? I could not figure out how to answer the phone when it rang! Unbelievable but true.

Peter Carstensen

Yes, the article says it right. Currently we are working on our laptops with a monitor along, so we are working with two display hadrwares for one task. (Laptop display and a Monitor display) this is because we feel short of display area and are desporately seeking solution for this problem. We are working on developing UID for digital televisions.

This article will certainly add to our stand on having mammoth monitors. Hoping to read more in details.

Bill Shelton, Lockheed Martin

Not every consumer has the "PC mentality." I recently experienced the cell phone dilemma when trying to use my son's phone. Not very intuitive... especially the power-on button. I deal with user interfaces a lot and have developed a user interface for operation of a test station. Surprising how others view what may seem to you as obvious.


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