Technology Analysis

The Feature-Value Gap: Why can’t we talk about technology any more?

Andreas Pfeiffer | May 01, 2013

Major Points

The real value a user derives from a device has less and less to with features and more and more with intangible aspects.

We need to extend our concepts and ways of discussing devices in order to cover aspects that are not describable in terms of features and specifications.

Concepts such as cognitive load an user experience friction are very useful to capture a wider range of actual perceived value of a device.

I published this text several years ago, yet I have the feeling that it still has validity today, especially after the considerable amount of heated discussion our research on Smartphone OS User Experience had created when it was initially released. In fact, it is precisely the amount of misunderstanding about our research that shows me just how necessary it has become to extend our way of talking about technology.

Let me know what you think!

A few months ago, just after Apple had introduced the iPad mini, Amazon used the homepage of the on-line store for some comparative advertising attempting to set the recently introduced Kindle Fire HD tablet apart from the much-feared competition.

The Kindle Fire HD, a color version of the highly successful Kindle reading device, had been  introduced a few weeks prior by the company’s CEO Jeff Bezos with the words “A year ago we introduced the best tablet at a certain price. Today we are bringing the best tablet at any price”.

The key selling arguments in the comparative ad? …30% more pixels…  …216pixels per inch compared to 163 pixels per inch… …dual stereo speakers compared to mono speaker… …Ultra-fast MIMO Wifi…

Apart from the fact that the ad contained some technical errors that were quickly pointed out by the tech blogging scene, it unwittingly exposed one of the key problems of our way of describing digital devices. We don’t know how to communicate the truly meaningful aspects of a device any more. We are stuck in feature-mode, as if features were still what makes a device unique.

Introducing the Feature-Value Gap

It is no surprise that the problem should crop up with tablets, rather than some other high-tech device. Tablets are unique in the history of consumer electronics in the fact that they are the first widely adopted devices that have no clear primary use. (In fact, the “uselessness” of the iPad was widely decried by technology pundits when the iPad was announced in early 2010. The common assumption was that for that very reason, the iPad would become a resounding flop.)

In terms of user-reality, technical specifications have become useless. If you just compare the technical specifications of the Kindle Fire HD, the iPad, and the Microsoft Surface, you would be right  to assume that they are near-identical devices, as similar as different brands of HiFi equipment or digital cameras from different manufactures. Yet when you actually use these “near-identical” devices, you realize that they deliver on completely different value propositions, and most of all, that they are not competitors at all: there couldn’t be more different devices in terms of overall user reality than the iPad, the Fire HD and the Surface. Not only are they profoundly different in terms of user experience, they are also targeting completely different potential users.

What does this mean? Simply that features have ceased to be useful to describe the actual value a user derives from a device. I would like to call this the feature-value gap: the difference between the easily measured technical aspects, and the much harder to quantify user experience, value perception and device universe.

Quantifying the seemingly intangible

Much harder to quantify… That’s where the technology industry as a whole needs to become less lazy. User experience, comfort of use and other seemingly intangible aspects are often assumed to be by definition unmeasurable, unquantifiable. Yet when you start looking more closely, that is not entirely the case, or shouldn’t be. If there is the perception of a difference, there should also be a way of describing it, and, at least to some extent, quantify it.

That’s at least my experience as a technology researcher. Over the past decade I have been repeatedly confronted with aspects of technology that were perceived and assumed to be unmeasurable. And in some cases it was – until we defined the right concept to capture and measure the difference. That was what happened when I introduced the concept of User Interface Friction in 2006, which made it possible to quantify some of the perceived differences between the Mac and Windows computers previously perceived as utterly intangible.

What next?

Once we accept the idea that our criteria for qualifying the technology we use are insufficient to describe the aspects we actually care about as (non-technical) users, things start to be complex. There is a reason why we hold on to the easy tech specs: they seem to carry weight, and they are seemingly irrefutable. More megapixels must be better, right? A faster processor is necessarily an important improvement, isn’t it?

The problem is that beyond a certain point in evolution, technical improvements are only important for a small minority of users. Yes, if you are a video professional working in post-production, chances are that you will need every scrap of computing horsepower you can get. But even in fields such as digital imaging, historically one of the areas where raw processor speed was the most essential, most recent laptops or desktops can get the job done reasonable well (unless, of course, you are one of the power-users who make multi-gigabyte images. But most people aren’t.)

Once we let go of the safe-haven of tech specs, how do we quantify the differences between products? Aren’t we necessarily reduced to subjective appreciation of intangible aspects, making what we say necessarily no more than a personal opinion?

In many cases that is true, of course, but it does not always have to be. Once we accept that technical specifications have become useless for quantifying the value we derive from a digital device, it clears the air for other considerations, other ways of looking at things. It means that we can start building the new criteria, the new conceptual framework which in due course will allow us to quantify the aspects that we thought merely subjective.

Take user experience, for instance. Is it really that difficult to quantify what we experience when we use a tablet?

I don’t think so. I think, on the contrary, that it is possible to nail down what the differences are, if we have properly prepared the cognitive and conceptual environment we base our analysis on. User Experience Friction can be measured, once you have understood and accepted the concept. The cognitive load a device imposes on you can be described and quantified. And so can other aspects of user experience.

The most important aspect however is to accept that this is a necessary step in our evolution as an increasingly technology-driven civilisation. We have to evolve in our language, our methods of appreciation. Digital devices have become so deeply ingrained in practically every aspect of our everyday existence that we don’t think about them as little computers or useful tools – we see them as an increasingly transparent extension of our most personal existence, devices that have become second nature to us, that do not provide us with additional functionality, but have become inextricably linked to our intuitive actions.

But wait there is more…

In fact, the need for redefining the way we think and talk about technology goes much deeper. Currently, the technology industry is almost exclusively feature-driven. Features are good, more features are better. Lots of features make a fantastic product, few features mean that a product is less impressive than the next one with more features. (The problem is not new… as I pointed out already seven years ago )

There are of course a few companies who do not define their products this way, but they are rare. A majority of technology companies create me-too products, based on simplistic consensual views, and then try to spice things up by adding a few “original” features that seem marketable.

Yet if we don’t redefine our concepts and ideas about the technology and devices we use, we are stuck in the same mode, and will not be able to evolve. The tablet market is a good example: Now that it is safe to assume that tablets are here to stay, more and more manufacturers are churning out tablets that all share the same shortcomings in terms of user experience, running the same operating system, making users put up with the same inconsistencies, the same user experience friction, the same limitations – simply because we are incapable of properly talking about them.

In other words: if we don’t evolve in our understanding and our concepts, we are condemned to be stuck in the same technology glut we are in right now.

I for one think that it should be possible to move beyond that state…