Technology Analysis

Why Features Don’t Matter any More: The New Laws of Digital Technology

Andreas Pfeiffer | January 16, 2006

Major Points

Features have ceased to be the main driver for technology adoption, particularly in the consumer market

Feature overload adds to confusion and can make users less productive.

User experience has become the key motivator for technology adoption.This trend is likely to become increasingly prevalent in personal computing.

The iPod was never sold on the grounds of its technical merits: Apple hit a gold-mine by marketing a cool new way of integrating music in your life. Even when Apple announced the iPod with video, it presented it not as the best multi-media player in the universe, but as a cool new way of watching “Desperate Housewives” and other TV shows.

In the seemingly never-ending debate about Apple’s successes, announcements, new products and predicted-but-unannounced über-gadgets, features and technical specifications often seem to dominate the debate. Yet if there’s one lesson to be learned from the company’s recent successes, it is a very simple one: features don’t matter any more.

Welcome to the Age of User Experience.

One key aspect of modern digital devices is that technical specifications are easily copied and replicated: mega-pixel count in cameras, storage capacity in music players or processor speed in personal computers are the same everywhere. As a result, they provide only poor distinguishing factors for consumers when it comes to choosing between different brands.

That’s where the overall user experience comes in. As computing and digital devices move more and more into the consumer space, features and functionalities will increasingly take the back-seat as motivators for technology adoption: as the iPod abundantly shows, user experience (along with a strong brand, and clever marketing) is much more important for the success of a device then technical specifications. Web designers have grasped the importance of good user experience a long time ago; now it is time the big technology providers to understand where the industry is headed.

10 fundamental rules for the age of user experience technology:

1) More features isn’t better, it’s worse.
Feature overload is becoming a real issue. The last thing a customer wants is confusion—and what’s more confusing than comparing technical specifications, unless you are en expert? Only nerds get a kick out of reading feature lists. (I know – I’m one of them.)

2) You can’t make things easier by adding to them.
Simplicity means getting something done in a minimum number of simple steps. Practically anything could be simpler – but you don’t get there by adding features.

3) Confusion is the ultimate deal-breaker.
Confuse a customer, and you lose him. And nothing confuses more easily than complex features and unintuitive functionalities.

4) Style matters
Despite what nerds may think, style isn’t fluff. On the grand scale of things, style is as important as features—if not more so. Style and elegance can contribute significantly to a good user experience. But style isn’t just looks, it’s a global approach. Fancy packaging isn’t enough.

5) Only features that provide a good user experience will be used.
Why did the iPod catch on? Because it was so self-explanatory, and it remains the market leader in terms user experience. Sure, it may be excruciatingly difficult to make devices like digital media players or computers easy to use; but if a product is complex, intimidating or confusing, its chances for success are minimal.

6) Any feature that requires learning will only be adopted by a small fraction of users.
Learning new features, even the ones that a user might find interesting or intriguing, is a real issue: nobody has time. Getting consumers to upgrade and adopt new features is one of the biggest problems software publishers face these days.

7) Unused features are not only useless, they can slow you down and diminish ease of use.
Over time products become convoluted and increasingly complex to use. The frustration of not finding the one feature you need among a flurry of stuff you don’t need, want or even understand, can be considerable. (Ever heard of program called Word?)

8) Users do not want to think about technology: what really counts is what it does for them.
The best tool is the one you don’t notice. Why do you think pen and paper remain vastly popular for brainstorming? Because you don’t have to think about them. Pencils don’t crash.

9) Forget about the killer feature. Welcome to the age of the killer user-experience.
When technology achieves something desirable without being in your face, when it know how to integrate itself into you wishes and desires without distracting from them, that’s when technology lives up to its potential. Unfortunately it’s not that simple to get there.

10) Less is difficult, that’s why less is more
Let’s face it: it’s usually harder to do simple things exceedingly well, than to just pile up features. The 80/20 rule applies here too: do well what 80 percent of your users do all the time, and you create a good user experience.