Product designers love to add features they think customers will find useful or desirable. Why not, particularly when these additional capabilities seem to offer a competitive advantage? And, on electronic products, many features add little or no cost to the finished product – they are merely software changes.
There’s one problem with expanding a product’s capability: features often add friction. They may require the customer to make more choices. They often add complexity. They force customers to think.
With Great Power Comes Great Complexity
Here’s a case in point. I recently checked into a hotel, and, arriving in the room, found it a bit chilly. I searched the walls for a thermostat, but didn’t find one. Momentarily flummoxed, I then looked for a hand-held remote control. Sure enough, next to the typical black television remote, there was a white one to control the air conditioning.
The remote had eighteen buttons and an LCD display with cryptic icons. There were buttons with labels like “Jet Mode,” “Energy Saving,” and “Comfort Sleep.” Two separate ones were marked “Swing.” A button labeled “Room Temp” seemed obvious, but a second label under that button said “Diagnosis.” Medical advice for guests, perhaps?
Fortunately, there was a pair of buttons with up and down arrows labeled “Temp.” I clicked the up button a few times and was satisfied to see the temperature setting go up with each click. Easy, right?
I celebrated success too soon. The room didn’t get warmer. Studying the remote, I saw a snowflake icon. Guessing that the device was set only for cooling, I searched the remote for more options. Finding a “Mode” button, I clicked it. Sure enough, the snowflake disappeared… only to be replaced by a little head with an “A” in it. Unable to intuit what a head icon meant, I pressed again. The icon changed to a raindrop. Another press gave me a fan icon. I guessed that would be “fan only,” but the head had me stumped.
After a bit of internet sleuthing, I found a manual for the air conditioner. The head icon meant “AI” mode, for artificial intelligence. Clearly, my human intelligence needed some help to make the room warmer. According to the manual, this setting would allow heat.
The room seemed to warm up, though during the night I noticed that the fan blew noisily at some times and was barely audible at others. Consulting the manual again in the morning, I found I had accidentally triggered a “Natural Wind” setting. A great option, if you enjoy variable gusts from your room’s air conditioner.
Think About The Customer
The point of this long story is to show how a superb product that incorporates every imaginable feature may not be what the customer wants. Hotel guests don’t need “natural wind” or “jet mode,” whatever that is. They want the room warmer or cooler. They don’t want to decode puzzling buttons and icons. They certainly don’t want to search the internet for a manual for their room’s air conditioning.
A two button remote – temperature up and down – would suffice. Or, a design that everyone understands, the round thermostat that shows the current temperature and lets you rotate a pointer to the temperature you want. There are digital thermostats that, wisely, mimic the simplicity of the vintage mechanical designs.
This isn’t an indictment of advanced technology. The control might be simple, but the brains of the A/C unit could determine things like whether heating or cooling is needed, the level of dehumidification, and whether a higher fan speed is called for. Indeed, put artificial intelligence to good use by letting it make the decisions that will achieve the desired goal without burdening the customer with excessive choice.
Avoiding the Feature Paradox
Here are a few simple actions that will prevent feature friction.
Segment your customers. Product features are often added when some customers identify a need for them. These customers may not be typical, though. High-end digital cameras have hundreds of settings buried in dozens of bewildering menus. The advanced photographers who buy these cameras demand all those features and will prefer a camera that has options others lack.
The vast majority of people taking photos, of course, use their smartphone in point-and-shoot mode. The technology that companies like Apple and Samsung use to make great photos is transparent to the user. The average smartphone photographer has no use for a heavy, feature-laden digital camera.
Similarly, when adding features, we need to be sure they are directly addressing the needs of our customers. If these features aren’t needed by most customers, then they should be omitted or at least hidden. Many smartphones do have advanced camera controls, but they are accessed via a separate menu. Most users can take photos and videos without ever seeing them. (Even high-end digital cameras have an “auto” mode that chooses the best settings for the situation, no decision-making required.)
Sometimes multiple, distinct products make the most sense. My hotel A/C unit might be perfect for a high-end residential installation, but one with a pared-down feature set and simple controller would have saved money and reduced guest frustration.
Observe your customers. Our intuition about what customers like and want is often wrong. Observing customers using our products gives us an accurate view of what their actual experience is. Interactions with apps, websites, and digital hardware products can be recorded and analyzed to see where customers slow down, retrace their steps, or just get stuck.
Video or direct observation will give us useful information for non-digital products. We can’t put hidden cameras in hotel rooms, but it would be easy to recruit a group of random travelers, for example, and tell them, “Use this remote to make the room three degrees warmer.” If some struggle, there’s a problem.
Every product is different, but there is always some way of seeing how customers interact with it.
Ask your people. Your customer-facing people likely already know what customers struggle with or complain about. If a front desk clerk gets daily calls from guests who can’t change their room temperature, they will happily share that information with anyone who can fix the problem. Customers often take out their frustration on whomever they encounter first. That clerk didn’t design the confusing remote, but all too often will get the blame.
When you remove complexity from your product, your customers will be happier, and so will your team members who interact with them.