Friday, February 19, 2016

"Me Too" Features (and Feature-Laden Products)

Consumer products today come with a staggering and confusing array of features, most of which are never used by the consumer.   Why is this?

When I worked in industry, I had the chance to get involved in the development of products, which is an interesting process.  One thing that struck me was how we added "features" to products that seemed kind of pointless. When I asked why, the Engineers would say, "Well, our competitor offers this feature, so we have to do a 'me too' on it."

In other words, if they didn't offer the time-cycled reverse absorption enthalpy moderation function (whatever that would entail) the competitor would crow about it in their advertising and sales brochures - pointing out that you "get more" with their product, even if the feature is bafflingly useless.

And this is true for most consumer-grade products you see on the market today.   Chances are you use less than 10% of the features on your smart phone, and indeed, most of the layers of menus and setup options for most electronics are for esoteric features that no one ever uses.

Any modern flat-screen television has a host of connectors on the back, for everything from coaxial cable, baseband NTSC, to RGB (really?  Who uses that?) to VGA, network cable, and of course HDMI.   In some instances there are multiples of these inputs - and a few outputs as well.   Most consumers will plug the television into their cable box and be done with it, perhaps hooking one HDMI to a computer, or to a DVD player - if one is not already built in.  Who the market is for RGB connectors is, I do not know.  I guess some videophile somewhere likes that, but he ain't buying the $400 television that I got in order to watch Netflix.

And often these "me too" features simply don't work.  Dilbert comics abound with stories like this - products shipped with non-functional features. For example, many years ago, I bought three new DELL computers for my office for $400 apiece. They were state-of-the-art at the time with 17" CRT monitors and something called a "Universal Serial Bus" connector - version 1.0. I had written a number of Patents on USB (and firewire) back in the 1990's, so it was interesting to see these products on the market.

Of course, I owned no peripherals that would interface with it - not even a memory stick, which were fairly rare at the time.   And I guess the computer maker was counting on this.  I had a USB port, but as I found out a few years later, it was a non-functional USB port.   It seems that the version 1.0 of USB was basically worthless, at least on a lot of machines.   So it wasn't until I upgraded to a newer machine that I discovered the joys of USB connectivity.   Today, of course, it is a standard.

But why would a company put a non-functional function on a product?  Well, because of the "me, too" mentality. They want to sell product, and if your product is seen as lacking a feature, well, the competitor will jump on this as an "advantage" over your product.

One of my guilty pleasures in life is watching old dealer training films on YouTube from the 1950's and 1960's.  These films (or film strips) were designed to train salesmen on how to sell the cars and tout the "advantages" of their brand over the others. And features were one thing that was touted. If the competitor offered three engine choices, be sure to point out that you offer four engine choices - even though two of them are essentially the same engine with different carburation.  If you had an ashtray as standard equipment, point that out, even if it is an option on the competitor's car - and the price of the competitor's car with the option is still less.

The problem with features is what I call feature saturation.  When you load up a product with so many features and given them esoteric or very technical names, the consumer ends up flummoxed, confused, and frustrated.  How many times have people come to you and complained about an electronic device, saying that "I don't even know what half of all this stuff does!"

Apple is sort of trying to go in another direction with this.   The latest Macbooks have one plug for power and interface - a mini USB port.  Unlike traditional laptops with their array of outlets and plugs, Apple has reduced it to just one jack, period.  It is part and parcel of their closed-world mentality that works well for people who don't understand computers and don't want to go through arrays of setup menus and configuration screens.  When it works, it works well.

Cars have a similar problem - which is how this whole posting started. A reader writes that tachometers on cars today are sort of pointless. Even with a manual transmission car, the rev limiter will kick in before the car redlines. Only the most serious enthusiast really needs a tachometer in order to understand where to shift optimally.  Yet they are pretty standard on a majority of cars today.

Your average car owner uses only a few switches and buttons.  The starter key (or button) the brake, the gas, and the gear shifter. Yes, I am leaving out "turn signal lever" and "light switch" intentionally as these seem to have fallen from favor in recent years, at least based on my personal observation.

Yet today's cars are an array of pushbuttons and switches, scattered around the car. I have a heated steering wheel in my car, but you would never know it, unless you were vacuuming under the dashboard and happened to see the button for it. 

BMW, like Apple, tried to simplify things with their "iDrive" system. Instead of an array of buttons and switches, they had a single knob - like a mouse - that could be turned and angled and pushed to select any function from the radio to the heater to the lights to - whatever. The problem was (and is, to some extent) that this was very distracting to drivers, particularly when adjusting the HVAC meant navigating through several menus.

Some manufacturers have tried to short-circuit user input by adjusting the HVAC for you, based on temperature and settings.   In a BMW it is a lot easier to just set the temperature where you want it and leave it alone - for the rest of the time you own the car.   The car will figure out if you need heat on your feet or air conditioning on your head.  And for the most part, this sort of thing works pretty well.

Automation appears to be the answer to "features".

And sadly, it is very hard today to buy any product that is not feature-laden. Just about every car sold in America comes with power windows, door locks, and air conditioning.  Only the Chevy Sonic and Jeep Wrangler can be had without A/C. This is not to say you should look for a car with manual windows, either.  The choices will be few, and let's face it, you've gotten accustomed to having them.   Being able to roll down all four windows at a touch of a button is very handy.

On the other hand, maybe buying additional technology isn't necessarily the answer, either. Google is pushing a series of "Nest" products which are on display at Lowe's.   An Internet thermostat sounds like an interesting thing, but for the life of me, I can't figure out why I would want or need it.   Perhaps in a decade, all thermostats will be WiFi like this and talk to me via smart phone, and like with power windows, I will wonder how I ever lived without it.  Perhaps not.   The old Henry Dreyfuss' Honeywell Thermostat still works great.

I am not sure what the point of this is, only that less can be more and before you get sold on a "feature" ask yourself if you really need it. Umpteen million options is nice and all, but if you don't plan on using half of them, well, why bother?

And I guess the other side is, if you have a product with lots of features, you might as well learn how to use them. It is embarrassing, but even as an Engineer, I have owned consumer devices for years before I discovered that they had neat features I never knew existed!