Featuritis vs. the Happy User Peak

🧑‍🎨 Creator(s)
🗓️ Publish Date
June 12, 2005
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🗃️ Archival copy:


It's a gazillion degrees in my house right now, but I can't figure out the thermostat controls, so the heat's still on and the air conditioning unreachable. My new Denon receiver/tuner sounds amazing--good thing I'm using it mostly with my iPod; I have no clue how to tune in a radio station. When I bring up the newer versions of Microsoft Word, it looks so utterly foreign and overwhelming to me now that I give up and close it. And all I wanted to do was type a simple letter...

Most of you here know that Don Norman talked about this forever in the classic The Design of Everyday Things, but why didn't the designers and manufacturers listen?

My new Subaru factory-supplied car stereo uses that most evil of designs--modes. With so many features to support, they ran out of controls... so every control does multiple things depending on which mode you're in. None of it is intuitive or natural. Lose the manual and I'm screwed. Ten years ago, if you'd told me I'd one day need a manual to use my car radio, that would have been inconceivable. All I want to do is find a frickin' radio station!

Here's a little list of some of the things that seem to suffer the most from pushing too far past that "Happy User Peak":

  • Courses that pack way too much content in. The learner is "exposed" to material that's "covered", but the learner hasn't truly "learned" much and can't "do" much. Sun has a great 12-day Java course, except for one problem... it's delivered as a five-day class. The students leave on Friday with their heads exploding, unable to remember where they parked the car let alone how to compile their Java code.
  • Stereos (or other consumer electronics and appliances) that use "modal" controls so that you cannot obviously figure out how to make it do the most BASIC FRICKIN' THINGS ; (
  • Software that keeps adding feature upon feature until the simple things you used to do are no longer simple, and the whole thing feels overwhelming.
  • Technical books that try to be "complete" but don't provide the focus and filtering and weighting the reader was hoping for. The more that's in the book, the longer it's going to take the learner (and the harder it'll be) to actually get through and learn. And the greater the chance that they'll stop reading before they become successful and have "I Rule" experiences. This seems to happen most when the publisher/editor/author didn't want to commit with both feet to being a learning book vs. a reference book, and tried to do both. When I see marketing copy for a learning book that says, "And you'll refer to it again and again after you finish..." or, "You'll want to keep it close even when you're done." red flags start flying. Reference books are for referring to (like the wonderful Nutshell series). Learning books are for reading once, maybe with some extra review, and a refresh if you don't use what you learned right away, but that's about it. (Note: our books suck as reference books.)

So again, why does this happen so often?

Our guess is fear.

Fear of being perceived as having fewer features than your competitors. Fear that you won't be viewed as complete. Fear that people are making purchase decisions off of a checklist, and that he who has the most features wins (or at the least, that he who has the fewest features definitely loses). Fear of losing key clients who say, "If you don't add THIS... I'll have to go elsewhere."

Screw 'em. We believe that those providing the products and services that give the most "I Rule" experiences, without tipping too far over the Happy User Peak, will be the most successful. (Obviously there are a ton of exceptions, and yes of course I'm overgeneralizing.)

Push back. Of course you'll lose customers if you stop adding as many new features.

Or will you?

What if instead of adding new features, a company concentrated on making the service or product much easier to use? Or making it much easier to access the advanced features it already has, but that few can master? Maybe what they lose in market share in one area will be more than compensated for in another area. In a lot of markets, it's gotten so bad out there that simply being usable is enough to make a product truly remarkable.

We will resist the siren call of the market, because we believe the best path is:

Give users what they actually want, not what they say they want. And whatever you do, don't give them new features just because your competitors have them!

Each of our books, for example, covers fewer topics than its closest competitors. Yet we outsell all of them, and part of that is precisely because we cover less. Our readers learn fewer topics, but nail the important ones, and it turned out that for most people, nailing it was more important than reading it. Our readers put their trust in us to work hard at finding and focusing on what really matters, and brutally cutting the cognitive overload that comes with the rest, and we try not to let them down. (We definitely don't always get it right... I had to add a huge new chapter to the second edition of Head First Java, for example, because so many readers felt that collections/data structures were too important to have been relegated to an appendix.)

Be brave. And besides, continuing to pile on new features eventually leads to an endless downhill slide toward poor usability and maintenance. A negative spiral of incremental improvements. Fighting and clawing for market share by competing solely on features is an unhealthy, unsustainable, and unfun way to live.

Be the "I Rule" product, not the "This thing I bought does everything, but I suck!" product.

And I'll be your happy user : )