It happens like clockwork. Companies like Apple this month are constantly introducing new options to make their gadgets feel new and improved. Soon you’ll be able to zap that text message you sent but regretted! A Mac computer will be able to use an iPhone camera for video calls! You can change the color tint of an Android app icon to match the rest of your screen!
Also like clockwork, a vast majority of people will not use these features.
Want versus need
Tech experts say that only a small percentage of people adjust anything about how their electronics or software come from the manufacturer. Most aren’t tinkering constantly with settings for the fancy features of phones, TVs and laptops.
Why, then, do companies keep adding functions that are handy for a tiny number of people but ignored by the rest? And is there a better way to design products?
Cliff Kuang, a designer in the tech industry and an author of a book about the history of product design, singled out three culprits behind ever-growing features. Firstly, companies add options because it helps them market their products as new and exciting. Second, products with many millions of users must appeal to people with widely different needs. And – this one stings – users are infatuated with options that seem great but that they can’t or won’t use. Kuang described this third factor as “the inability of users to distinguish between ‘Hey, that looks good’ and ‘Hey, I need that.'”
Having said that, Kuang said he’s guilty of this, too. He was wowed by a feature in his Tesla to automatic parallel parking. “The first time I used it, it was cool,” he said. “And I never used it again.”
‘Just say no’
Technologists often grumble that they’re in a no-win situation in product design. Devoted fans demand more and more options that often make no sense for normal users. (This phenomenon is often derided as “bloatware”, as in bloated software.) It is one reason technology often feels as if it’s made for the 1% digital die-hards and not the rest of us.
But if companies try to steam back little-used options or change anything people have grown accustomed to, some users will hate it. Everyone has an opinion. Steven Sinofsky, a former Microsoft executive, used to joke that revising widely-used software like Windows and Microsoft Office was like ordering pizza for a billion people.
In April, technology writer Clive Thompson made a provocative suggestion to fight the temptation to stuff more features into existing technology: Just say no.
Thompson, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, said that companies should decide in advance the set of features they want to work towards and stop when they get there. “Feature creep is a real thing and wrecks software every year,” he said, citing Instagram as a product that grows worse the more options it adds.
Products can’t stay frozen in the past, of course. And some features, like the one to automatically notify emergency services after a car crash, could be worthwhile even if they’re infrequently used. It’s also unpredictable which add-ons might turn out to be useful for the masses.
Kuang said the best technology products change little by little to nudge users towards a future the creators have imagined. He said that Airbnb did that by evolving its website and app toward a significant recent change that prompts people to explore different types of homes without having a destination or date in mind.
To get out of the bloatware trap, Kuang said, “You work backwards from the future that you’re trying to create.”