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Featuritis vs. the Happy User Peak


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 : )

Posted by Kathy on June 12, 2005 | Permalink


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I think one of the best user interfaces I've come across is the Lexmark all in one center on my dad's PC. He has a Lexmark X1100 all in one scanner/copier/printer. The software for it features three "modes" (though here they're used differently to how your car stereo uses them) - beginner, intermediate and expert. The beginner UI has just three buttons, and a couple of drop-down boxes: just enough to do the three main functions, taking all the common default settings. The intermediate UI builds on that, adding some controls for things you might want to change if you're a little more confident in your abilities or want to experiment a bit, but you'll still get decent results with it, and nothing that's on the beginner UI is moved anywhere you're not expecting to see it. The advanced UI builds on it even further, so that you have an industrial strength graphic artist's scanning and printing tool combined with a full-fat photocopier type menu - but by the time you get to that menu, you know all the basics inside out, and anything else is just fine tuning and special effects. The learning curve is deliberately kept nice and smooth, and shallow - so that the user can rule from the get-go, and continue to rule as he or she gains experience and seeks further learning with their equipment.

That to me is the only really good use for "modes" in UI design, and it *so* works.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Jun 13, 2005 3:19:08 AM

hi, i've been dropping by for quite a bit ;p

I can totally relate to the car radio - years ago when I was a kid I used to be able to program car radios for my parents.

Now owning my own car itself, is a whole different matter. Too many dials and buttons, and even though I've been taught how to use it (although it might be a common misconception that females can't work electrical items - it will be true on my end) I still can't get the full function of it WITHOUT looking at the manual.

Gone were the "I RULE!" days, really. No doubt features are the greatest sellable points of a product, however if the user itself is unable to make it work, then there isn't a point anymore - Features are then done for only one purpose - to garner sales.

I sorta miss those days when I (as a kid) could even work things out on my own, truly.

;p Well, just a little two cents from me anyway!

Posted by: Jill | Jun 13, 2005 7:09:27 AM

I've long joked that the next great "breakthrough" in software development will be the REMOVAL of features.

Case in point: I use Photoshop and Word constantly (and have for many years). However, I'm convinced that Microsoft and Adobe couldn't care less about their customers. Their goal is simply to keep us on the upgrade treadmill; to come up with enough new features to justify putting out a new product "upgrade" every 18 months. Their true goal is to create a steady, predictable revenue stream. Screw the customer.

The problem is that both products already have so many obscure, seldom-used, poorly-implemented features that they've become bloated pigs. I rarely use more than a fraction of the features available in either program. The rest of them just get in my way and complicate matters.

So, in the near future, when both Microsoft and Adobe run out of lame ideas for new "features" and the software becomes virtually unusable, they'll simply start to REMOVE them. That way they can sell us "ease-of-use" upgrades...and keep the revenue stream flowing.

Posted by: Johnny | Jun 13, 2005 8:40:33 AM

You've described my cell phone experience. The last time I was getting a cell phone my husband asked me what kind I wanted and I said one I can make phone calls on that won't dial anyone by accident in my pocket. It turns out it was cheaper to get one with more bells and whistles. So now I have a camera phone that periodically takes pictures of the inside of pocket and is more complicated than necessary as a result. And I would never take pictures with it because it's a wretched camera. A nice simple phone that was just a phone would be so much nicer... :)

Posted by: Grumpy | Jun 13, 2005 9:54:09 AM

Two things happened over the last two days. One, some shopping on kids toys, which I capture here http://ecophilo.blogspot.com/2005/06/fisher-price-toys.html and the other a plain boring presentation meant to be a training. Fisher price toys ( or similar makes) are the best user experience to a child. They engage the child, not for a moment do they appear pedantic and by the end of it, theres a lot of learning. If only my presenter would have learned that, I wouldnt have dozed off during training.

Posted by: neelakantan | Jun 13, 2005 10:26:16 AM


I discovered this blog a few weeks ago and find myself saying "Hallelujah" a lot. Or "Right on!" or simply, "Yes!"

Another benefit of a clear, simple interface is that if a function you want isn't available, you can learn this fact easily and move on. With a complex interface, you have to push a lot of buttons and read the manual to even figure out that it doesn't do that. And you'll never really be sure; you'll carry the nagging uncertainty around with you until it settles in as a knot in your neck or something.

Posted by: Bill Denneen | Jun 13, 2005 11:17:18 AM

I have the exact same problem with both my Honeywell thermostat and Denon A/V Receiver!

Solution for the thermostat: Buy a "low-end" simple thermostat. It won't feed the cats and brew the coffee but my fiancée IS able to change the temperature.

Solution for the Denon: I've never figured out how to use its radio tuner. So I just stream radio stations from my Mac into the Denon using an Airport Express. (Actually, that's not true. Once, after spending an hour with the manual, I was able to preset some radio stations. But the next time I wanted to listen to the radio I had forgotten how to do it.)

Posted by: Nate | Jun 13, 2005 11:45:52 AM

I just spent a couple of days shopping for a car stereo, and boy is this true. I started out trying to compare models on features and price, but this ended up being frustrating because 90% of the features are ones I don't care about.

Finally, since I mainly wanted something to play MP3 CDs when I wasn't using my iPod, I just took an MP3 CD to a couple of stores and played with every model. I bought the first one I was able to figure out completely without looking at any instructions, which turned out to be a nice JVC.

It's amazing how many of them include ridiculous features (a VIDEO SCREEN SAVER on a car stereo?) but don't properly display the names of songs or implement "next track" and "previous track" buttons with single functions.

Posted by: Michael Moncur | Jun 13, 2005 12:08:33 PM

Car radios should be SIMPLE. When I am driving along at 65 mph is not when I want to have to scan the radio to see what mode I am in and try to figure out how to change the station. My real pet peeve though is electronic equipment that REQUIRES the remote to do simple things. I can't program my VCR to record a show unless I find the damn remote. And my DVD player doesn't let me skip to the next program unless I find the damn remote. Don't any of these damn engineers have kids? As far as software features, I have no problem with adding features after all there are some people who want and need these features. BUT make sure that it is still simple enough for the occasional user who just wants to write a memo.

Posted by: Tom | Jun 13, 2005 12:24:48 PM

MATT: I agree with you that user-level modes can be an excellent approach, and I think having multiple user levels is also REALLY useful and important (keeps the challenge levels right, etc.)
The "modal" problem is much more malicious when it's in device controls.

JILL: Yep, I can so relate. : ) But now even my very geek, very hip teenage daughter can't be bothered to figure out the radio. She just puts on her iPod headphones...

JOHNNY: "That way they can sell us "ease-of-use" upgrades... and keep the revenue stream flowing."
Oh, that is priceless Johnny... because it just isn't that much of a stretch to believe it could happen ; )

GRUMPY: I bet there's a whole flickr group's worth of people with pictures of the inside of their pockets! I like your response to the question about what kind of cell phone you wanted... one that can make calls. I wish the stereo people had asked what I wanted in a CAR RADIO (one that lets me play the radio without having to become a licensed car audio specialist).

BILL: You make a really important point about that nagging feeling. It took me months to be sure that my original digital camcorder would not let me control the exposure manually, but now that I think about it, I still have that little nagging doubt...

MICHAEL: I am now SO pissed off that my car radio doesn't have a video screen saver.

TOM: Totally agree. Maybe the car insurance companies should raise or lower your premiums based on the kind of car stereo you have...

Thanks everyone. It's always nice to be reminded that it's not your fault you can't set the clock on your digital devices...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jun 13, 2005 2:39:51 PM

Case in point - the iPod. It really has only 3 buttons - hold, "enter", and the click wheel. My granny could figure it out. Has anyone ever fiddled around with a Zen creative ipod-wannabe? Cascading menus on a 1.5" square screen is not a good idea....

Posted by: Mike | Jun 13, 2005 6:54:27 PM

Kathy - Agreed; what's needed for a car stereo is the main controls to be big and friendly and accessible by just leaning across and groping around for them without once taking one's eye off the road. Ideally the control shouls be placed on the steering column, and should be so simple to use it's instinctive. The last thing you want is something you have to think about even for a second - that way lies fatalities, if you're trying to sort out your CDs at 70mph+.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Jun 14, 2005 8:25:17 AM

I can relate to the "featuritis" issue specially in audio appliances. Every year I see consumer-grade stereos trying to pack in more and more "features", most of dubious value at best, pure marketing BS at worst. It's like if stereo makers were trying to push sales because of the lots of features they cram on their products in "look at all you're getting for your money" fashion.

The contrast with what you see on the high-end audio market -which I'm familiar with- is startling. Most high-end amplifiers, for instance, feature at most a selector knob, a volume control and a power button. Period. End of story. And we're talking about components with 4-to-5-figure price tags (It's what's inside the box what counts). Probably in few markets the "less is more" statement is as true as in high-end audio, in my experience.

Posted by: beto | Jun 14, 2005 2:40:54 PM

Well said, but I bet you never thought quite how old the feeling is...

"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944)

I'm sure there are even older quotes, but that's the one I'm especially familiar with because I put it in the source comments of my software, just to remind me. (Not that it always helps, of course; I am but a weak human, and those custom controls are so pretty...)

-- Morgan Schweers

Posted by: Morgan Schweers | Jun 14, 2005 6:19:20 PM

"Less is more." Originally a Miles Davis quote, I think, so not as old as M de Saint-Expury, but shorter ;)

The important thing is that simplicity has to be carried through. A DVD player with one button and one dial looks great, but if it means using a tangle of modes and menus behind the scenes then it's only half a job. The designer's intent is clear - unfortunately, she's compromised with the marketing department's demand for more features. Forgive me if this situation sounds like a cliche, but cliches are cliches for a reason.

Posted by: Moomintroll | Jun 15, 2005 3:56:27 AM

My mistake: "less is more" is apparently a Robert Browning quote from 1855. There: older _and_ shorter.

Posted by: Moomintroll | Jun 15, 2005 4:08:48 AM

Since we are using musical comparisons, one of my favorite comments from Stevie Ray Vaughan was when he said that learning to play lots of notes really fast on the guitar was easy, the tricky part was learning which not to play. I am not so sure my little fingers agree with the first part but I have listened to enough really boring speed players to agree with the second.

Posted by: Julie | Jun 15, 2005 11:23:35 AM

I have to say I disagree.

Not that products shouldn't be easy to use, but I disagree with the assessment that companies that put lots of features in their product don't understand or care about usability.

The program manager for Word, Publisher, and OneNote, Chris Pratley, has written much about the development of MS Word on his blog: (REQUIRED READING!)

One of the comments to this article makes the exact point I'm making here, so I'll just quote it:

"Everyone talks about feature bloat in word, often saying that '90% of the customers only use 10% of the features.'

This is true... however, each customer uses a *slightly different* 10% cross section of the feature base... and in order to truly hit 90% of the customers you really do need all (or most) of the features.

I think that the Word team has done an admirable job of growing exponentially in inherent complexity and feature count without getting much harder to use."
-Joseph R. Jones

Some of their attempts to make the product easier to use have failed (clippy), but others (imho) have really been effective (smart tags, task pane).

Let me ask YOU: what features would YOU remove from MS Word? And what are you going to tell the 4.7 million people that NEED that feature for their next report/project/document?
(Even if only 1% of Word users use a feature, that's still a PRETTY HUGE number!)

Posted by: BradC | Jun 16, 2005 8:49:56 AM

This all works well UNTIL YOU DISCOVER that the simplified product DOES NOT include a feature you need or really want.

Apple is a shocker for doing this -- There is no way that I could find to remove or disable a user account, burn a multisession CD, at least I found multiple tabs in the webbrowser after going through the preferences.

Maybe my requirements are sometimes a little unual but I find that simplified programs rarely cut it. I just have to go with the programs with "featuritis" and mentally tune out the stuff that is not important to me.

Posted by: Danni Coy | Jun 16, 2005 5:08:58 PM

Comparing choosing content for a book (or playing music on an iPod) to complex software like Photoshop or Word is just ridiculous. In general, this post presents a real problem that users face but presents a vast oversimplification of the issue.

Yes, compaines should emphasize making existing features easier to use, but they should also add new features as technology improves. It does not have to be an either/or situation.

BradC is right on point in pointing out that every user is using their particular 10% of the software. Photoshop is used by so many different user segments and it is still not a complete solution for many of them. It may be complete for your use, but there are many users who complain of its shortcomings.

How can a product allow the user to get to what they want to do as quickly as possible? Halting the addition of features is not the answer. A better question is how can products learn about its users (what they want to do) and present a more customized experience.

Posted by: Mark | Jun 17, 2005 1:18:36 PM

More direct information from Word's creators:


"Another issue we have is the variety of Office users. It’s often said that no one uses more than 60% of Word’s features. On the other hand, every feature that’s in Word is used by somebody—well, I suspect that nobody uses Marching Red Ants, but the list of features that go completely unused is really very small. This variety of users implies a variety of itches. Talking to a handful of users, or even talking to some people who administer Macs in a large organization, can lead to a skewed understanding of our users needs. And, again, I want to emphasize that we’re talking about their needs in terms of what tasks they want to accomplish, not their needs in terms of specific feature requests."

Posted by: BradC | Jun 17, 2005 3:31:56 PM

Mark: you're right, I've definitely way oversimplified to make a point, you missed my standard "I'm way oversimplifying" disclaimer that implicitly appears at the top of every post ; ) But I absolutely agree with you.
"A better question is how can products learn about its users (what they want to do) and present a more customized experience." That is the heart of it. The best designed products may not have to make the tradeoff of features for ease of use. If removing features improves the user experience, then it's probably because the user experience itself was never well-designed. So "features" is a relative term. What feels like too many in one product, might be just the right amount in another, better designed user experience.
And I shouldn't have picked on Word in my opening example. That was simply *my* feeling about Word. We did our first book in Word, and I was struggling horribly. The next book (and all the others) we did in Adobe InDesign, and it just felt lighter and more intuitive. But that was just one person's experience, and I never took the time to learn Word. But then again, I never even cracked the manual on InDesign...
I might disagree with this one statement, though:
"Comparing choosing content for a book (or playing music on an iPod) to complex software like Photoshop or Word is just ridiculous." The core of the problem comes down to cognitive overhead, and being able to withstand the pressure to add features. But if your point is that a software product could find a way to deal with this -- through a customized experience -- then I reckon you're right. I should think about this more...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jun 19, 2005 4:03:04 PM

I wrestle with this issue all the time on our site, Logware. Our customers love us because of our easy to use interface and 'to the point' features, but I find I spend half my time wrestling with whether to add a new feature and loose simplicity or gain 'one more customer' for some silly feature request that will only confuse everyone and be used by one user. It is a balance. Spending time on UI is usually what happens. I talk to users and find out their ideas and then sneak the new features into the app without scaring anyone. I also find that if I start a dialogue about the feature 'before' I roll it out, I alienate less users.

Posted by: Ben | Oct 7, 2005 11:45:07 AM

There is a phone being sold/marketed by OgVodafone (an Icelandic lincencor/substry of Vodafone) which called OgVodafone Simply. I kid you not. You can do the most basic things with it: call, answear, send and recive text messages and turn it on and off.

Ben: If your site uses user-accounts why not just add that feature for that user?

I am in love with the user-modal (basic, intermit, expert) idea and I am defenatly going to include it in any/most software that I write in the future.

Show love, be kind and cooperate without coercion.
(That is defenatly the exact opposite of politics, no?)

Posted by: Zarutian | Dec 10, 2005 7:43:41 AM


Thanks for sharing yet another great idea, and starting yet another collaborative conversation. Michael on Hight Tech Product Management and Marketing followed up on your post with a fantastic post at his blog Are more features always better?. I followed up his post on our blog at Tyner Blain (linked to my name). The conversation is a good one. Scott

Posted by: Scott Sehlhorst | Apr 15, 2006 10:05:22 AM

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