Less simplicity

Communications products can fail if the device becomes encrusted with feature creep.

Device and gadget makers often have to make design compromises when packing huge amounts of functionality into a single product. We are familiar with the ‘brick' Swiss Army knife type gadget, as well as the dedicated, optimised specific device. A related question is feature-creep and the tendency of engineers and designers to succumb to it. 

There are many reasons why some products don't succeed. A major one - which is occuring more and more - is that the device is too complex for anyone other than an over-enthusiastic geek or early adopter user community to use. Complexity is influenced by many factors. One of these is how simple the feature set of the device is. 

Consider a team developing a new device. Suppose, like many handheld devices, it has a diary. The application has to support the notion of calendar. There are two different systems of calendars - the Gregorian and Julian. For most purposes, supporting the first of these is perfectly adequate. However, it's quite easy for the programmer to support both systems and conversion between the two. This adds features, and is an example of feature-creep, since the initial specification probably only defined a calendar and diary application. Imagine a team meeting where this particular example of calendar functionality is discussed. Few people are likely to object to the additional support. No-one is likely to make a big deal about it even if they offer a negative view. It's just not a resigning matter! So the likelihood is that the resulting application will support both.

In the above example, the diary application now has more features than the average user will expect. Most will never use the Julian system function or the conversion between it and the Gregorian system. They will have to skip over this option in the user interface. The addition of the unnecessary feature has obscured the simplicity of a standard Gregorian calendar. Users like simplicity. People remember how to do things that are simple. If something is going to gain critical mass adoption, many people need to be bothered to use it. It is also easier to market something with a concrete but simple message. 

When you think of recent innovative gadgets, often it has been the lack of extra features that is the main point of criticism. This is a mark of relative success for the manufacturer. Better to have the market clamoring for the next version which will inevitably have more features anyway than ignoring the first version of the product. 

Reasons to resist

There is an economic trick to be played for those who can best resist feature-creep. The launch price for the early adopter market will always be higher than for the same product once it is establishing itself among a critical mass of users. The early adopters generally understand that they will pay more for the privilege of having it first. But if the manufacturer can keep the feature set down to a ‘core' (however multifunction the device may be) the extra pennies saved in the initial bill of materials will add to the margin they can make on the initial release. This higher margin then allows the device to be released at a lower price sooner which will attract the more general mass of the population.

Once the product is established, the original gadget can be re-released at a similar cost but containing some newer features. The manufacturer now knows (because they hear the clamoring) which additional features should have higher priority for inclusion - the marketplace has done their market research for free.

Simultaneously, or just before the re-release of the enhanced high-end product, the savvy manufacturer will introduce smaller, lower capacity, reduced feature set variants to the same original product at lower prices thus extending the market for the core functionality to users with less elastic wallets.

Importantly, as well as being lower cost, these variants will typically introduce their own unique individual feature in order to stand out as adding something even the bigger brother device doesn't have! 

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