Make That Device Simple


For some odd reason, technology industry refuses to learn the lesson of simplicity. Instead, they try and cram as many features into a device, be it a mobile phone, a MP3 player, a media center or a computer.

I fail to understand why it is hard for the industry to learn from the success of Blackberry, iPod, and TiVo. (Okay, TiVo hasn’t been that successful financially, but it is still a simple and easy experience.) Nicholas Carr, recently lamented, “Even Google, Amazon, and Yahoo, not to mention all the Web 2.0 mini businesses, seem intent on waging feature wars that mean a whole lot to a very few and nothing at all to everyone else. At this point, the whole tired affair seems to point not to an overabundance of creativity but to a lack of imagination.” Jason

University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business researchers Roland Rust and Rebecca Hamilton just finished a study on a phenomenon they describe as “feature fatigue — the frustration that occurs when consumers are overwhelmed and confused by the number of features on their electronic devices and other gadgets.” As part of their research, the duo found that though initially consumers attracted to feature packed products, they are soon confused by it all, and this can lead to dissatisfaction with the product and the company that manufactures it. Or as Jason Fried likes to say, “less is more dude.”

“Simpler is better – despite popular wisdom and a marketplace ingrained in the creation of products that are ever smaller, faster and more feature laden,” said Roland Rust, “Our research showed that consumers will be initially attracted to the mobile phone that ‘does everything’ for example, but once they get it home they become frustrated,” Rust said. “Companies can actually make more money in the long run by making products that are simpler than what customers think they want. The smarter strategy is to design simple, dedicated devices like the iPod, that do one thing very well, to build long-term satisfaction and profitable customer relationships.”



It’s easy to say “For some odd reason, technology industry refuses to learn the lesson of simplicity. Instead, they try and cram as many features into a device, be it a mobile phone, a MP3 player, a media center or a computer”, but to simplify you have to decide what you will keep and what you will leave out.

What feature-crammed devices tell us is precisely that product designers and manufacturers don’t know what they can leave out, so don’t expect product simplicy to appear overnight.

The most interesting point here is how the blogging phenomenon is opening up the opportunity for simpler products.

The established system for decades has been that manufacturers cram features in because they are desperately afraid that something they leave out may turn out to be one of this year’s couple of ‘must have’ features which, if it’s missing, makes people not buy their stuff. Salespeople (largely because they are too busy assuring us their products have ‘key’ features neither they nor we understand) don’t listen much to what users say. Journalists doing reviews are much too often ‘bought and paid for’ themselves, and doing the same thing: trying to support the effort to make us buy (how genuine does their so very repetitive enthusiasm sound?).

As a result consumers buy stuff with lots of features, in an effort to reduce the risk that they will buy something that they subsequently discover doesn’t do the one or two things they will actually want to use it for. How many times have you seen this movie enacted in a store? Or after you get home? Dozens! Hundreds!

But now recommendations and reviews on blogs are making consumers much smarter about new products much faster, creating the opportunity for things like the iPod to ‘break out of the clutter’ and find broad acceptance faster than the manufacturers can come up with another laundry-list of new features.

Bravo. This is creating a wonderful new opportunity in thousands of different markets. The suppliers who take advantage of those opportunities won’t all appear at once, but the phenomenon as a whole is going to make an impact which we have as yet hardly started to feel.


On one hand I agree that devices should be kept simple (I love my iPod) and on the other hand I find myself carrying around my phone, my iPod and my PowerBook and I’d like to have to carry fewer devices. I used to have a Fujitsu Siemens LOOX (the first one) and while it was an awesome device at the time, I gave it up in favour of my Nokia 6310i because the features on the LOOX weren’t worth schleping two devices all over the place when all I really needed was my address book and maybe calendar.

The problem as I see it is that we are still not at a point where we can pull out a device the size of my iPod (or smaller) which will be my phone, my media player and truely ultra mobile Apple device with all the power, longevity and features that will enable it to satisfy all my needs. Until then, simplicity may be a better receipe.


I think the telling point here is that they found that “initially consumers [were] attracted to feature packed products.” Companies are optimized to make the sale, not to make you happy. As long as consumers ignore ease of use and buy products solely based on how feature-packed they are, the companies have very little incentive to change. And consumers would rather do a once-over on a feature checklist and compare the price than try out every product themselves or read usability reviews, so until it’s worth their time to do more research, simplistic measurements like feature checklists will keep winning out. Of course, if the most important thing to you is that the device have the 3 features that you need- which is true for most people- then it’s a sensible way to purchase. I do agree with one thing another commenter said, that one solution is to treat the devices as platforms and sell the consumer small individual applications instead. However, most consumers appear to prefer bundling: they don’t want to spend time finding features, EVEN IF IT WILL SAVE THEM TIME IN THE LONG RUN. As most consumers consistently cannot make this calculation, companies will keep offering them the simple math they can do, simple checklists of bundled features.

Tom Westberg

I agree with the goal of simplicity.

I agree that TiVo achieved it, to the extent possible for that product.

I don’t agree that TiVo is simple!

I suspect you’ve forgotten your setup experience (arrange this IR blaster so that it aligns with..). TiVo did a great job simplifying a very complex device, and they have a lot of great features. But that number of features (while you and I may love them) really should count towards “complex.”

Alen Wilson

Yeah that’s right. Simpler gadgets have much more selling appeal than those over packed devices.
The customer should know how to operate it. There is no use of the feature if any ordinary customer is not able to use it. Its like a spam. An individual with an IQ of 5 should be able to operate it.

I have a personal experience related to this. Recently I bought a IPOD and my friend bought a feature rich player which was having over crowded panel. He filled it with a collection of his favorite songs. Accidentally while playing he pressed format button and all the memory was just gone in a second. So what’s the use of this?
If it’s simple it’s sure to score long lasting impression on the customer.

Julien Boyreau

I disagree with U folks, multifeaturing is not whatever opposed to simplicity and ergonomics.

The real problems of the phone-do-it-all logic is not the “do-it-all” portion BUT the “phone” one : people perceive “Phones” as monofeatured appliance and they are right ; that’s the definition of a phone as a network dependant TERMINAL : what we need is a company voluntarily selling COMPUTERS, the only natively perceived multipurpose engine ; after “Mini”, “Desktop”, “Laptop”, you will have this new generation of mainstream computers that fit in your pocket or are worn on you.

The logic of multiple single purpose devices breaks on human morphology : as we are not Kangooroos, we cannot wear a “Phone”, “iPod”, “Camera”, “PDA”, “Portable Console”.
The winner at the end of Convergionists vs. Separatistas duel will be the one that not only add the features in a Single System BUT multiply the value by combination such as MMS, Podcasts…And it is not sure at all it will be a Legacy Phone OEM !!! For me, Apple (iPod) and Sony (Consoles) are maybe better armed to eventually build the first good Nano Computer.


Features need to fit properly within the use case. How the user selects the feature and operates it needs to fit intuitively and seamlessly with what the user is trying to accomplish. But most products just add features willy-nilly in the hopes of attracting the largest possible market.

So features in-and-of themselves is not necessarily a bad thing. They just need to fit the task at hand.

But I do add that overloading buttons/knobs/sliders with multiple operations (in order to accommodate lots of features) leads to confusion and customer dissatisfaction. So unless you have a GUI and touch-screen, you need to be really good and sensitive with your design.


Good points, Feature packing is always great! but perhaps you are really refering to good interface design. All access to devices should be built for user to interface with the functions of the box from their viewpoint, not from an engineer’s twisted logic perspective and terminology.

Richard Harlos

Granted, there’s a sexiness that accompanies the mega-featured thingy but, as you described, that ends when yours-truly has to start using the multi-functional, does-everything widget.

Generally, I agree with the ‘simpler is better’ motto, as did Albert Einstein:

“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Nice blog, by the way! Found you on

ed dilworth

the earliest lesson i can think of in the device area is the Palm Pilot. that was a category that was dead until they hit a home run with the simplicity of the earliest Pilot. Having been an owner of the Newton i can tell you less is more. I weep somewhat for the increasing complexity of the Treo.

Ben Brooks

This is so true. Frustrations of feature laden devices aside…the more features they get the more that can go wrong with the devices. They are often to complicated to understand, I tend to be most satisfied with devices that are more simplistic in nature (although I do drool over some of the feature laden devices, but only when I need that specific feature).

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