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issue: August 2007 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Less Can Mean More

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by Stephanie Husk, president, Deep Blue Insight Group

A simple Google search on the phrase "too many buttons" yields a surprising number of results. Many of these are tech-oriented bloggers commenting on new gadgets, but from automobiles to computer programming languages, a clear theme emerges: Feature proliferation and "complexity creep" are choking product design.

As manufacturers race to market with new product development, they often overlook two important influences that shape the success of new products in the minds and experiences of consumers. The first is the law of diminishing returns. The second is the unexpected outcome associated with the consumer decision/choice theory.

For consumers, most features beyond the basic functioning of a product become additive. More often than not, new features don’t add new functionality, they simply allow the product to do the same thing, only more so. OEMs and new product manufacturers make the logical assumption that if their consumers will pay more to have one new feature, they will pay even more to have two or three (or 10) additional features.

However, consumers are anything but logical, and feature proliferation does not necessarily translate into increased consumer demand. It often backfires, and consumers that would have purchased become cautious or frustrated by the proliferation of buttons. A recent study by Elke den Ouden of Philips Electronics found that at least half of returned products actually had nothing wrong with them—consumers simply couldn’t figure out how to properly use them.

For example, if we know consumers purchasing a new dishwasher will pay extra for a completed-cycle signal and dial that indicate the progress of the cycle, it is tempting to assume they would pay more for an LCD display showing the remaining amount of time, water temperature, or custom wash-cycle settings for their specialty wine glasses. Unfortunately, this isn’t true: Contemporary consumers look for appliances that simplify their lives—and look good while doing so. Too many buttons, alerts, indicators, or customizable settings lead to confusion, mental and environmental noise, and additional elements to repair or replace.

Simply put: Feature proliferation equals cost and concern in the minds of consumers. As the number of unique features increases past a certain point, the level of consumer engagement actually decreases, while customer frustration increases.

Beyond feature proliferation on a single product, the marketplace now offers consumers more choices than ever. But as with the law of diminishing returns, too much choice leads to dissatisfaction and uncertainty about the quality of the choice made.

A series of studies conducted by Dr. Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Dr. Mark Lepper of Stanford show that too many options led to feelings of being overwhelmed and a reduced likelihood of purchase. When consumers in a grocery store were given a choice of jams to try, those that selected from 24 jams were less satisfied than those given a selection of six. While the booth with the wider selection attracted more shoppers, 30% of those offered six choices purchased jam, while only 3% of those offered 24 choices made a purchase.

What is a manufacturer to do? Increased appreciation for aesthetic product design points the way:

  • Simple, elegant, purposeful design will trump an expanded feature set any day. An intuitively designed appliance might not have all the buttons and customizable features, but it will outpace a competitor on aesthetic appeal alone.
  • Design has the unique ability to create an emotional connection with consumers: The mind will rationalize what the heart desires. 
  • If SKU lineups are clean and rationalized, consumers don’t have to work as hard to determine the incremental differences in product features (and incremental price differences).
  • Outdated or redundant features, most often a result of "complexity creep," can be eliminated without reducing the appeal of the product, and can actually increase consumer appeal while decreasing costs.

The first step is the most difficult: Resist the temptation to add features simply because you can. Even if the feature comes at little or no cost to manufacture, it can diminish the satisfaction of your customer. Clear, focused, and purposeful product design not only will allow consumers to rationally justify purchasing your product, but will also endear them emotionally to your brand.


About the Author

Stephanie Husk is the president of Deep Blue Insight Group. Located in Atlanta, GA, U.S., the market research firm serves Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 clients internationally. If you wish to contact Husk, please e-mail lisa.bonnema@comcast.net.


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