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Bells and Whistles

Bells and Whistles

Too many vendors of software and other products are making it harder on their customers by generating a flood of features that are unnecessary for most of their users. They need to step back and consider the true needs of their customers, especially the universal need for ease of use, and provide products that meet those needs simply and cost effectively.

It has become almost too much just to keep up with the features of products we already own, not to mention evaluating all the marketing hype associated with alternatives. New models or upgrades come at increasing rates, and when we do choose to move or upgrade, it's especially annoying when a new "feature" actually makes things worse.

I've had a low-cost digital watch for years and lost it a while back. I had come to like a dual-time feature that I could use while traveling to quickly see the time in two time zones. When looking for a replacement, I found that this feature had been eliminated, and all the new models had this big circular LCD display animating the ticking seconds, taking up valuable display space on the watch's face. I've found no practical use for it and actually find it kind of ugly.

Probabilistic Model

I recently came across some research from Stanford's Graduate School of Business on the subject of what makes consumers buy the latest model of a product. In the research titled, "A Multi-Attribute Model of the Timing of Buyers' Upgrading to Improved Versions of High-Technology Products," the authors applied a "probabilistic model" to accurately predict how a group of Palm Pilot users upgraded to new models.

The research concluded that actually conducting such a study in a "real market setting" would exceed $100,000, and then stated that the bigger stumbling block may lie elsewhere: "New releases of products like laptops, printers, and cell phones come so rapidly that some managers believe there isn't time for this kind of research." I couldn't help but chuckle at that.

It seems that fewer "new and improved" enhancements are motivated by a real connection to customers' needs. All businesses are driven by the requirement to grow profits by attracting new customers and generating additional revenue from existing customers, but the balance between profit and growth and the needs of the customer is often precarious.

Take the popular Microsoft Office products like Word, Excel, etc. Don't get me wrong, I like these products, but what percentage of their features do most people use? Do you know anyone who knows anywhere near 80 percent of Word? Do you want to?

Interestingly, whether one gets the benefits of the relentless flow of "enhancements," one is forced to deal with learning them, or at least learning to avoid them. The growing list of "bells and whistles" adds complexity, making it harder and harder to learn and master a new release.

With more expensive software products that typically have significant annual support and upgrade costs, for example, CAD, CAE, CAM applications, vendors feel compelled to add more features to justify their maintenance costs. This in turn increases the costs associated with lost productivity while learning the new features. The customer usually loses.

Ironically, this situation opens the door for innovative new products from companies who are more closely connected with customers' wants and needs. This moves the market forward as new products must deliver better value to compete. The answer for vendors is simple: speak to customers and listen.

Reach Milliken at [email protected] .
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