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7/9/2003
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Other Voices: Ask Your Users: Less Really Can Be More

Software companies hate to admit it, but most people don't use all the features of their products. Making them happy might mean giving them less.

About a month ago, at Microsoft's annual CEO Summit, Michael Marks of Flextronics reportedly joked that his company would pay more for Microsoft applications that had fewer features. (For InformationWeek coverage of the event, see "Miles To Go".)

While in many ways this may have been a humorous opportunity to raise his concern surrounding the behavioral aspects of technology, there is some truth, too. Although software companies would hate to admit it, most people don't use all the features of their products.

It may seem crazy to think about increasing the perceived value of a product by removing features, but there are a number of great examples of companies doing this both inside and outside the information-technology industry. In fact, the March 2003 Harvard Business Review's toolkit, Finding Your Innovation Sweet Spot, sites "subtraction" as one of four methods to innovate with a new product. The example cited is the Philips Consumer Electronics Slimline Q-series DVD Player. What Philips found was that most functions that people needed on the actual DVD player could be controlled by a single button. So they built a player with that one button and put the rest of the control buttons on the remote. This created a simpler and more elegant product.

Another interesting example, this one from the Internet, is Google's interface. Many search engines came before Google and even in the boom's early days, the presumption was that only a few would survive. That didn't stop hundreds of entrepreneurs from creating new, function-crowded search sites.

Google's founders took a different approach. They created a very focused and simple product. Instead of trying to be an information portal with maps, directions, local information, weather, traffic, etc., they focused on building the world's best search engine.

They believed that being the best by definition meant leaving the other features to those who otherwise might be competitors. Google would work on speed, completeness, and simplicity. It's so focused, as a matter of fact, that someone reportedly counts the words on the home page to ensure that it isn't too complicated. Searchers of all skill levels can more easily navigate the Google site than its kitchen-sink foes. Google is widely considered the market leader today.

It takes discipline to bring focus to a product, discipline less likely to emerge in a consensus environment. Each stake-holding group has its must-have list, and ultimately you end up so many niche features that the average user gets turned off by confusion or a higher price.

It's even worse when you look at corporate software. There you have power users who tend to dominate discussions as you review enhancements, and, unfortunately, they're often much less concerned about what the average user or even novices will want from the software. It takes a good project manager who's supported by a strong leader to push back for clean and consistent applications. Yet as Philips and Google have demonstrated, less really is more in some situations.

If you're still skeptical, ask yourself, when was the last time you described a piece of your software as either simple or elegantly designed?

Sean Ammirati is the founder and director of Avanti Strategies. Talk to him at sja@avantistrategies.com.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit the Talk Shop.

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