Sunday, June 03, 2007


"Feature creep" is the phrase to describe the phenomenon that brings us MS Word 2003 with "thirty-one toolbars and more than fifteen hundred commands" and phones that give driving directions, take pictures, and make calls. The thing about all this goodness, writes James Surowiecki in the May 28 New Yorker, is that most people can't actually cope with all the features. A researcher with Philips Electronics "found that at least half of returned products have nothing wrong with them. Consumers just couldn't figure out how to use them." And those consumers "had spent, on average, just twenty minutes with it before giving up."

Several factors come into play here: engineers and marketers who work for an imaginary consumer like themselves, not the "Joe Sixpack" we used to hear about; the customer's assumption that if it has too few features, it's no good, too weak; and the fact that "people are not, in general, good at predicting what will make them happy in the future." The notion that we're not good at knowing what will make us happy came up in the recent commuting article, too. Apparently, as a species, we really can't tell if a challenging hour-and-a-half commute home to a Colonial on a half-acre will make us happier than a ten minute commute to a "lesser" house; or if we need the digital camera with bells and whistles, or just one that takes pictures.

Are we really so ill-equipped to cope with our consumer society? I like to think that I can buy things that will make me happy -- but pretty often the dress that looked great on the hanger, or in the catalog, does look terrible on me. And this Dell notbook PC surely has more features than I ever use -- though I used more features while in school than now, and it's feature-laden-ness hasn't driven me to return it. When I bought this house, I think I did okay. I told the realtor that the feature I wanted was walking distance to the Byrd, WorldCup, and/or the art museum. WorldCup moved, then closed, but the walking city feature certainly has made me happy over the years.

Capital City weather: cooler, rain
Reading: Scrambled Eggs at Midnight by Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler
Listening: Cotton Dick Clinton

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