Flooding our Co.Design headquarters this Halloween morning are hundreds of reports and sightings by technology writers and design analysts of what is undoubtedly the biggest and creepiest Halloween creep of them all: the Feature Creep.
To know him is to dread him, and he appears to be in full glory, having wielded his evil magic on industry-leading companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google, all of which unveiled their new offerings last week.
Tech bloggers generally agree that the Feature Creep tempts even the most well-intentioned product and software designers with “cool,” whereby they succumb to the Feature Creep’s siren call of bells and whistles–gadget and gizmo features that are the inevitable outcome of brainstorms generated by “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we added (insert feature or capability here).” Developers get too clever and lose sight of what users really want, need, and require.
The Feature Creep comes in full costume, disguised as value-adding capability but is directly responsible for what most consumers view as endless choice and feature overkill in all but the best experiences. Consumers are accustomed to the fatigue they experience from the myriad features that most consider excessive, confusing, wasteful, hard to use, and ugly.
One of the first technology critics to call attention to the existence of the Feature Creep was New York Times columnist David Pogue, who famously demonstrated to a rapt audience at the 2006 TED conference what happened when he opened every possible toolbar in his Microsoft Word program–there was no room on the screen for the primary value-adding function of composing a simple text document.
The more complex, sophisticated, and powerful the product, the more vulnerable it is to the Feature Creep’s insidious effects. So, too, are companies under competitive market pressure to keep abreast of those who’ve had more success in neutralizing the Creep.
Take, for example, the much-ballyhooed Windows 8 debut last week. Under pressure to keep up with the success of Apple’s iPad and the move toward touch screens and tablets, Microsoft unveiled its new operating system, a confusing mashup of two systems trying to be all things to all people. There’s Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows RT. You need a map to figure out which one plays on which device–the new Surface tablet, desktop unit, or notebook computer.
Microsoft Chief Steve Ballmer hailed the simplified interface, but for the average user, confusion reigns from the start. Perhaps because there is no Start, which Windows users have for years relied on to navigate the maze of applications on their desktops.
The interface only looks simple. For this reporter–not a power user but no green rookie either–the primary experience after hunting and pointing and swiping for several minutes just trying to send a simple email was a blazing headache. (Hint: If you’re trying to use a mouse instead of the touch pad or touch screen, fugedabouddit.) Windows 8 adds such an initial burden by way of a steep learning curve, it makes sense to think the Feature Creep had its way with Microsoft.
Even the sleek new vapor-deposited magnesium (VaporMg–does that even mean anything to anyone?) Surface tablet, which at first glance looks like a real player in the category, didn’t escape. Take the vaunted built-in “kickstand” feature. It works great if you happen to be a certain height. If you’re over six feet tall, you may just find yourself slouching in your chair to optimize your viewing angle: The kickstand isn’t adjustable.
And the oh-so-cool wafer-thin Touch Cover that’s a keyboard? An extra $120, thank you very much. And what isn’t there may just trump what is: No feedback from the keys, so you can’t know for sure if your fingers are hitting the mark. Sure, you can plop down an extra $10 for the Type Cover, which solves that problem but introduces a few others, like making the Surface heavier and thicker, thus uncomfortable to hold and awkward to use as the tablet is intended to be. Well-intended features, to be sure, but unfortunately not unscathed by the Feature Creep.
Even vaunted Apple, once the crown king of neutralizing the Feature Creep, didn’t fare all that well with the introduction of both the iPhone 5 and iPad Mini. The iPhone 5, as everyone by now knows, is lighter and thinner but bigger than its predecessor. The Feature Creep really went to town on both items, tempting the venerable designers in the Cupertino kitchen into adding a rather painful new feature: a connection port requiring loyal users to either switch or pay for an adaptor, usually both.
Does anyone escape the Feature Creep? Yes. Simpler business models and products have a much easier time defeating him, since they don’t present as many opportunities.
The Southwestern cultish phenomenon of In-N-Out Burger, for example, has stymied the Feature Creep since the Los Angeles company’s inception in 1948 at the hands of Harry and Esther Snyder, innovators of the drive-through burger stand concept.
The In-N-Out menu has only four food items—the same ones it started with back in 1948. You can order a Hamburger, a Cheeseburger, a Double-Double, and French Fries. The fifth item is a beverage. You can enjoy the standard array of Coca-Cola products, or order one of three flavors of milkshake: chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry. That’s it. Or is it?
One reason for the cultish phenomenon is the “secret menu.” You have to be in the know to be privy to it. There are over a dozen “standard” off-menu items, with more being added all the time. But not by the company; by customers. The company does not actively promote, or even pay much attention to, the secret menu.
Such discipline and restraint in resisting formal menu expansion stops the Feature Creep dead in his tracks.
And on the mobile application front, we can look to the overwhelmingly popular Instagram for clues on defeating the Feature Creep. Its first iteration–a bloated and feature-laden app called Burbn–had the Feature Creep’s fingerprints all over it, and thus had very few users. CEO Kevin Systrom stepped back and cut out the clutter, paring it down into something people could understand and use inside 30 seconds, knocking Feature Creep out of the ring entirely. Instagram amassed 2 million users in only four months, a rate of growth faster than Foursquare, Facebook, and Twitter at the time.
The secret to defeating the Feature Creep is deceptively simple: subtraction. Subtraction is defined simply as the art of removing anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly … and the discipline to refrain from adding it in the first place.
Subtraction is the one trick or treat no self-respecting Feature Creep can accept and hope to survive.
Matthew E. May is the author of the new book, The Laws of Subtraction. You can buy the book here for $15.
[Image: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]