Recently in the USA there was this car commercial whose sole focus was the fact that the car in question had heated cup holders AND they could cool your beverage too - I wish I had a YouTube link to share but I can't find one. So you'll just have to trust me on this one . . . BTW, the car was the 2007 Chrysler Sebring.
There was nothing in the commercial about the car's safety, fuel efficiency, interior quality etc. And it had me thinking - do advertisers believe that a car having heated or cooled cup-holders could really be the hinge-point upon which people make their car buying decision?
Are most cars so similar today in engine size, overall performance, quality etc. that we're down to making decisions based on cup-holders?
Think about cell-phones, it's impossible to buy a cell-phone today that is just a phone, it either has a camera for still-shots, or it can record movies, plays MP3s, has a web browser etc.
I wonder just how many people use most or all of the features (I'll bet very few) but when choosing the phone I'll bet most or all of the people choose the one with the most features.
So all of this had me thinking recently about the features I build every day and have built in the last few years for various applications. The ones that my customers, clients and user-base said they wanted versus the ones they really needed, and especially the ones that made them happy (customer satisfaction!).
Often the two are very different and for us very logical programmer types, this lesson is a tough one, hard won through repeated often painful experiences - why can't people just say what they really want?!?!
Then a few days ago I saw a great talk by Barry Schwartz at a Google Tech Talk (see this link also see this version). The talk was on choice and why people with more choice are paradoxically less happy with that choice (actually it's not really a paradox, more of a cultural assumption we in the West have that more freedom will make us feel better).
There was a study he mentioned (wish I had a citation but here's a mention in a related article) where people were basically asked if they would like Widget #1 with the most features, Widget #2 with quite a few features and Widget #3 with the least features.
Most people naturally went for Widget #1 - the one with more features - more capability. Ironically the people who went for Widget #3 were happier with the outcome
"when they were asked to use the digital device, so-called 'feature fatigue' set in. They became frustrated with the plethora of options they had created, and ended up happier with a simpler product." (link)
Could it be said the one with less features had better usability? Probably!
So we've got this trade-off between what people want (capability) and what makes them happy (usability).
Now working in a capitalist society means your company had better make money or you'll be out of business. To do that first and foremost you need customers to buy your product (remember the study - buyers are looking to maximize capability i.e. the most features). Later on as your business matures you need repeat customers - typically, unless you've got a monopoly, they need to be happy customers (these customers probably aren't aware of it consciously but they're looking for good usability).
So as you are building out your product you should be looking out for both - initially to bootstrap you want to be capability / feature-focused but as you go forward you need to keep a close eye on usability. Perhaps you add features but turn them off by default if they reduce overall product usability - by adding the feature you get the "sale" but by turning if off you keep usability high. Perhaps you hire some usability experts and watch you users try to use your application.
Who's got the right balance? Well think about Google - they have so many different tools now (capability) but their core UI (for the core $$$ business) is incredibly straight-forward (usable). Think also about the Apple and the iPod - such a fairly simple user interface with so much power.
The last word I'll leave to the author of the New Yorker magazine article linked above:
"The strange truth about feature creep is that even when you give consumers what they want they can still end up hating you for it"