Feature Fatigue: Simple is Better

Technology changes overnight and with these swift advancements comes a plethora of new, useful features. Now your phone can listen to your conversations and remind you about things you mentioned. Your refrigerator can tell you that you’re out of milk. When we go to buy something, we focus on features rather than usability. When I purchased my last smart phone, I bought the one the salesman showed me that had all the neat “tricks.” I didn’t consider how I use my phone (calls, internet, work email, social media, blogging, photography). Instead, I decided it was really important to have a phone that could call someone if I yelled at it and could share a contact by bumping it against another phone (though I have never used either feature). And now my phone is barely hanging on and I wonder if it is because it’s imploding itself on all its cool features. It has so much going on, it’s dying! This phenomenon is called “Feature Fatigue.” It was defined in a 2005 study by the following statement: “Because consumers give more weight to capability and less weight to usability before use than after use, they tend to choose overly complex products that do not maximize their satisfaction when they use them.”

For manufacturers, “feature fatigue” means they must decide between making the product more attractive initially or long-term customer satisfaction. Products with tons of cool features are very attractive initially, but when all goes awry because usage slows or basic functions are hard to figure out, customers will equate that frustration with the product brand. Companies that succeed are companies that do one thing better than anyone else rather than dabble in everything at a mediocre level. This is the principle of the famous Bruce Lee quote: “I fear not the man that has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” The research on feature fatigue is focused on the manufacturing side. Studies are attempting to help companies navigate this difficult issue. On one hand, boring products don’t sell well. On the other hand, if you get home with your new purchase and can’t figure it out or things start breaking, you’re never going to return to that company for products.

For consumers, feature fatigue means that we’re not making the right decisions when we choose a product to purchase. We get caught up on the flashy options and that detracts from the overall usability and longevity of the product. In some cases, the marketer will create a sense of ownership over those features by allowing you to “customize” the product. Since you are now in the “creator” position, of course you want to create the greatest product possible! So you add the biggest this and the extra that and end up with a highly featured and “specialized” product. In the end, you’ll probably be frustrated with those features.

A 2005 study in the Journal of Marketing Research, researchers looked at feature fatigue by performing three separate studies:

  1. In the first study, 130 participants were asked to evaluate three different audio players or video players and then pick one to perform a series of tasks. 62.3% chose the option with the most features, 28.5% chose the middle option, and only 9.2% chose the most basic model. They also found that the option with the most features was favored regardless of self-defined expertise about audio/video players. Everyone wants the thing with the most stuff.
  2. The second study asked 141 undergraduate students to imagine they were going to purchase and download a digital audio or video player and they could customize it to choose the features they wanted. They were given 25 different features they could add to the product they were going to purchase (but they were told their budget could include as many or as little features as they wanted so they wouldn’t be swayed by potential costs). On average, they chose 19.6 features out of 25. All the things! We need them!
  3. Study three is where things get more interesting. 190 participants were given one digital audio or video player: one that had 7 features and a 4-page instruction manual OR one that had 21 features and an 8-page instruction manual. They were asked to perform a series of four different tasks with the player they were given. After doing this, they were asked to pick a product from the same three options given in study one. This time, however, they had experience with either the high-featured product or the low-featured product. Before use, 66% of people chose the high-featured model, but only 44% chose the high-featured product after actually using it. 

We sabotage ourselves by thinking we want/need/can actually use all the features offered. If we actually tried to use the product before purchasing, we might change our choice. Next time you’re in the market for a product, try to look past the flashy features and the customization and think about what you actually plan to do with the product. What are your top utilization priorities? Stick with those.

Have you experienced feature fatigue with something you’ve purchased? Or have you been able to talk yourself into the base model? If so, how?

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16 Comments

  1. Ah ha! I have definitely experienced feature fatigue in life. I think the common one that many of us can refer to is cell phones (as you brought up in the beginning of this post). I haven’t had many cell phones in my life because a) I like to take good care of them, and b) I wait into the absolute last possible moment it gives up on me before upgrading – I don’t just give in to the fact that there’s a newer, better, faster version out there. Call me old school, but I would love to just get my Razr phone back (except that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with all of my extra-curricular social media happenings, dang). I think whenever I make purchases I face feature fatigue often. I just want a few great things that the item can accomplish, not a full-blown description of whatever is available of endless features that I do not even end up using half the time. Great post!

    • MaggieBanks

      Yes! I wait until my technology is terrible (my cell phone currently freezes several times a day), but then when I actually go to get a new one, I’m a sucker for new features. It sounds like you’re better about it than I am. I go all crazy over some nutso feature I’ll never use. THAT’S SO AWESOME! I NEED it! Next time, I need to remember that I need just the basic things!

  2. Now that I think about it, I only use two primary wash cycles on my “fancy” washer. I’m pretty sure I’m only making use of 10% of it’s overall features. Self sabotaged! 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      Great example! I don’t even know what some of the settings on my dishwasher even do! Or my washer!

  3. I love this post, Maggie! I wonder if knowing about this phenomenon makes it easier to resist all the features?

    Something we wonder/worry about for the future is feature fear. Like how adults in the 80s were afraid of programming VCRs, or how older generations now fear computers and smart phones. *Not* embracing technology can make you get old faster, at least in terms of mindset, so we’re trying to figure out how to embrace it while recognizing that we don’t need every feature. Any wise answers? 😉

    • MaggieBanks

      I wish I had a great answer for that, but I agree with you. It’s a tough call between choosing new features to stay up to date and picking too many features. I’m hoping that knowledge is useful next time we pick a product… “hmmm… I want to avoid feature fatigue… I’ll go with the simpler model.” That’s me, picking my new phone, like a boss. 🙂

  4. I honestly haven’t bought any electronics or other big purchases lately. Luckily work pays for my laptop and phone. I have an iPad I bought 4 or 5 years ago that still gets the job done (I barely use it anymore at all, I feel the laptop is more useful since I do a lot of typing for the blog).

    • MaggieBanks

      Well next time you’re in the market for an appliance or an audio/video player (like the study), you’ll know what to choose! 🙂 Our current laptop works great for everything but internet. That has died.

  5. Rue

    I love this post.
    I’ve worked at an electronics store for ~4 years, and this is so totally true.
    I sold cameras for a time, and I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve had someone buy the most expensive (basically professional grade) camera with absolutely no idea how to use it. They just want “the best one”.
    Guilty as I am of being an iPhone lover, I’ve never bought the new one just as it came out, but I think they’re the biggest example of this.
    Great post 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      That’s a great anecdote. I can totally see doing that with a camera. “But I want really good pictures!” Forget that I have no idea how to use it. Mr. T does the fancy stuff… I use our SLR like a point and shoot!

  6. This makes me think of our car! I love that we can set up different temperatures for the driver and passenger (I’m always cold and he’s always hot) but I still don’t actually know HOW to do it. Our entire console confuses me – the temperature settings, the music, etc.

    Related: choice fatigue. Too many choices are overwhelming.

    • MaggieBanks

      We have old cars, so I don’t face that problem… but whenever I get in a rental car, I feel like I just boarded a rocketship! I have no idea how to use anything and it all looks so advanced, I feel like just saying “Car. Play good music.” It doesn’t work.

  7. I tend to check the features and compare it to how many of those we’ll use consistently. Then again, the electronics we buy tend to be gaming consoles or a new iPod when my husband’s old one died. (We don’t have smartphones because we’re both home all day.)

    When it came to laptops, I tried to go with memory and hard drive and whatever features I thought I’d reasonably use. And I checked into brand reputation. It was *exhausting* and I hope I don’t need a new one for a long time. I can’t imagine having to replace your smartphone every few years.

    • MaggieBanks

      It sounds like you’ve got a pretty good handle on ensuring you pick out things based on what you’ll actually use. That’s tough. And yes, picking out electronics is exhausting. It sure would be a lot easier to just pick one and move on… but we probably wouldn’t be as happy in the long run!

  8. That’s a great point about features. My phone had an OS update, and unlike my usual self that just ignores these, I updated… What a mistake. It regrouped all sorts of stuff into new bins and categories and it takes forever to figure out how to do what used to be simple. So annoyed… I like the motto ‘Keep It Simple Stupid”, then even I can use it! Hahaha

    • MaggieBanks

      I like “Keep it simple, stupid.” That’s awesome. Part of me is all “yes! A new one! Look at all the cool stuff it does!” And then I can’t figure it out!

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