Design Technology

When More is Less: David Pogue on the Pitfalls of Feature Creep

I really love David Pogue. He is a brilliant Renaissance man who talks about technology but from a very cultivated point of view. I don’t just say that because he went to Yale. I always enjoy the way he makes technology accessible and engaging, offering insights that resonate with both tech enthusiasts and everyday users.

In this segment, he talked about design. He started with the fact that most things have too many functions for what they do. He highlighted how modern devices, from phones to appliances, are often overloaded with features that most users don’t need or use, leading to unnecessary complexity and frustration.

Manufacturers often tout the quantity of functions above their quality. Often they’re not needed at all. This focus on feature count rather than usability can make products seem more impressive on paper but often results in a horrible user experience. As Jakob Nielsen pointed out, true simplicity requires thoughtful design and prioritizing the user’s needs over a long list of features. Without this focus, products become cumbersome and frustrating to use, ultimately failing to meet the practical needs of their users.

However, it’s really hard to limit functionality. When Microsoft tried to create a stripped-down version of Microsoft Word called Microsoft Write, it failed. That’s because everyone has a small set of features that they really need. Think about trying to remove the word count feature. No one really cares about word count. But if you do, every reviewer will mention it because professional writers really care about the word count feature. This example shows how even seemingly minor features can be crucial for certain users, making simplification a challenging task.

Simplicity is a really hard to achieve. One of my colleagues asked me, “Is simplicity the most important goal of any customer?” She thought that the answer was an obvious “Yes,” but it’s often not. First of all, the question is “Simplicity for who?” There are often many different stakeholders involved, and they have different goals. For example, executives might prioritize operational simplicity to reduce costs, developers might seek coding simplicity to facilitate updates and debugging, and the end-users just want the simplicity of use, allowing them to accomplish their goals with minimal hassle.

My favorite example of simplicity gone awry was the release of BMW’s iDrive. Customers complained of having too many knobs and dials, so BMW released an interface with just one multifunction joystick. People hated it because, despite its simple appearance, it was actually more complicated to operate. Eliminating dedicated buttons required users to memorize complex sequences for basic tasks, and the lack of tactile feedback led to a more cumbersome and less intuitive interface.

To close the segment, we got two bits of advice from Jakob Nielsen: First, you shouldn’t feel like a techno loser; it’s not your fault. It’s the designer’s fault for making it complicated because it doesn’t have to be. And second, don’t be seduced by the promise of a toothbrush that can do 20 things when you only need it to do one. Go for simplicity, buy simplicity, and your life will be happier. Also, focus on something that does the thing you actually need to do really well, rather than the 19 other things you don’t.