- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

In case your last expedition to buy a PDA didn’t convince you, the University of Maryland has figured out that an overabundance of options on consumer electronics devices can be too much for users to handle:

For anyone who uses just half the buttons on their cell phone, or has spent hours poring over a new user’s manual only to give up in frustration, recent research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business explains why too many product features result in a phenomenon called “feature fatigue.”

The researchers found that a product crowded with features may be more attractive to consumers in the store, but too many features ultimately make a product overwhelming and hard to use, which leads to dissatisfaction with the product and perhaps even with the company that manufactured it.

“Simpler is better,” despite popular wisdom and a marketplace ingrained in the creation of products that are ever smaller, faster and more feature laden,” said Roland Rust, co-author of the article and the executive director of the Center for Excellence in Service at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business.

“Our research showed that consumers will be initially attracted to the mobile phone that “does everything” for example, but once they get it home they become frustrated,” Mr. Rust said. “Companies can actually make more money in the long run by making products that are simpler than what customers think they want. The smarter strategy is to design simple, dedicated devices like the iPod, that do one thing very well, to build long-term satisfaction and profitable customer relationships.”

The research was described in the article “Defeating Feature Fatigue” in February’s Harvard Business Review. The article was based on a series of Smith School studies that included an “in-store” experience that allowed participants to choose from products based purely on features, as well a later study that allowed for interaction with several different models of virtual digital video players. After using one of the virtual DVD players, participants were asked to rate their satisfaction with each product. While the “in-store” study showed that 66 percent preferred the model with the most features, the later study also showed that when people actually had a chance to use the product, 56 percent preferred a simpler model.

“Consumers can avoid the feature fatigue trap by first trying out a product, and comparing several, before buying,” said Mr. Rust. “Chances are they will be more satisfied with a simpler product with less features.”

I appreciate what the UMd. folks have to say, but there’s another side to the “simple is better” story: What happens when you OUTGROW the limited feature set of that “simple” device? My thought: better

to carefully evaluate the features you’d use now PLUS those you’d want later on. Get a device with as many of the “I’ll use ‘em later” features as you can and just GROW into their use.

Otherwise, you might want to become familiar with a book such as Marsha Collier’s “eBay For Dummies“, whose fifth edition will be out in October. Why? Because you’ll probably want to dispose of those simpler gadgets as your usage matures.

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