Complexity Delivers Short-term Gain but Long-term Pain

    June 30, 2006

Complexity sells (sometimes). Customers are often impressed by all the extra features. The mood can change when they have to use the product.

I remember chairing a tourism web conference in San Francisco during the height of dot com mania. A presenter showcased this web-based 3D figure that could show you around a website and help you decide where to go on holiday.

The demo he showed didn’t work very well and seemed pretty ridiculous to me. However, at the break he was swamped by people looking for his business card. They had shot up out of their seats like I had never seen before. It was like he had become the reincarnation of Elvis Presley. The flash, the shiny, the bells ‘n’ whistles-there’s a market.

I gave a talk at a content management conference some time ago, and complained about how content management companies were always adding features. If they focused more on improving the basics, that would be a better investment of time and money for everyone, I suggested.

After the talk, an executive from a content management company came up to me. While he agreed with my point, he said I was not being realistic. Customers might claim they wanted simplicity, but what sold was complexity. I was reminded of a couple of old sayings: “If you can’t dazzle them with diamonds, baffle them with bullshit,” and, “In the mystery lies the margin.”

“Consumers give more weight to a product’s capability benefits and less weight to a product’s usability before they use the product than after they use the product-despite the fact that a product’s usability strongly influences their satisfaction with the product.” This is according to “Feature Fatigue”, a study by Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, which was featured in the February 2006 issue of Harvard Business Review.

While “people prefer to purchase products with more features … when people actually had a chance to use the product, they were more satisfied with the simpler version,” the study found.

“A product crowded with features may be more attractive to consumers in the store, but too many features make a product overwhelming and hard to use, which leads to dissatisfaction with the product and perhaps even with the company,” the study continues. “Even though people want more features, companies need to balance initial purchases against long-term satisfaction and repurchases. They could eventually lose market share if people are consistently and systematically unhappy with their product.”

It’s hard to resist all those extra features. However, as someone who has bought a lot of audio equipment over the years, I’ve learned some hard lessons. The fancier it looks, with all those extra buttons and “super bass boost” the worse it sounds, and certainly the quicker it is to break. Quality rarely has to put on a show of surface complexities.

There are a lot of pressures to create a complex website. Designers like a complex challenge, complicated technology keeps IT busy, and your boss may be impressed with all this extra smart stuff. The initial impression of customers might even be that they love these clever, cool features.

Simplicity will be a difficult sell in the short-term. Complexity catches the eye. It is in the use of the thing that simplicity shines.

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