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Features Are Not Necessarily Good

Appearances to the contrary, users aren't really compelled by features. Product successes and failures have shown repeatedly that users don't care that much about features. Users only care about achieving their goals. Sometimes features are needed to reach goals, but more often than not, they merely confuse users and get in the way of allowing them to get their work done. Ineffective features make users feel stupid. Borrowing from a previous example, the successful PalmPilot has far fewer features than did General Magic's failed Magic Link computer, Apple's failed Newton, or the failed PenPoint computer. The PalmPilot owes its success to its designers' single-minded focus on its target user and the objectives that user wanted to achieve.

About the only good thing I can say about features is that they are quantifiable. And that quality of being countable imbues them with an aura of value that they simply don't have. Features have negative qualities every bit as strong as their positive ones. The biggest design problem they cause is that every well-meant feature that might possibly be useful obfuscates the few features that will probably be useful. Of course, features cost money to implement. They add complexity to the product. They require an increase in the size and complexity of the documentation and online help system. Above all, cost-wise, they require additional trained telephone tech-support personnel to answer users' questions about them.

It might be counterintuitive in our feature-conscious world, but you simply cannot achieve your goals by using feature lists as a problem-solving tool. It's quite possible to satisfy every feature item on the list and still hatch a catastrophe. Interaction designer Scott McGregor uses a delightful test in his classes to prove this point. He describes a product with a list of its features, asking his class to write down what the product is as soon as they can guess. He begins with 1) internal combustion engine; 2) four wheels with rubber tires; 3) a transmission connecting the engine to the drive wheels; 4) engine and transmission mounted on metal chassis; 5) a steering wheel. By this time, every student will have written down his or her positive identification of the product as an automobile, whereupon Scott ceases using features to describe the product and instead mentions a couple of user goals: 6) cuts grass quickly and easily; 7) comfortable to sit on. From the five feature clues, not one student will have written down "riding lawnmower." You can see how much more descriptive goals are than features.

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