Usability Rant: Adding complexity when you should be taking it away

February 19, 2009 in Human-Centered Design
David Bishop
Chief Human Scientist, Designer & Researcher

I wish I lived in a world where designers were forced to remove two features from a product for every one that’s added in. Doesn’t everyone know that all the features and gizmos and preferences and everything else in a product all have to compete with each other for attention and just end up making stuff hard to use and complex? How hard is it to grasp this concept? It must be pretty flippin’ hard based on some of the crap that’s foisted on people every day.

So many times I’ve seen needlessly complex products where I’m sure the rationale for including half the features was some variant of “because we could.” Letting technology drive the inclusion of features regardless of whether users need them is about the dumbest thing that can be done. Oh, we can do ‘X’ — we should just add it in! No, you shouldn’t: just because it can be done doesn’t mean it has value for the user; you’re just asking for feature creep. Oh, I know what it is — it’s fear that someone might need that feature some day. It’s fear that you don’t really know what users are going to need, so you better include settings to let them adjust to their own preferences. It’s fear that a competitor might have that feature and you’ll lose out in the battle of the checklists (that’s an insidious one, that is). What about the item that should be on everyone’s checklist: “can actually be used by mortals?

I think products suffer from feature creep because we humans crave options, choices, autonomy, freedom. Limits (as in limited features) seem so… constraining. I’d hate to be the one that prevented you from doing something, so I’d better add that feature. It would be presumptuous, conceited, to assume I know better than you, so I’d better give you options and preferences. There’s a point after which things get too complex, then it’s just lazy to keep adding features willy-nilly. It’s so easy to say “yes” to adding some useful thing and so hard to lobby for removing something (someone might need it some day!) (someone might miss it!) (someone might complain!).

Well, tough. Have some fortitude and take some things away once in a while. Clean out your junk drawer. Study the users of your product and for Bob’s sake, at least streamline access to the features they use the most. Think about making something that does one thing, but does it well. Be thankful I’m not In Charge Of The World, or I’d make you take out two features for every one you add in.

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