Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Usable Product Features: Giving Your Users Only What They Need
All too often, I encounter software that includes all of the potential features users could want. Most often, teams include all of these features when they're not really sure what users are trying to accomplish with the product. When a product serves a large and diverse audience, software often leaves it to the users to figure out how to solve their problems. The problem is that this feature pollution is typically detrimental to the software's usability.

For example, in my hotel room, I have a television remote for the TV, a funky cable box, and a DVD player. There are dozens of buttons in a variety of sizes ranging from small to really, really small and all the same color. I can't turn the volume down on the TV without studying it for a bit. Picture me trying to turn the volume down as fast as I can because there's no chance of me finding the "mute" button. The utility is there, but not much else.

To satisfy everyone, it's common to want to throw in many features (see figure 2). However, adding features without focusing on the users' goals will often lead to usability and learnability challenges. Teams might do better to create specialized versions of the product targeted at different audiences.

Figure 2: Microsoft Word with all toolbars open courtesy of Jared Spool.
Wow, that's a lot of features!

In contrast, the Flip video camcorder focuses primarily on the product's usability. The Flip contains only a small subset of features for the users. It has only one button for recording and stopping a video recording. A flip-out USB port connects it with your computer where the software does the rest of the work to copy, edit, combine, and share videos.

With a small feature set, Flip does an excellent job of focusing on what is most important to their audience. For people who just want to shoot movies quickly, keep them, or share them, it's exactly what they need in a usable and aesthetically pleasing package. If you want to do more, it's not for you. Unlike with the Segway, there are enough people out there who want simplicity, so much that the Flip captured a double-digit share of the camcorder market in its first year.

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About the author

Jeff Patton's picture Jeff Patton

Jeff Patton leads Agile Product Design, a small consultancy that focuses on creating healthy processes that result in products that customers love. Articles, essays, and blog can be found at www.AgileProductDesign.com. Information about public classes, including Certified Scrum Training, can be found at www.AgileProductDesign.com/training.

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