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People buy features

Would you buy fewer features if given the option?  Imagine, for example, being given the choice of a brand new vehicle with a five channel stereo, GPS navigation system, and luxury heated seats, or a bare bones vehicle.  Now imagine, all other things being equal, that they cost the same… Who wouldn’t go for the tricked out vehicle?

That’s Joel Spolsky’s contention in Simplicity.  It’s also Donald Norman’s view when he says that Simplicity is highly overrated.

People want choices.  Choice is good.  More choice is better.  Nobody understands this better than US consumer marketing people.  When I returned to Canada from living in the United States after seven years, do you know what I missed the most?  Choices. Choices at the grocery store.  Choices at the book store.  Choices at the electronics store.

Choice sells.  Joel says:

With six years of experience running my own software company I can tell you that nothing we have ever done at Fog Creek has increased our revenue more than releasing a new version with more features. Nothing. The flow to our bottom line from new versions with new features is absolutely undeniable. It’s like gravity. When we tried Google ads, when we implemented various affiliate schemes, or when an article about FogBugz appears in the press, we could barely see the effect on the bottom line. When a new version comes out with new features, we see a sudden, undeniable, substantial, and permanent increase in revenue.


Why is it that every new version of Windows has more features, more options, more stuff?  Why did Apple add video to the iPod?  Why do hot-tubs come with sound systems?  People buy features.  You may not need all those features.  You may never use all those features.  But you can take comfort in the fact that they’re there, knowing that you got value for your money.

This lesson has been largely lost on the telecommunications industry.  Instead of delivering feature rich, complete services, the MBAs in the bowels of these companies toil away figuring out how to deliver new “products” that nobody really wants.  The first time I heard someone describe caller-ID as a product, my jaw hit the floor.  After I got over my astonishment, the same person went on to describe caller-ID block as another product.  Some bean counter with an aptitude for linear programming had obviously determined that by selling all of these features separately, carriers could maximize revenues.  A product of monopoly-coddled inbreeding, it never occurred to them that they might someday be subjected to competitive forces. 

That day is here.  The bundling started by VoIP carriers like Vonage, and now being perpetuated by new cable entrants will lead to an arms race as incumbents and upstarts duke it out for feature supremacy.

Hallelujah.  We shall be delivered from the tyranny of the Bells, brothers and sisters!

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Zachary Houle December 11, 2006, 8:17 am

    I realize this may make me sound like a cynic or a devil's advocate of some sort, but there are times where more is sometimes less.

    I don't know how many times I've bought a new product — a new cellphone, a new computer, etc. — and found that I vary rarely use half the bells and whistles features that come within. (Text messaging on cellphones, anyone?) Granted, this is not to say I have anything against real product innovation, but I'd rather have the choice of getting something bare-bones and having *exactly* what I want than being forced to pay extra in _hidden fees_ for bundled services that I *don't* want. (Nobody gets something for nothing, after all.)

  • Alec December 11, 2006, 8:38 am

    Zachary — the argument that "I'd rather pay less and get exactly what I want" has always been used by folks buying software, but you know, the incremental cost of adding new features to software is tiny when it's spread across millions and millions of customers. The same is true of adding new features to cell phones. Plus, there are natural price points that customers gravitate toward.

    The cost to produce custom / niche specific products is actually higher than the swiss army knife approach.

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