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By Jack Ganssle

Feature Creep

Published 3/12/07

"Sit in the driver's seat," he instructed me, "and now try to change the radio's volume."

I complied, fiddling with the impressive, and baffling, iDrive joystick in the BMW 745i. Eventually frustrated, I gave up and asked for help. "I keep forgetting," he replied.

He was one of the engineers who designed the system.

The iDrive replaced some 200 controls in high-end Beemers, but was so confusing that some dealers reputedly offered a one-week course for new owners. Too many features meant that, for many drivers, none were useful.

Famously-bloated Microsoft Word offers so many features that many people find it impossible to do simple tasks. Some wags suggest that only 10% of its capabilities ever get used. It seems each new release brings truckloads of even more obscure operations. Yet it has been a fine word processor for years. The only reason I can see for an upgrade is to follow file formats.

An elderly couple, great friends, recently told me of struggles with their cell phone, complaining about deep menu structures that made using the address book too complicated. Yet theirs is a simple model without the seemingly-mandatory MP3 player, camera, video, TV, web connection, and plethora of games. Skipping down a couple of generations, my kids laugh that I haven't programmed in different ring tones for each caller. I neither know how, nor have I any interest in developing an intimate relationship with a phone.

Now a company is exploiting some consumers' frustrations with overly-complex phones. Jitterbug (http://www.jitterbug.com) sells two models: one does little but make calls, with big buttons easy on older eyes. The other doesn't even dial calls. Press "911" or "operator." In either case a real person - an operator (remember those?) - answers and either invokes emergency services or completes your call. Instead of fumbling on a keypad at 70 MPH, or trying to find a clear focus point through bifocals to locate tiny buttons, a human assistant does the dialing.

The user doesn't struggle with menus to set up the address book. It comes pre-programmed, from a list of numbers customers provide when ordering the phone.

Instead of cramming every possible feature into their product, Jitterbug has stripped features till the phone does nothing but. act like a phone.

While we engineers obey marketing's commands to add ever more features in a mad race to keep up with the competition, one can't help but wonder if there's another sort of consumer who desires a clean, elegant and simple product, a product that does one thing well. One with a clear UI, with large buttons and no gimmicks.

Or, I wonder if Jitterbug will be able to resist the urge to add "just one cool feature."

What do you think? Do we really need all of the features crammed into every electronic goody? Or is it all a marketing ploy?