Tips for Fighting Technology Overload

News and Notes tech contributor Mario Armstrong talks about avoiding the "gizmo tipping point" where you might have more electronic devices than you really need.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

Technology is exploding. There are cell phones that take pictures, mp3 players that download movies, and digital cameras that record video. But what if you can't figure out how to use them?

NEWS AND NOTES tech contributor Mario Armstrong recently gave NPR's Farai Chideya the 4-1-1 on gadgets that might otherwise make you call 9-1-1 for help.

MARIO ARMSTRONG reporting:

Featuritis. Feature creep. Some people call it feature fatigue. It's just when it's just piling on. It seems like today devices are becoming the Swiss Army Knife, being able to do multiple things, something for everyone, as opposed to being maybe excellent at one good thing. And that's becoming quite a challenge for a lot of consumers that want functionality, want some features, but, at the end of the day, want easy access and usability to be able to use a product that they buy without having to read an owners manual three and four times.

FARAI CHIDEYA, reporting:

Yeah, I have to say, with my phone, I--there is… I--there's all sorts of features that I can't figure out. But what are--why are so many things being crammed inside one box these days?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, that's a great question because, ultimately, that's what it comes down to, right? It seems like there's this maybe--is it that competitive that it's this one-upmanship going on between companies, that they're trying to beat each other out, feature for feature? Is it so important that companies are trying to create incremental revenue so they're adding all these little features that require you to either pay as you download things or pay as you send things out? What is this driving factor? And what you find is a couple different answers.

Number one, the engineering process has become quicker. Chips are becoming smaller. You can do more things with less than you could before. So now, it's kind of like you're in engineer heaven. And engineers are just piling on these features, but it doesn't seem like the engineers and the market research people are having the same dialogue and same conversation. So it seems that while companies are eager to pile on new features because they think consumers ultimately want to be able to do more, don't know necessarily if that's actually making the connection in the retail outlets.

I mean, for example, you could look at a coffee machine today that can do everything from grind beans to make soft drinks to grinding your vegetables and, oh yeah, do coffee. And it has maybe 12 settings for all the different types of coffee and size you can make, and, at the end of the day, all you really wanted was to make a simple cup of coffee. So it's kind of this, because I can, I will. But I don't know if the consumer's side are saying, because you can, I would like to have that and use that.

CHIDEYA: So you've got cell phones that have all sorts of features. What are some of the other devices that tend to have feature fatigue or feature creep?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, here's a good one, Farai. When's the last time you've been into your kitchen and you just said, you know, wouldn't it be neat if I looked at my refrigerator and I could watch television? I mean, this is true! LG Electronics places a TV inside of--I mean, on the front side of a refrigerator. So, you know…

CHIDEYA: That is really strange.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARMSTRONG: You know, why do that? It goes a step further when you can have your refrigerator connected to the Internet so maybe you can dial into your refrigerator when you're at the store and say, am I out of milk? And the refrigerator tell you. So that's, you know, over the top.

But think of even like a high-tech toothbrush. There's a toothbrush out there that has what is called a sector timer. In other words, it's a timer that lets you know how much time you spent brushing in any one sector of your mouth. I don't know about you, I don't really need to know if I have equal proportions of sector times in my mouth. But the one that really seems to take the cake, though, is the BMW 7 Series. This newest feature set called iDrive, which has over 700, not seven, over 700 dashboard features alone. I just--I don't get it. I don't know who needs 700 features of anything.

CHIDEYA: Well, by the time you figure out how to use those 700 features, probably the car is, you know, so old that it doesn't run anymore, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, imagine giving that to the valet. Good luck, right?

CHIDEYA: Yeah, well, you know…

ARMSTRONG: I don't know how to drive this thing.

CHIDEYA: I'm sure it's a beautiful car, I have to say. But if you're someone who's bought a piece of technology that you can't use or you don't know how to fully use, what should you do? Because sometimes those instructional manuals really aren't that great.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, sometimes the instructions--I mean, and that's the thing. You don't really want to be able to look at an instruction manual to be able to use a product. Several studies have come out where people are saying, we don't want to be able to use an instruction manual.

So, if you have a piece of technology, or just a consumer electronic--I mean, we've talked about a lot of things that aren't necessarily technology-oriented that you've purchased and you want to get rid of. Beyond eBay, I don't really know how many options you have other than if you're within your return time. I mean, to avoid the issue in the first place, go to the place where you're looking to buy the new product. Test it out.

A lot of the flaw that I've found in talking to a lot of companies and manufacturers is the market research process may be flawed to some extent. Whereas, in some focus groups of these development companies, they're asking people, what features would you like on a DVD player? What features would you like to have in your new car or on a cell phone or in a coffee machine? But when you ask someone what features would they like to have, they tend to pile on the features even though the usability isn't there.

So the challenge has really been out now for the market and those companies that develop products, and us as savvy buyers, to say, wait a minute. Can I take this home and test this out? Can I try this for seven days? What type of policy do you have that allows me to test this to see if all these features and the usability really works for what I'm going to need it for.

CHIDEYA: Well, thanks, Mario.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Mario Armstrong is a regular NEWS AND NOTES contributor and he also covers technology for Baltimore member stations, WYPR and WEAA.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.

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