Electronic Options Creating 'Feature Fatigue' An ever-increasing array of bells and whistles on cell phones, digital cameras and car dashboards are confounding many customers. University of Maryland marketing professor Roland Rust talks to Susan Stamberg about the phenomenon.

Electronic Options Creating 'Feature Fatigue'

Electronic Options Creating 'Feature Fatigue'

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An ever-increasing array of bells and whistles on cell phones, digital cameras and car dashboards are confounding many customers. University of Maryland marketing professor Roland Rust talks to Susan Stamberg about the phenomenon.


When you pull out your cell phone, how often do you do more than make a phone call? Check the date, say, or take a picture, play a game, not to mention using all the other built-in features, the alarm clock, email, the global positioning system? If all these functions baffle you, you are not alone. You may be among the legions of consumers suffering from what University of Maryland Marketing Professor Roland Rust calls feature fatigue. Professor Rust joins us from College Park, Maryland. Welcome to you, Professor.

Professor ROLAND RUST (University of Maryland): Thanks, Susan.

STAMBERG: I know you got interested in this subject not by pouring over various business statistics, but by sitting there looking at your mouse pad; right?

Professor RUST: Yes. I have this amazing mouse pad. It looks like the dashboard of a car. It's about a foot long and about eight or nine inches wide and it has a calculator and a radio and an alarm clock. I think it does have GPS in it just to make sure it's by the right computer. I suppose you could even put a mouse on it, but I'm not really quite sure about that.

STAMBERG: So looking at all of this, what was your next thought?

Professor RUST: Well, my thought was why is there a user's manual? You know, this is really strange.

STAMBERG: Did you ever use the mouse pad?

Professor RUST: Oh, no. No, that would be too hard.

STAMBERG: Give some other extreme examples from mouse pads to what? Automobiles?

Professor RUST: Yeah, I think that the BMW I drive is sort of the classic example of feature fatigue run amok, because you have a computer console that has about 700 features in it, and I'll bet if you ran into a hundred people who had a BMW, you'd find 95 or 96 of them that couldn't operate more than five of those features.

STAMBERG: But the other four want them. And isn't that part of the point that they're being offered, that consumers demand these kinds of things?

Professor RUST: Yes, unfortunately it seems to be the case that a lot of consumers have eyes that are bigger than their stomachs, so to speak, because what we found was that people had very, very different ideas about the product after they used the product and in fact, really had a lot of trouble with the products typically. And this happened, interestingly enough, even with experts, you know, people who really, really knew about these products. They over-estimated what they would be able to actually use and then if they had the chance to choose after the fact, they would choose much simpler products.

STAMBERG: That's interesting. So the point is you think you want a gizmo with lots of different things that it can do, but what we really want is usability, something that is easy for us to use.

Professor RUST: That's exactly right. Usability becomes much more important after people have had a chance to actually use the product.

STAMBERG: What is the solution for companies who are selling this high-tech stuff? It would be risky for them to limit the number of features because they might really lose sales.

Professor RUST: I don't know that that's true because if you take a look at some examples like the i-Pod, you know, the i-Pod basically does one thing very, very well and that device has sold like crazy. Mercedes took about 600 features out of its dashboard to try to simplify things and make things easier for the user, and I think that's the way things should go and will go, because what we really need is devices where the computers inside the devices actually help the user and make it easier for them rather than making it more difficult.

(Soundbite of ringing phone)

STAMBERG: Oh, professor. Excuse me a minute, I have to answer my cell phone. Oh, my gosh. I just turned my oven on instead. Thanks very much. Roland Rust is a Professor of Marketing at the University of Maryland.

Professor RUST: Thanks, Susan.

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