Saturday, September 15, 2007

Feature Creep

I've often heard users and designers bemoan "feature creep" and express the wish that manufacturers would limit the number of features supported by their products in order to make them more simple to use. While I sympathize with the goal, I don't think that avoiding feature creep is necessarily the solution.

Consider the iPod. A recent issue of MIT's Technology Review magazine (May 2007) focused on design, and frequently held up the iPod as a design ideal. Don Norman, speaking of Apple in general, stated, "The hardest part of design, especially consumer electronics, is keeping features out." Mark Rolston, senior vice president of creative at Frog Design, said, "The most fundamental thing about Apple that's interesting to me is that they're just as smart about what they don't do. Great products can be made more beautiful by omitting things."

So, back to the iPod. It originally began life as a music player. Along the way, it added a calendar, contacts, notes, alarm clocks, world clocks, stopwatch, audiobooks, picture viewer, video, podcasts, and games, and it can be used as an external hard drive, even a bootable one for an OS X machine. The iPod Touch adds internet surfing, a You Tube viewer, online access to the iTunes music store, and the ability to buy whatever song you're currently hearing at Starbuck's.

Hmmm... Isn't this the very definition of feature creep?

And yet, the iPod remains beloved, an icon of good design. And very deservedly so.

Because what makes the iPod easy to use is not feature restraint, but rather the fact that all of its many features work the same way. The user need only learn one general rule about how the interface works and can apply that rule to pretty much every function.

So perhaps the trick isn't in avoiding feature creep, but rather in avoiding "rule creep".

1 comment:

Dan said...

Hi Vic,

To my mind, an essential characteristic of "feature creep" (along with "scope creep" and "mission creep") is that "creeping" is an undisciplined process whereby features sneak into a product without proper design review. I don't see any utility in using "feature creep" as a synonym for the general addition of features.

I don't know much about Apple's internal processes, but based on their products, I infer that every feature of the iPod has been through substantial design review, so I disagree that the iPod exemplifies feature creep.

But this is "just" a semantic quibble (and probably not supported by common usage). I completely agree that a lack of interface rule restraint is behind most complaints about feature creep. An interesting question for me is how often does Apple (for example) pass on a feature because including it would require a change to the interface rules?

-Dan Riley