When it comes to product features – when more means better in the eyes of buyers – how much is too much?

Debora Thompson‘s consumer behavior research began with a casual question: Should something as simple as a mouse pad need an instruction manual?

In 2005, when Thompson was a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, someone gave the mouse pad in question as a gift to her adviser and professor, Roland Rust. This was no ordinary mouse pad, though; it also included a calculator and other electronic features.

Rust could not make it work.

Joking about this confounding, unnecessary device turned into a discussion of other hard-to-use, feature-filled items.

“Here you have this super-smart person, a world-renowned scholar, and he cannot use his washing machine,” says Thompson, now an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “So we started talking about this and wondering, is this just our own anecdotal evidence, or is this a general tendency that consumers are overwhelmed with a lot of the products they buy?”

Thus began their research on what they would come to call “feature fatigue.”

A modern consumer would be hard-pressed to find a plain cell phone; most also are audio players/cameras/mini-computers/gaming platforms. Manufacturers are locked in an apparent arms race to see who can put more bullet points on their boxes. “More” often seems synonymous with “better.”

With that in mind, Thompson and her colleagues set out to discover just how much is enough.The answers have practical implications for manufacturers, marketers, and consumers alike.

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Evidence of feature fatigue – or feature creep, a similar concept – is abundant. It shows up in consumer blogs where authors rant about the complexity of a new appliance. It appears in online reviews written in colorful language by unsatisfied customers.

Nearly everyone has a tale of a frustrating product they simply could not figure out. Thompson mentions a friend’s father who went so far as to place tape over the extraneous buttons on his remote control so he would not press them by mistake.

Anecdotes are helpful, but given her background in social psychology, Thompson wanted data to explain the disconnect between what consumers want when they shop and what they get when they open the box and start using a product.

“People are complaining about complex products,” Thompson says, “but they bought them in the first place. We are trying to understand this paradox.”

In research first published in 2005 in the Journal of Marketing Research, then further highlighted in Harvard Business Review, Thompson, Rust, and Rebecca Hamilton (now an associate professor at the University of Maryland) designed a set of experiments comparing perceptions of a product’s capability with its actual usability.

In one experiment, the researchers simulated an in-store experience by presenting study participants with interfaces for digital audio and video players that had either seven, 14, or 21 features.They asked participants to rate each model’s perceived capability and usability. Although participants were aware that feature overload might decrease a player’s ease of use, 62 percent still chose the most feature-rich options.

A second experiment backed up those results by instructing participants to customize their own product by choosing from a list of 25 features. Again, these would-be consumers stuck with a “more is better” mentality; they chose an average of 19.6 features for their customized players.

A third experiment tested how much hands-on use changed consumers’ choices. Study participants were split into two groups. A “before use” group could pick between two virtual products, one with seven features and one with 21, but they could not actually try these products. An “after use” group chose between the same products after testing them.

Hands-on experience played a crucial role: 66 percent of the “before use” group chose the option with 21 features, compared with just 44 percent of the “after use” group.

These results create a conundrum for marketers and manufacturers. Past consumer behavior research has shown that if companies add features to a product – even trivial, unnecessary features – consumers are likely to view that product as newer or more desirable than other models. Because of that, Thompson says, “Marketers and engineers really have this ‘Why not?’ mindset. Adding features is an easy and often inexpensive way to create differentiation.”

On the flipside, usability research has shown that performing simple functions becomes more difficult for users as features are added to a product. Poor usability creates frustrated consumers, and frustrated consumers are less likely to buy a company’s products in the future – and more likely to spread negative word of mouth.

On the surface, “less is better” might seem like the ultimate message, but the message is not that simple. Some companies, including electronics maker Philips and camera maker Flip Video, have had success marketing the simplicity and ease of use of their products, but that approach will not work for everyone.

“Simplicity and usability can be effective points of differentiation,” Thompson says, “but it’s more difficult. It’s certainly easier to add more stuff and say, ‘We have more.’”

Often, if a company moves entirely toward feature-poor products, they will lose sales to their feature-touting competitors, regardless of relative quality, Thompson says. Managers need to assess the proper number of features that will be both attractive and functional for consumers on a product-by-product basis. Thompson and her colleagues provide a mathematical model in their research for balancing feature optimization with customer satisfaction.

“Our argument was not that features are necessarily bad,” Thompson says, “but that companies need to calibrate, to find the optimal level of features, one that doesn’t hurt your usability and still makes you attractive to consumers in the beginning.”

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With that initial research as a foundation, Thompson and Hamilton dove deeper into the consumer’s mindset in their next paper, “Is There a Substitute for Direct Experience?,” published in December 2007 in the Journal of Consumer Research.

This research deals with two very different types of consumer experience: direct and indirect. Direct experience comes in the form of a product trial or any other practical, hands-on time with a product. Indirect experience could mean reading a simple description of the product or product reviews, for example.

Thompson’s basic theory, rooted in a concept called construal level theory, is that the further away from direct experience a consumer sits, the more likely he or she is to think about a product in abstract terms rather than concrete, practical terms. Abstract thinking leads people to pay more attention to desirability (comparable to capability) than feasibility (comparable to usability).

The researchers tested this theory in another set of experiments. The results, simplified:

  • One group of participants had a direct experience with a product, but when tested two weeks later, they reverted to an abstract mindset and trended toward desirability over feasibility.
  • In another study, participants exposed to communications encouraging them to think concretely – to imagine using a product in practical terms – were more drawn to feasibility than desirability. In this case, encouragement to think in concrete terms served as a substitute for direct experience.
  • When asked to shop for someone else instead of themselves, participants were much more likely to think abstractly and favor desirability over feasibility.

“The bottom line is that the higher the direct experiential contact, the more effective you are going to be at shifting consumers’ mindset from abstract to concrete,” Thompson says. Likewise, the further away from direct experience a buyer gets — in time, proximity, or any other form of psychological distance — the more they return to abstract thinking.

The paper points to several companies that have successfully integrated direct experience into their sales and marketing. Maytag, for example, has allowed customers to test washing machines by bringing their dirty laundry to the store. Outdoor retailer REI encourages people shopping for a tent to try setting it up in the store (or the parking lot, depending on space). The simpler the tent is to use, the more likely the customer will buy it. Bullet points on a box are mostly moot in the face of direct experience.

“If we try to mimic or approximate this concrete mindset that consumers have after purchase, we can improve the quality of their decisions,” Thompson says.

As such, the best option for companies to create satisfied customers often is a product trial. However, product trials are not always practical or even possible. Consider online shopping, for example. Online shoppers cannot physically touch or use a product, so companies might try to provide as concrete a mental picture as possible by encouraging people to think about how they would use a product once it arrives. Thompson mentions a successful Web campaign by Kodak in which consumers could rotate digital images of the company’s cameras on screen and simulate using their buttons with mouse clicks.

Such an approach will not appeal to all companies, though. Some companies, particularly those with products that have long intervals between purchases, may be more concerned with the initial sale than with creating customer loyalty for future purchases, because customers are unlikely to come back for a repeat purchase anytime soon.

“The less important repurchase is, usually the higher the optimal number of features will be,” Thompson says. For some companies, appealing to the abstract mindset by offering feature-rich products remains the best plan for maximizing profits.

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Sometimes consumers also reap a different kind of reward from feature-rich products: the adulation of their peers. Think of the release of Apple’s iPhone, for example, when lines stretched around blocks; in certain circles, people who braved those lines to get an iPhone became the envy of their friends.

In a current working paper with colleague Michael Norton from Harvard Business School, Thompson explores “The Social Utility of Feature Creep.” This topic arose when Norton challenged Thompson with a provocative thought: Maybe people purchase feature-rich products because of their social value. This thought has roots in the long-established concept of conspicuous consumption.

Thompson and Norton tested how people make purchase decisions in a variety of circumstances. Study participants were asked to evaluate real mp3 players (direct experience) with a varied number of features. In one case, they were told their survey answers would be confidential; in another, they were told their choices would be revealed to others.

In the confidential case, more users chose the mp3 player with fewer features; they cited its ease of use as the deciding factor. However, when those same participants thought other people would be evaluating them, they chose the more feature-rich players.

“What is interesting is it reveals that people are willing to make a trade-off – the potential disutility of a complex product for the social benefits that features can bring,” Thompson says.

Additionally, in another experiment, participants observed others as they made their purchase choices. The observers rated those who chose feature-rich players more highly in categories such as wealth, tech savvy, and openness to new experiences.

“We have found that observers systematically evaluate users of feature-rich products more positively than users of feature-poor products,” Thompson says.

“Wealth was expected [as a category]. We’re not surprised by that, but these results go beyond wealth inferences. They communicate something more nuanced about your personality.”

The lessons for marketers shine through in these results. If you want to sell a feature-rich product, your message should highlight public use or public display of that product. Create advertisements that show people using a cell phone/music player/camera out in the world, for example. If you want to sell a feature-poor product, shy away from social messages that imply public use.

No single approach will work for any given company, which is why Thompson stresses the need for calibration. Finding the ideal through careful analysis comes across as a clear message in all of her research, whether the issue is balancing consumer perceptions with practical usability, juggling the realities of marketing and sales with the desire for informed consumer decisions, or deciding just how much “more” is right for your product.

“This varies a lot from product category to product category,” Thompson says. “You have to find the happy medium.”

You also have to ask if maybe, sometimes, a mouse pad should just be a mouse pad.

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