Why more features is good and Word is actually a good program

The following hit me yesterday evening... This will sound strange, but hear me out.

Almost everyone I know (including myself) thinks that the modern software is too complex. Most people think that cell phones are too complex, too, with bells and widgets they never use. People feel at loss in the face of all this complexity, and wonder, why they need to pay for the 80% of the features that they just don't need. Companies use massive amounts of money to usability design, and still fail to produce things that everyone could immediately use without leafing through manuals. This disease of adding more and more functionality is called "featuritis", and Microsoft Word is often the most touted example of it: why does a word processor have so many features nobody ever uses?

I think - and this is admittedly a slightly absurd leap - the fundamental reason lies with the Long Tail (i.e. the concept of "something for everyone").

The Long Tail is based on the idea that there is a lot of value in addressing the niches. Traditionally, business revolves around "hits" - the top 500 companies, or the most-selling books, or the most common demographics of the viewers, or the most common sports, or the most common brands of dishwashers, or the most common operating system. You want to address the majority of the market, because trying to address everyone is more trouble than it's worth.

However, with the internet, when you don't have to consider limited storage space that much anymore, you can start to address even the smallest niches. You can go to CafePress and sell T-shirts with your own face. Google is very good at finding niche stuff, and less good at finding just generic fluff. Amazon has over ten times the catalog size of your average book shop. Even the most obscure song in iTunes still sells a copy or two each month, making money. On IMDB, it does not really matter whether a movie is popular or not: everything gets treated the same. These companies are taking advantage in the value of serving the niches - and for them, it's not any more expensive as doing anything else.

Now, if you head over to the standard application space, and imagine that you would like to sell a word processor for the niches - a word processor to address the Long Tail, if you please - I think the end result would be something like Word. Each feature of Word is important to some minority somewhere, be it even as small as a single person. And this is what makes it so successful, yet so universally disliked. Maybe how the Word presents all these features is not optimal, but it's doing that well enough to be extremely successful (document format lock-in and deals with the OEMs do not hurt either).

So, to me, it seems that featuritis (and the apparent complexity) is an unmanaged attempt to address the Long Tail. I am sure Google's and Amazon's servers (with personal recommendations) are incredibly complex, but this is not something that is apparent to the user. Their featuritis is managed, and could be simply labelled as "good service".

I think that the most important lesson of the Long Tail is not that it's there - because we all know that it exists; people just choose to disregard it when making business decisions - but that if you want to address it, you must think about it in advance in order to not get flooded by featuritis. Think about how you will scale, and how you will offer new features to users in such a way that does not overwhelm them.

It's not inherently evil to make something that is complex and has a lot of features. You just need to plan for it.


This is exactly how I feel...

Even worse are developers who seem to use technology because it's the latest buzzword. One of the most overused technologies at the moment in my opinion is XML. I have seen people create complex engines and languages from XML. Now this really defeats the purpose when you can right some modular classes and methos and write the raw code even faster. I'm seeing this more and more and it's driving me nuts. If such people had there way your Wikis properties file would be XML, CSS would be XML and we would all write our documents in DocBook instead of OpenOffice, Word etc....

It's all a bit nuts

Keep Well

--Greg, 24-Feb-2006

I think it's not Word which is wrong with its godzillion features, it's the USERS who fail to train themselves to use the features in a powerful way. IMNSHO one of the major time thiefs (especially in public bureaucracy) is amateurs fiddling with computers and doing same mechanical operations over and over again. The computers and word processors should be the means to solve these problems, not create them! Training the users to use such simple things as macros and even styles would enable the people to do something useful with their time (for example, have a coffee break) instead of repetitively using the three features they know. Never mind the more advanced features...

--Tube, 25-Feb-2006

>>Companies use massive amounts of money to usability design

In Finland there's no known company which uses usability design. This information is gathered by asking developers who are working in big finnish companies.

I just wanted to point out that there where Microsoft and other big boys are actually designing usability we are doing nothing.

--Jasmo, 25-Feb-2006

Um. Nokia does. I know. I've worked with those guys ;-)

However, there are few Finnish companies that are targeting masses in the same way that Nokia is, so you're probably right.

--JanneJalkanen, 25-Feb-2006

Actually, in economics, bundling of features and selling it as a package is called price discrimination. You are indeed right, that this has to do with the long tail very much. From an economic point of view it benefits the social welfare very much.

--Toni, 25-Feb-2006

Thanks for the link, Toni! I fixed it, too (no HTML, WikiMarkup here :)

--JanneJalkanen, 26-Feb-2006

Talking about usability...in this wiki, wouldn't automatic conversion of <b>, <a href>, etc. be an usability enhancement, since many people have a justified intuitive expectation that HTML works in the web comments? Not that I use this wiki for any other purpose than reading this blog.

--Simo, 26-Feb-2006

JanneJalkanen > Heh, it seems Nokia has different methods in different places. People that i knew didn't use usability design. Very well..

--Jasmo, 26-Feb-2006

Simo: perhaps. Or perhaps not. It's certainly a very low priority, and it's usually no problem for me to fix broken comments, as people are adding so few comments with hyperlinks.

Interestingly though, I always assume that HTML does not work in blog comments, unless specifically stated so.

--JanneJalkanen, 26-Feb-2006

The issue is not about how many features does Word have! It's more about how to make the stuff that simple people use...easily accessible. And put the advanced stuff... in a faraway locker. Which could be emptied and then put in the bathroom, when the need arises.


--Hephail, 08-Mar-2006

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