Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Too Many Features


“I can’t use the phone on my phone.” (Joke heard on a recent Simpsons episode.) Once upon a time when AT&T was King (and Western Union was Queen), a phone (known then as a telephone, derived from telegraph) was heavy enough to be a murder weapon. Now a phone is only nominally a phone, its other features (including texting) easily upstaging the phone. And probably some people really can’t (or don’t) use the phone on their phone.

However, this is not a new problem. Too many features has long been typical of computer software. This was common enough to acquire a name, “featuritis.” In case you haven’t encountered this problem (or just arrived from Mars), I will explain. Too many features means too many to understand, and therefore too many to use effectively.

You might wonder why this is a problem if you only use the features you want or need. It’s a problem in a number of ways. First, too many means they can interfere with the features you use. Too many means they add to the cost of the product—and the complexity of its maintenance. Finally, too many means they complicate our lives unnecessarily.

First known as creeping featurism (The Psychology of Everyday Things, Donald A. Norman, 1988, pp. 172-174), featuritis was a labeled a disease because unwanted features grew like a cancer on software with each new version. No longer creeping, now featuritis is exploding. New apps, for example, are released into the wild of fiercely competing touch screen devices faster than one can read their names.

If where we are now is complex and bewildering, where will we be in five years? In ten? It seems impossible to reverse this trend, much less slow it down. Unfortunately, the Greeks didn’t have a word (or a myth) for this—such as drowning in a sea of riches.

These riches are illusory, because features are clutter if you have no need for them. Just like too much rich food can clog your arteries, too much clutter can take away your life.

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