Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Function Inflation: n. Paying more for stuff you don’t actually want.

This post was inspired by a recent article in The Guardian by Tom Meltzer.

The article points out the absurdities in modern kitchen appliances that offer more functionality than can rationally be used. For example, why would anyone want to set the temperature of a kettle, to the nearest 10°C?

The motivation for the manufacturers is easy to understand.  Commodity appliances is a crowded market space, and you’re unlikely to win the race to the bottom, i.e. be profitable by selling more cheaply than anyone else. So naturally, manufacturers turn to the opposite approach, to sell their goods at a higher price by persuading consumers to pay more in order to get more. It’s premium, see? Premium can be in choice of materials, or cachet of branding, but in this case it is adding more functionality to the device. And adding electronic functionality is especially cheap to do (and cheaper to do badly).

I find a few of the underlying assumptions quite interesting. The first assumption that is worth looking at, is the assumption that adding gadgetry makes the goods more valuable. I can think of a couple of examples where this simply isn’t true.

When I was very little, I was fascinated by all the blank plates that were in my Dad’s new car. I read the user manual to find out more, and saw that each had the footnote “*optional extra”. Resentment ensued. The car manufacturer was taunting me; my car life would have been vastly improved if only we had the switch to do the thingy. Instead, the blank plates were reminders that we couldn’t afford the best, not even second best, that only rich people could afford digital speed displays.

The resentment has stayed, especially now that I try to configure my next car online and find that its price has increased by a third because I’ve added the technology package. Surely, if the objective of all of these options is to make the car more desirable (aka improve profit margins), they should be priced so people will actually buy them, and not invoke ire as naked price gouging? Because as we all know, they simply aren’t worth it.

My second example concerns my favourite gadgeteer: Apple. Who would have thought that if you take functions out, and make the device simpler, you could actually charge more for it? Apple actually puts in a lot of engineering and design effort to ensure that the underlying complexity is hidden, and the device will “just work” (admittedly, only so long as you do what Apple wants you to do with the device, and no more). Apple understands that a) most people want to do things, not buy stuff, and b) most people will pay a premium for nice stuff as long as it still doesn’t get in the way of doing things.

So this brings me to the second assumption that adding features makes the thing better. On many occasions, inflating the feature set, just gets in the way.

Virgin Media has just announced that they are embedding YouTube into the programme guide, so you can select it as you would any other channel. I would argue that the EPG itself gets in the way of simply watching TV. Why does the viewer have to know which channel or web site to go to, when choosing what I want to watch is hard enough? Embedding YouTube into the EPG is function inflation because it doesn’t actually make the product better.

Why do we react strongly to inappropriate gadgetification? I don’t think it’s reactionary, anti-progress sentiment. I think it’s because it highlights an imbalance between how manufacturers treat their customers, and how we would like to be treated – a wallet versus someone with desires. Function inflation shows a lack of understanding of what the customer wants, and not spending the effort to understand the customer just shows a lack of respect.

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