You won’t use this cool feature

Why, then, do companies keep adding features that are convenient for a few people and ignored by others? And is there a better way to design products?

Cliff Kuang, a designer in the tech industry and author of a book on the history of product design, has identified three culprits behind ever-increasing features. First, companies add options because it helps them market their products as new and exciting. Second, products with several million users must appeal to people with very different needs. And – this one stings – we’re smitten with options that seem great but we can’t or don’t want to use.

Kuang described this third factor as “users’ inability to distinguish between ‘Hey, this looks good’ and ‘Hey, I need it’.”

If it makes you feel better, Kuang said he was guilty of that too. He was won over by a feature in his Tesla to automate parallel parking. “The first time I used it was cool,” he said. “And I never used it again.”

Technologists often complain that they are in a no-win situation in product design. Devoted fans are demanding more and more options that often don’t make sense to normals. (This phenomenon is often referred to as “bloatware,” as in bloatware.) It’s one of the reasons the technology often gives the impression that it’s designed for the 1% of digital enthusiasts and not for the rest of us.

But if companies try to reduce little-used options or change anything people have grown accustomed to, some users will hate it. Everyone has an opinion. Steven Sinofsky, a former Microsoft executive, used to to joke that revising widely used software like Windows and Microsoft Office was like ordering pizza for a billion people.

In April, tech writer Clive Thompson made a provocative suggestion to fight the temptation to add more functionality to existing technology: just say no.

Thompson, who is a contributing editor to The New York Times Magazine, said companies should decide in advance what set of features they want to work on and stop when they get there.

“Feature creep is a reality and destroys software every year,” he told me, citing Instagram as a product he says is getting worse the more features it adds.

Products cannot stay frozen in the past, of course. And some features, like those that notify emergency services after a car accident, can be useful even if they are rarely used. It is also unpredictable which add-ons might prove useful for the masses.

Kuang said the best tech products are changing bit by bit to nudge users toward a creator-imagined future. He said Airbnb did this by evolving its website and app to a significant recent change that encourages people to explore different types of houses without having a destination or travel dates in mind.

To get out of the bloatware trap, Kuang said, “You’re working backwards from the future you’re trying to create.”

Tip of the week

Whether all the features are useful or not, you will soon be using updated software for your phone. Brian X. Chenthe consumer technology columnist for the New York Times, tells us how to prepare for this change.

In this week’s column, I reviewed the changes coming to smartphones this fall in upcoming operating system updates from Apple and Google.

How to prepare? First of all, I advise against installing an early test version, or beta, of the software available today. These unfinished versions of operating systems are still being checked for defects.

But here’s how you can prepare your phone for new operating systems when they’re done:

  • Back up your phone data to another device, such as your computer, or to a cloud storage service if you subscribe to it. This will prevent disaster in the unlikely event that something goes wrong when you update your phone’s software.

  • Disable automatic updates. In your phone settings, there is an option to automatically install software updates after bedtime. I recommend disabling it. When the operating system arrives in the fall, take a wait-and-see approach to evaluating what others are saying online about major bugs that may have arisen. New products are usually imperfect on day one. Manually install the new OS when you are sure it won’t mess up your phone.

  • Take the opportunity to do digital spring cleaning. Delete apps you no longer use and files you no longer need. Sometimes newer operating systems take up more space than their predecessors, so it’s a good idea to purge ahead of time to ensure you’re getting a fresh start.

  • A contested plan to reinvigorate US chip manufacturing: An unlikely group of billionaires, including a longtime Democratic donor and Trump supporter, want $1 billion from Congress for a nonprofit investment fund to expand computer chip manufacturing in the United States. My colleague Ephrat Livni wrote that the group’s unusual proposal is divisive in Washington.

  • His TikTok posts claimed he was a juror in the recent trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. He wasn’t, CNN Explainand it was another example of the often misogynistic online mania on the case.

  • Kids apps do WHAT? A Washington Post columnist wrote that more than two-thirds of the top 1,000 apps for kids send personal information to the advertising industry. (Subscription may be required.)

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