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Gadgets gain More features, difficult to use? by Perkal

"It will come as no surprise to anyone who uses consumer electronics gadgets that some experts believe the devices are needlessly complicated.

Whether the product is a digital camera with 5 megapixels and red-eye correction, or a cell phone that doubles as a camera and an Internet Web browser, many consumers feel overwhelmed by what some call feature overkill.

""A lot of people don't want all those features because it's difficult to use them,"" said Robert Kaplan, principal of Usernomics Inc., a San Mateo, Calif., research firm that studies the ""human factors"" in the design of hardware and software products. But marketing more features is the consumer electronics industry version of an arms race - and nobody wants to lose by having too few features, he said.

""There's been a feature war between cell-phone manufacturers,"" Kaplan said. ""The worst example is a personal digital assistant that is also a cell phone and a digital camera. Besides all the features, the buttons on the device are very small and a bit of a mess to use.""

Individually, those features might not be as hard to use as they seem, but they have the cumulative effect of appearing formidable.

""It's not so much that consumer electronics devices are too difficult to use, but that they are different enough that folks are intimidated by them,"" said Rob Enderle, a consumer electronics analyst in San Jose, Calif. ""So they either won't buy the product, or they won't make the effort to learn to use it. A lot of people get a digital camera, then put it on the shelf.""

While some might suggest that older consumers are the ones finding consumer electronics difficult, Kaplan said it's not that simple.

""Young people between the ages of 16 and 30 also have difficulty with all the functions on these devices. But they can ask a friend how it works, or play with the gadget until they figure it out,"" Kaplan said. ""Somebody over 30 might be willing to mess with a gadget a little bit, but a person that age has other things to do and doesn't want to take the time that would be required to figure out the features.""

Part of the problem is that consumer electronics products tend to be designed from a technical perspective rather than being based on what customers really want, some analysts say.

""Most consumer electronics companies design their products from the inside out by first selecting the features they want to offer,"" said Beth Loring, director of the Design and Usability Center, a consulting arm of Bentley College, a business-oriented school in Waltham, Mass. ""Then they keep adding features, one on top of another, so their product can be favorably compared to others in the same category. And they do this without really understanding [whether] users want those features, or how to make them easy for consumers to use.""

Part of the reason this happens, she said, is that manufacturers tend to rely on market research - consisting of focus group interviews or surveys - rather than spending time with individual consumers to find out what they want.

""My favorite example is clock radios,"" Loring said. ""Every hotel room has a different type of clock radio. It's easy to set the alarm on some of those clock radios, and on others it's so complicated because of poor labeling and too many hidden features that I give up and call the front desk for a wake-up call.""

To a limited extent, consumer sentiment about hard-to-use gadgets is finally being felt. Recent sales projections for feature-laden digital cameras showed demand dropping off sooner than expected because the cameras didn't appeal to people who weren't computer-savvy. Some analysts see unit sales of digital cameras beginning to decline as soon as 2007.

But in most cases, analysts don't expect the consumer electronics industry to heed customer complaints about over-complexity. Slick ad campaigns are built around selling fancy new features, and piling them on is one way to make up for declining prices of consumer electronics devices.

In addition, the problem of too much feature complexity hasn't taken a big enough bite out of sales yet, analysts said.

""The fact that you can carry a cell phone around and make calls whenever you want overrides the issues of simplicity or difficulty,"" Kaplan said.

Despite the industry's tendency to overlook the simplicity issue, it is taking a toll on consumers, analysts said. The typical buyer takes advantage of only a few of a product's features, rather than all 10 or 20 capabilities.

Some consumer electronics makers have prospered because consumers still think they're getting their money's worth, even if they don't use all the features of a gadget, analysts said.

""Because cell-phone purchases are subsidized by the wireless phone companies, customers often are not having to pay much for all the extended features the phone offers. So they buy the phone and then use just the basic features they like,"" Enderle said. ""As a result, phones are more of a status symbol. A person may have the coolest phone on the planet, but knowing how to use it is a different matter.""

There are a few signs that some gadgets are getting easier to use. Most analysts said Apple's iPod music player is squarely aimed at what consumers want. In addition, Microsoft's next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, is expected to make running a computer a bit easier, Enderle said. And contrary to what some people might expect, video-game consoles are relatively simple devices that can be used just by inserting a game disk.

""The complexity is contained in the game, while the video-game console itself is drop-dead easy,"" Enderle said. ""It has to be that way, because the parents often have to figure out how to set up the video-game console for the kids.""

Kaplan believes more easy-to-use products will be introduced over the next five years.

""The new term for it is `user experience,'-"" Kaplan said. ""For example, why does it take a computer so long to start up? With a TV or a radio, you hit the button and it comes on. Those things will get better on computers, although we're just at the beginning of improving the user experience."""

This article was published on Sunday 17 December, 2006.

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