In the May 28th New Yorker, the excellent business writer James Surowiecki had a particularly good essay on "feature creep."*
While I've generally heard (and used) the term in association with all kinds of out-of-spec goodies being added to the specification list for a software release (without, of course, extending the release cycle), Surowiecki gives it a more universal definition: a "spiral of complexity" in which features get added to a product that will supposedly make life easier. Instead, of course, they make life harder.
He cites a study by Elke den Ouden of Philips Electronics which:
...found that at least half of returned products have nothing wrong with them. Consumers just couldn't figure out how to use them.
Despite this finding, Surowiecki points out the feature creep continues unabated.
Whether they can use them or not, people like to have "the one" with more and more features. More, in our minds, equates to better.
Another study referenced in the essay (by Debora Viana Thompson, Rebecca Hamilton, and Roland Rust, who are marketing academics) indicated that:
...when consumers were given a choice of three models, of varying complexity, of a digital device, more than sixty percent chose the one with the most features....[when] given a chance to customize their products, choosing from twenty-five features...twenty features was the average. But when they were asked to use the digital device, so-called "feature fatigue" set in. They became frustrated..and ended up happier with the simpler product.
As marketers, the whole problem of feature creep is exacerbated by our zest to promote new features. For us, more is definitely more. More features means more to shout about, more to differentiate on, more reasons to go back to customers and the ones that got away.
Surowiecki outlines a couple of options: different products for different skill levels; making simplicity a selling point (I posted recently on the Jitterbug phone, which is doing just that); or actually trying to make the complex simple. (Good luck!)
In any case, as marketers we have a lot to think about when it comes to feature creep.
There is, unfortunately, no right or easy answer.
For better or for worse, we have to live with the fact that sometimes more is less, sometimes less is more, and sometimes the vice-versas pertain. But next time we clamor for some not particularly useful feature that will appeal to one power user on the face of the earth, but will give us some grist for our marketing mill, we should take a good deep breath and ask if we're really doing anyone a favor there.
*Try as I might, I was not able to get a working link going to this article but if you google "New Yorker Surowiecki feature" you can crawl your way to it.