Op-Ed: The Ugly Side of Feature Creep

We see lots of innovation in some industries that inspires products in others. Often, this is a good thing: like the mobile device’s geotargeting that’s making its way to the desktop via location-aware browsers.

But more often, this feature creep is misguided. We continually see mobile’s content and ad targeting replicate that of the desktop Web instead of taking on new forms that are conducive to its unique form factor (i.e., small screen, portable, location aware).

The classic analogy is early automobiles that came with the reins previously seen on horse-drawn carriages. Another is the early days of television when ads took the form of someone standing in front of the camera reading a script (standard practice in radio). That’s kind of where we are now with mobile ads.

But a new example of misguided feature creep is touch-screen desktop PCs. Here hardware manufacturers, hungry for the scraps from Apple’s table (iPod touch, iPhone, iPad), are circling around the concept of a touch screen based PC experience. But the result is often a forced and unnatural mashup that misses the point.

The reasons why touch screens have caught fire in the mobile world (and iPad) isn’t because they are such superior input mechanisms in an absolute sense. It’s because they save space on a device that has to fit in your pocket and field search queries when keyboards and mice aren’t realistic. For the same reason, they make sense in other places, like public transit (subway kiosks, airline check-in, etc.)

On the desktop, however, keyboard and mice are time tested hardware inputs that are much more intuitive and conducive to the “use case”. What makes more sense at your desk: resting your hands on your keyboard and mouse, or constantly leaning forward with arms raised to manipulate the screen?

These thoughts came about after just seeing an ad for HP’s new TouchSmart PC. The copycat strategy was even evident in the Apple-like feel of the ad itself. Besides being a design mess, I picture smudged up screens, and sore shoulders and backs from this lean forward proposition. In fairness, the TouchSmart also has a keyboard (and a seemingly extraneous TV-style remote).

But the main takeaway: It’s good to be inspired by other industries, but ultimately design products to the hardware in which they take form, and the way people use them. Put another way — and at the risk of cliche — don’t shove another sector’s square peg into your product and user base’s round hole.

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Related: This topic reminds me of a New Yorker Financial Page that I read a few years ago by James Surowiecki — for which the opening photo credit is also deserved.

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