How Complexity Prevents Habituation

by Neale Martin published August 15, 2005 in Telephony Telephony

The voice on my mobile was distressed. Panicked.

“There are seven remotes in the living room — seven! All I want to do is watch television!” At first I was amused by my competent wife's inability to pick up the Comcast remote and hit the “All On” button and felt once again that sense of technological superiority that all geeks relish.

But then I realized it was not my wife's problem. She was staring at remotes for the TV, stereo receiver, DVD player, DVR, digital cable box, VCR and a universal one that failed to bind them. Thirty to 45 buttons adorn each, some labeled with symbols, some with arrows and others with numbers. The layouts varied significantly. My ability to distinguish which device performed which function at a glance was not a testimony to how clever I was, but of how tolerant I had become of poorly designed electronic devices.

No, the problem is not technologically illiterate consumers. The problem is companies that relentlessly foist poorly designed, overly complicated technology on customers. And no industry is guiltier of this offense than telecom. As evidence, look at any service provider's cellular rate plans.

In an earlier commentary, “The New Habituation” (Telephony, June 6), I argued that the winners of the future would be companies that make it easy for customers to habituate on their products and services. I now want to address one of the primary obstacles to habituation: complexity.

Complexity obscures value. I was able to successfully negotiate my last car purchase on the spot because my cell phone provided access to the excellent Edmunds2go Web site, which provides reviews and local market selling prices. Few I have told this story to were aware of the service because this handy link is buried four menus deep, invisible and useless. My telecom clients routinely report applications that are used by less than 5% of the customers who are paying for them every month.

Complexity can also hide the unpleasant fact that a product or service creates little or no value. In a devastating analysis, Accenture lambastes the failure of CRM to actually deliver better customer service. Similarly, ERP implementations consistently take longer than expected, go over budget and deliver far less than promised. As telecom companies expand into higher-value services such as consulting, network management and security, delivering value from such highly complex offerings will be a significant challenge.

Why do good companies continue to turn out overly complex products and services? The primary culprit is not understanding their customers. Because of this, they cram as much functionality into devices and service plans as possible in the hope that they will potentially satisfy all possible market segments. To leave something out means possibly deselecting a potentially important segment. Of course, the resulting inchoate mess guarantees that no one is overjoyed with product or service. As evidence, look at the lack of meaningful differentiation among service providers.

An analog of this problem is the belief that device manufacturers and service providers have that an offering will have universal appeal. I describe this as the lukewarm tea approach to product management, where a company figures they can sell the same product to both the hot tea and ice tea markets by positioning themselves somewhere in the middle.

Finally, technology companies routinely overestimate the ability of the average user. It is not a matter of intelligence, but of familiarity. Users can't habituate on applications they don't understand in the first place.

How can companies avoid making their offerings complex when the technology is inherently complicated? First, segment markets based on how people use your services. Your product managers, marketers and distributors should be on the same page about the value you are creating for identifiable and distinct segments. This means they should actually talk to and observe real customers.

Second, make sure everything works together seamlessly. If your new smartphone doesn't synch with you computer, do you blame the device, the OS, the application or the service provider? Whoever bills the customer must be responsible for making sure it all works together.

Third, convince everyone in the organization that complex is bad. Emphasize elegant design and intuitive interface.

And last, educate the customer. Much of the value you create remains dormant because we don't take the time to show customers how to get the value out of our products and services.