Five Reasons Why Bells & Whistles Drive Me Nuts

Look at this calculator.

This is the calculator that our school district requires for fifth grade math. Looking at it makes my head hurt. It has 57 buttons. FIFTY SEVEN!

I was curious, so I asked my son how many buttons he actually used in fifth grade. He pointed to all the buttons they used. Total number? 22. TWENTY TWO!

Using just six of those buttons, I was able to calculate that the students only used 38.5% of the buttons on the device. That means 61.5% of the bells & whistles are completely unnecessary (I did that math in my head, no calculator necessary).

Here are five reasons why extra bells & whistles drive me nuts:

1. Bells & whistles are almost always added because your core product sucks. If you look at your product or service and think it’s too basic, it needs more pizazz, or nobody will want it unless we add 61.5% more buttons, you’ve got a problem with your core product. All the bells & whistles on the planet ain’t gonna change that.

2. Bells & whistles overcomplicate the product & intimidate the user. Even if my son’s calculator is lying on the table in front of me, I will seek out our ancient, but simple calculator to do the tiny bit of math that’s really required in my day to day life. His calculator scares me because it’s obviously smarter than I am. I mean, just look at all those buttons! What if I push the wrong one? And what does THAT one do? Most products really shouldn’t require a phonebook-sized manual, yet we insist on making everyday products more complicated than a dialysis machine. 

3. Bells & whistles are for the select few, not the masses. I’m sure some MIT brainiac would use every single button on my son’s calculator, but for us mere mortals it’s overkill. Last time I checked, the masses outspend the select few.

4. Very few companies maintain their bells & whistles well. Ever been to a hotel that had “extra touches” that they failed to keep up with? I recently visited a hotel that touted a “state of the art fitness center” (i.e., a very expensive set of bells & whistles). The machines were worn out, the carpet was stained and dirty, and there was one towel on the shelf that I’m sure contained at least thirty towels during the grand opening celebration. Didn’t feel so “state of the art” anymore. More like state of “we really couldn’t keep up with these bells & whistles.”

5. Bells & whistles are only a competitive advantage for about a minute. Bigger, better, faster, more buttons, more features = the mantra of modern-day product and service providers. So we build it that way. We create a calculator with fifty seven buttons. And thirty seconds later our competition builds one with fifty eight. Dang!

So, what should you do instead?

Focus on your core product and make it the best in the world. Doesn’t matter if you produce baby formula for millions of newborns every day or if you provide consulting services to ten companies a year. Your customers want a product that is amazing at it’s core, not in its bells & whistles.

I was inspired to write this post after reading Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37 signals. If I wrote a book about how I started my business and how I run it today, it would be almost a carbon copy of this book, especially where they talk about keeping your products simple, yet really well made.

It can be hard to take away a “feature” after you’ve designed it into your product. So how do you know what to take out and what to leave in? The advice Jason and David give is to ask yourself “Would our product or service still work great if we took away this feature?” If the answer is yes, take it out (or leave it out if you’re designing from scratch).

Einstein has been attributed the quote, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Einstein was a pretty smart dude. I’d listen to him if I were you. 

Keep your products and services as simple as possible. This includes processes, policies, and procedures. When you learn how to do this well, your customers will LOVE you for it. Your team will LOVE work more. And your business will be sooooo much easier to run.

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