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Why the Road to Simplicity Is Complex (and How That's Redefining Marketing)

by Charles Mauro  |  
November 15, 2005

This article is simply about complexity. It's not about the usual product complexity often discussed in marketing journals, business magazines or even in the pages of the New York Times. Instead, I am speaking of a "new complexity" that has recently permeated high-technology consumer products and services to create products with massive features sets and corresponding levels of operational complexity. This new complexity will fundamentally alter the role of marketing and product development executives and redefine the skill sets necessary for achieving business success in the future.

A simple structure for a complex issue: This article is divided into four sections. Section 1 defines in detail the rationale and supporting research for this new and important form of product complexity. This first section explores broad trends and makes specific references to emerging product categories that reflect this new problem. Section 2 presents a detailed case study based on research from MP3 internet-based music systems. The case is drawn from an in-depth examination of the Apple Computer on-line music customer experience and that of related competitors. Section 3 defines the implications that this new complexity has for marketing and product development executives. In Section 4 the article concludes with an assessment of usability science followed by 10 management principles critical to achieving success when dealing with the new complexity problem.

Section 1: Trends in Product Complexity

How big is the problem? The actual scope of the complexity problem is rather startling. For example, in most high technology products and services, customers do not use more than 10-12 percent of the total feature set being delivered to marketplace. These percentages hold true for everything from PC software to PDAs. With each new generation of high technology consumer products, including cell phones, MP3 players, digital cameras, even televisions, manufacturers increase their feature sets by approximately 28 percent1.

However, the embedded feature set of new products is a small percentage of increasing feature density and associated interactive complexity. By adding new levels of connectivity to these already complex products, customers have access to vast new feature sets which are not directly resident in the software or hardware of the products themselves. This is called "feature density transparency" and is a fundamental component of the new complexity.

The migration of features and functions: For example, as Web-enabled interfaces become integrated into products, the total feature set expands beyond comprehension. In 1995 the total feature set2 for cell phones offered customers about 50 different embedded functions. Today, cell phones are capable of accessing an estimated 500,000 features and functions through the combination of embedded functions and web-based interactive services.

Figure 1 illustrates that the complexity of cell phones has increased at a staggering rate over the past five years. Make special note that Figure 1 is actually cropped on the upper range. A complete visualization of the data would extend vertically several pages. The critical point is that feature density is accelerating as products become smaller, more interactive, and hyper-connected. These three variables are combining to create truly staggering new levels of operational complexity.


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Charles L. Mauro ( is founder and president of MauroNewMedia, a New York-based usability science consulting firm founded in 1975. He is a Certified Human Factors Engineering Professional (BCPE) and lectures at leading business schools, including MIT Sloan School of Management.

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