Feature Hoarders: Extreme Edition

I have an odd fascination with A&E’s Hoarders and TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive. It’s a sad human tragedy, where people harm themselves and their loved ones only because they collect too much stuff, let it all pile up, and refuse to throw anything away.

It’s harsh to say, but I’ve seen many apps that look like they were designed by feature hoarders—the equivalent of room after room of features and options of questionable value that have piled up over the years because nobody was willing to make the hard decisions to get rid of them.

This post explores why feature hoarding happens and what you can do about it.

Potential value

I should start by saying that I sympathize with hoarders to some degree. While I don’t get the shopping sprees (I get more delight in not buying stuff), I understand their reluctance to throw things away. When I look at something, I try to see its value and I’m reluctant to throw away things that have value.

If you watch a few episodes and listen to hoarders explain why they collect all their junk, phrases like “potential value”, “I’ll use that someday”, or “that will make a great gift” keep coming up. Emotionally, they see value even though rationally the odds of that value ever being realized are extremely slim.

Feature hoarders think about questionable features and options the same way. Even though the features aren’t necessary and rarely used, feature hoarders see the potential value and cling to the idea that one day somebody will find them useful, no matter how unlikely.

The value of simplicity and organization

While hoarders overestimate potential value, they severely overestimate actual value. They also underestimate the value of simplicity and organization. Being able to easily find and use things that you really need is far more valuable than having possession of things you don’t use.

The key to simplicity is to understand that the features and options that users will use are far more significant than those they might use. Ease of use equals use, so things that are easy to find and use have more value. Ultimately, potential value doesn’t matter much.

A bad day for user-centered design

If you were to ask a usability professional how to make a difficult design decision, there’s a good chance they’ll say “Just ask your users.” This isn’t always good advice, and these hoarder shows illustrate why. When dealing with hoarders, every day is a bad day for user-centered design.

Have you ever noticed how user centered these shows are? The hoarder is involved with every decision. In the beginning, the consultant/therapist/expert asks the hoarder item by item “Can we throw this away?” Each time, the hoarder’s answer is an emphatic “No!”, often accompanied with an “I’ll use that someday” or “I’m going to fix that” rationalization. This grinding process usually ends with shouting and tears.

The problem with user-centered decisions here is that users are good at giving their goals and setting priorities, but they are poor at making the tough, detailed decisions. If you were to ask users if they want something, the answer is almost always yes. I call these “Do you want fries with that?” questions, and as a designer you shouldn’t ask them.

A better approach would be to ask the hoarder to go through the house and point out their favorite things and the things they use the most. Then, remove everything from the home (including the hoarder), clean everything up, strategically replace and reorganize what the homeowner really needs, then evaluate the results with the homeowner.

Changing culture

Still, I appreciate what the consultants/therapists/experts are doing. Is relatively easy to clear out a house—it’s much harder to change the behavior that lead to the hoarding in the first place. If the expert doesn’t change the behavior, the improvement will be temporary at best.

Remember: the junk is there for a reason. The hoarder thought it was a good idea to buy and to keep all that junk, and without a behavior change they will do it again.

If you are trying to simplify a UI, I recommend understanding how that complexity got there in the first place. Chances are those unnecessary features and options are there on purpose, and that purpose was well intended. Somebody thought the features were a good idea at the time. Perhaps customers requested them directly. Simplicity requires saying “no”—it’s much easier to say “yes.”

Sure, you can declutter a user interface, but unless you change your team’s culture by setting a higher bar for adding features and a lower bar for removing them, that clutter will soon return.

Making the tough decisions

The top takeaway of these shows is that decluttering is much easier said than done. So, what can you do to declutter your UI? Consider using one of these techniques:

  • Gather real user data If you have the ability to gather actual usage data, you’ll have a strong case from removing unused or rarely used features. While I don’t advocate using data without interpretation, as long as there isn’t a discoverability problem, removal is usually the right interpretation.
  • Highlight your top scenarios With your team, make printouts of all your screens, perform your top tasks, and highlight what you actually use during those tasks. Take a good hard look at what didn’t get highlighted. What bad thing would happen if they were removed? With this activity, you’ve demonstrated the answer: not much.
  • Try a simplified version I’m a strong advocate of considering design alternatives. One alternative to always try is a simplified version of your current design. Instead of going through the grinding process of cutting feature by feature, just go directly to the simplified results and give it a try. I bet you’ll be surprised how nobody misses what was removed.

A devious use of iPhone design

Here’s a fun exercise to help your team simplify a UI and perhaps even change its culture. Assuming that you don’t already have one, have your team design an iPhone app. (If your app does many tasks, do this for a few top tasks.) Before starting, you might want to quickly review the iPhone guidelines, point out that there is only so much screen space, typing is a pain, and that the best iPhone apps focus on doing one task well.

Once you are done, evaluate the results by performing the top tasks. If successful, chances are your team will say things like “This is great!” and “If we had this, I don’t think I would use our original app anymore!”

Now, take a step back and compare the iPhone app to your original app. Justify the complexity of the original app. Do you really miss the features that were removed? Does the ease of use, speed, and delight of the simplified iPhone version more than make up for the missing clutter? Is there any reason why your original app can’t be more like the iPhone version?

I bet your team will have trouble justifying the complexity of your original app. The iPhone platform demands simplicity and starting from a clean iPhone slate allows your team focus on the essentials without legacy baggage.

If you do only one thing… Don’t be a feature hoarder. Focus the UI on the features and options that your users actually use, not on what they might use. Value simplicity, organization, speed, and efficiency by getting rid of what gets in the way. Get in the habit of creating simplified design alternatives and seeing if they work better. Chances are, they will!

Looking for UX design interview questions? Show candidates a complex UI and ask them to simplify. When they recommend removing features and options, challenge them by explaining why there are there and seeing if the candidate can still convince you to remove them. The ability to make a persuasive case for simplicity is a valuable design skill.

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