Why all the products on the market look the same?
Have you ever been searching for a product that could solve your needs but could not choose one because all somehow look the same? Or it becomes harder for you to choose between 2 services because they offer the same features? The only thing that differentiates them is their design, but even that somehow becomes the same. So why do all products on the market look the same with little difference?
Before I answer that question, would like to clarify something. To create a great product that solves a need, you must have a human-centred design approach for that. An HCD process is an ideal state that all aspire to, but almost nobody gets there.
Human-centred design is a creative approach to problem solving. It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. Human-centred design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.
Most companies can’t get to that state because they have a disease called featuritis. What is the primary symptom? Constantly adding features to your product.
Today manufacturers compete with one another all over the world
The competition is severe and puts everyone under pressure. This pressure makes everyone move fast and break things. This way, companies almost always compete in these three fundamental ways: price, features, quality. And unfortunately, it comes in that order of importance.
Speed is important. Everybody wants to be first on the market and show their presence. But the speed and competitive pressure comes with a cost of cutting corners. There is not enough time for products to go through all the steps and processes of improvement iterations. And as a result, most of the leadership says: “Heck, we will figure the rest out later. Let’s launch and be the first.” All the products you see nowadays, from laptops to TV’s, automobiles, feel the competitive pressure which encourages to launch products without enough testing and refinement. In the end, you get version XT24 that is a bit better than XT23 but still does not solve your real problem.
A disease called feature creep
In the beginning I could not believe myself, but yes, there is such a term as featuritis. The diseases was identified in 1976, but I am sure that it goes back to earlier technologies. The diseases has an official definition:
"Feature creep, creeping featurism or featuritis is the ongoing expansion or addition of new features in a product, especially in computer software and consumer and business electronics."
Let me explain this. Suppose we follow all the ideal scenarios of a human-centred design process. We create a product that people want to use and buy. It is perfect on all levels: interface, feels and looks, user experience, you name it. It has a mission, fulfils peoples lives with meaning, and as a result, the product becomes successful. Everybody has one or wants one.
Unfortunately, after a while since the product was available on the market, some factors will influence its next steps:
- Existing customers love the product, but they need more features, functions and capabilities;
- Your competitors add new features, making it superior to yours. This puts you under pressure and makes you add new features too.
- Customers are satisfied, but the sales are declining because the market is saturated. Time to add NEW or INNOVATIVE FEATURES that will make people upgrade or buy a newer version.
"Creeping featurism is a tendency to add more features to existing ones. Usually, beyond a reason. And there is no way that the product will remain usable and understandable once all the features have been added over time."
The desire to match the competition
Harvard professor Youngme Moon argues that it is the desire to match our competition that makes all the products look the same. Usually, companies try to increase sales by matching product features of their competitors. Do you pay $20 for a team of 5 people? No worries, we will charge you $15 for a team of 5 people. Do they have a notch on the phone? No problems, now everyone has a notch.
"Trying to match product features of your competitors is only going to hurt you. So when companies match feature by feature, the customers do not have any reason to prefer one for another."
This is called competition driven design. And sadly, even when the first versions of a product is done well, and there is a human-centred design behind it, very few companies leave it untouched without doing something as their competitors do.
Sometimes you will even have to lose time to create something great and exceptional. Or even come third or fourth to the market. Are you willing to do that? We all have heard of first mover advantage. But at what price does it come?
You can write a bestseller in one year or a classic in five and starve
Let’s take as an example a book. You decide to write a book on design or business and are willing to hit the bestselling charts. You have this fantastic idea that nobody wrote about, and you decide to write it hastily before anyone else. A couple of months in and you are ready to hit the market. You launch the book, and it makes a buzz. Everybody loves it and writes about it. You are a bestseller. But then somehow your book stops selling after a couple of years.
What if I told you that if you took five more years to write it, starve a little bit, be in pain that your competitors are already writing about it, but it would become a classic for the next 100 years? Different conversation. You see, that extra time dedicated to research, improvements, polishing the details, editing will make a big difference. In the long run, companies who did cut corners will slowly become obsolete, and people will forget about them.
Why companies keep adding new features to their products?
One of the reasons is that it is a useful metric to see if a company is successful or has enough market cap. By comparing their lack of product features to the competitors, it allows them to see where they are weak. It will enable them to see where they should strengthen their position. But it is a wrong way of thinking. A better strategy is to:
"Concentrate on areas where your product excels and keep doing that. Then focus all your marketing efforts to pinpoint your strengths. This will make you stand out from the average. Win with less and not with more."
Have you seen the first Google Pixel phone? They mentioned in their advertising campaigns “We got a headphone jack”. They pinpointed to Apple for “making a stupid and early mistake”. Surprise, Google Pixel 2 does not have a headphone jack. And these kinds of examples can teach you a lot about focused thinking and not follow the herd.
Great design requires taking a step back from the pressure of your competitors and customers. Start defining what is important to you and where you are heading. What you are trying to be best at. You have to make sure that your product is consistent and coherent. This means that the leadership will have to withstand the desires of the marketing department to keep adding new features.
"Best products come from ignoring the competitive voices and instead focusing on the true needs of the people."
Now, don’t take my word for granted. Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, has a similar approach and calls it “customer-obsessed”. You should focus all your energy and efforts on the requirements of your customers. And the competition? You ignore and channel it out. The focus is on three simple question: “What do customers want?” “How their needs can be satisfied?” “What can we do to enhance our customer service and value?”. Bezos says that focusing on the customer is your primary goal, and the rest will solve itself out. Because once you start focusing on other forces, you lose sight of what is right. Quality comes only from giving attention to your customers and solving its actual needs.