Do people need the gizmos we're selling?

Paul Zeven, CEO of Philips Electronics North America, says the industry is making products that are far too complex.

3 min read
As we push forward through the holiday shopping season, consumers are experiencing the full-court press of advertisements for the hottest new gadgets and gizmos, each promising to change our lives for the better, whether in communications, transportation, health care, lifestyle, entertainment or gaming.

During a recent three-day period, I was exposed to a new robotic vacuum cleaner, a new high-definition version of TiVo, a device to stream movies from a PC to a television, new game consoles, new MP3 players and, yes, even a belt buckle that plays videos.

I can't help but wonder if consumers really want all this. Have we gone too far? Are we in step with the needs of today's American consumer?

On the one hand, few consumers want to be left behind with yesterday's technology. On the other hand, the consumer electronics industry may be moving so fast and jamming so many new features into devices that we are making the experience too complex.

Only 13 percent of Americans believe technology products in general are easy to use.

I would bet the average reader of this article has at least one electronic device--a cell phone, home stereo, television, programmable thermostat--with a button or feature that he has no idea how to work or no clue what it does. I am no different. While I work in the electronics industry, I also share the same frustration with complexity as everyone else.

To me, simplicity is imperative, not just because products have become more complex over the years, but also because every aspect of our lives continues to get more complex. Today, the majority of American families extend beyond a single household and our jobs increasingly invade our private time as we juggle family schedules and responsibilities while answering e-mail on mobile devices.

Rather than simplifying our daily routines, most technology has actually made our lives more complex.

Spending hours learning to use a new gadget is the last thing most of us want to do. The ability to take a product out of the box and just have it work, without the need to read a manual for hours, is now high on most consumers' priority lists when deciding on a purchase.

My company has studied the relationship between technology's complexity and consumers' attitudes and found that two out of three Americans have lost interest in a technology product because it seemed too complex to set up or operate. We also found that only 13 percent of Americans believe technology products in general are easy to use. The study concluded that only one in four consumers reports using the full range of features on most new technology products.

If these findings aren't enough of a wake-up call, the study also found that more than half of Americans believe manufacturers are trying to satisfy perceived consumer needs that may not be real.

Clearly, the American consumer believes that we are still cramming features and functions into our products simply because we think they will sell or in response to fierce industry competition.

We need to change that. As makers of tomorrow's gadgets and gizmos, we need to take a lesson from the success of Google. It rescued users from complexity by presenting the simplest Internet search interface possible. Another Web site, Craigslist, has done the same to maintain simplicity and to-the-point information at users' fingertips.

The key for many technology breakthroughs that delivered simplicity has been design, manageability and functionality. Consumers do not have to deal with complexity at all.

The fact that some products have been able to deliver this should have raised the bar for all technology products. My industry needs to better understand the impact technology is having on our lives and find ways to simplify the overall consumer experience. And consumers should demand that we deliver this, always. After all, what is the purpose of designing a product for consumers if they are not able to use it?