Perceptions of Application Feature Bloat

A reader recently wrote me about the Considering the New Metro Interface—Ribbon Redux? post and discussed the problem of application feature bloat. It really does seem as if software vendors are blind to the needs of users at times. Many applications have bells and whistles added that don’t appear to serve a useful purpose and support the vendor’s assertion that you pay full price for the upgrade (after all, it does contain all of these new features). From a certain perspective, these issues are real. However, let’s take a step back for a minute and examine the problems in more detail.

The problem is complex—as most of these problems are. The features you need from an application may not match the features that someone else requires. The overlap is the common feature set—those features that don’t overlap are often called bloat by those who don’t need them and productivity updates by those who do. When a vendor has thousands of users screaming for much needed features and equally decrying the massive bloat incurred by previous updates, it becomes really hard to decide what to do. The problem becomes worse when a vendor also chooses to honor backward compatibility requirements that some users need to ensure that old add-ins, scripts, and so on keep running. It truly can become a horrifying mess. Looking specifically at the Ribbon, it’s most definitely a productivity killer for power users. However, most of Microsoft’s customers aren’t power usersthey’re less skilled users who need every bit of help they can get just to become productive. So, while I view the Ribbon as a nuisance and would prefer to go back to the old menu and toolbar system, the majority of users are probably working more productively using the Ribbon. (That said, it would have been nice if Microsoft had provided a dual interface so those of us who like the menu and toolbar system could continue using it.)

One of the reasons that vendors will sometimes introduce a completely new interface is to start with a new baseline product. The old product has simply become too messy and unmanageable to maintain. A fresh start makes it possible for the vendor to do a better job of supporting user requirements from the update, forward (sans backward compatibility).  Unfortunately, this strategy also makes everyone irritable. Again, looking at the Ribbon, Microsoft has been trying, without success, to kill VBA for some time now. The Ribbon doesn’t kill VBA, but it does definitely throw a monkey wrench in the works. I imagine that Microsoft will continue to introduce incompatibilities until people move away from VBA completely. Material in both RibbonX for Dummies and updated VBA for Dummies  makes it possible to overcome these issues, for now, but Microsoft seems quite determined. It will be a dark day when VBA finally goes because many power users rely on it to create productivity solutions for Office products.

If a vendor were truly looking for just a fresh start, I could probably deal with it because anyone with a modicum of good programming skills wouldn’t need a fresh start very often. The problem is that you also have to deal with marketing.  Sales have been a bit slow, so marketing demands a new interface in an attempt to generate sales. If the old interface isn’t selling, then perhaps a new one will. The vendor often backs up the need for this fresh interface with user studies and so on, just as Microsoft has been doing. However, statistics are often misleading, incomplete, or simply incorrect. I’ve run into that problem myself when I try to decide how best to update a book based on user input. The users who write may not represent the majority of the users out there and my statistics become skewed. Microsoft and other vendors also encounter this problem. In fact, skewed statistics are probably at the heart of both the Ribbon and Metro interface decisions. More than a few members of the trade press have pointed this out as well. John Dvorak’s post on the topic seems to be the clearest of the bunch when he states, “Thus, the problem with Windows 8 and Metro finally became clear to me when I was confronted by a wall of tiles and was lost.”

Updates also come into play when new hardware becomes available. The mouse generated a ton of negative responses when it first came out and vendors started including it as a mandatory part of their software. To an extent, mousing about is a productivity killer when you’re dealing with a touch typist who can better manipulate an application using the keyboard. However, I doubt very much that people would get rid of their mice today. The same could be said of touch interfaces—they may eventually become so prevalent that people will wonder how we ever got along without them. Today, however, they’re generating a lot of negative comments because most of us don’t have a touch interface on our desktop systems. Microsoft is also encountering this problem. I personally think they’re venturing into touch interfaces far too early in the technology’s evolution and it’s going to burn them at some point.

So, are new interfaces generally a bad idea? The answer is that it depends on your point-of-view and the reason the vendor is making the change. How do you view the new interfaces that Microsoft is supporting? For that matter, how do you view most application changes today? If you’re amongst the power users out there, you probably view most changes as unnecessary feature bloat that destroys productivity and costs a lot of money for features that are nearly useless. Less skilled users may have a different viewpoint. Let me know your perspective at