Friday night topic: The tyranny of 'features'


— 5:11 PM on September 21, 2012

I had an unexpectedly educational experience a while back when my coffee maker died and I set out to replace it. As I've noted, I'm a coffee enthusiast, so I was willing to throw a little money at buying the right drip-brew machine. I was even looking forward to shopping around for the best one. That optimism turned to frustration as I visited a couple of retail outlets—Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond, I believe—looking for a decent coffee maker.

What I wanted was something with the right capacity for my use that brews quality coffee and perhaps has a thermal carafe. Also, long experience has taught me the incredible rarity and value of a coffee pot that pours properly. I don't know why this is a hard thing to achieve, but it's apparently a feat of engineering the modern world has yet to conquer.

What I discovered on store shelves was a series of abominations. The machines that came closest to matching my needs were very cheap, with too-small capacities. The capacities and prices rose from one end of the aisle to the other, and as I walked down the row, things got decidedly worse. Soon, I was standing in front of a collection of large devices that looked like R2-D2, with a jumble of buttons, lights, and LCD displays on the front.

All of these devices were capable of doing various things that go well beyond the basic mission of, you know, pouring hot water through some coffee grounds and into a pot. To a coffee purist, none of those things made a lick of sense. You're supposed to grind the coffee beans immediately before brewing the coffee, to keep it fresh. No way is a "programmable timer" that kicks off the brewing later a good idea. Having owned (and cleaned) one daily, I also know that a machine with an integrated grinder and brew timer isn't a convenience—steam flows upward into the grinder each time, creating a clumpy, pasty mess.

I could go on, but the basic point is simple. These machines were packed with features like LCD displays, hot plates, "brew pause," and "selectable brew strength", but virtually all of those attributes ran at cross-purposes with the goal of creating a good cup of coffee. For me, the presence of "add-ons" that will actively ruin a good cup of java sends a simple signal: do not buy.

In frustration, I began poking around on coffee sites for recommendations, although warily, since I didn't wish to be sold a "purist" $400 device that pours hot water over grounds. (I already have one of those; it's called an espresso machine.) One of the reviewers acknowledged the problem with finding a good basic coffee maker and succinctly stated the problem: in North America, coffee makers are sold on the basis of their features. Reading that crystallized things for me: I didn't want features. Nothing good can come from a coffee maker being borderline self-aware. I wanted quality, and the "features" out there were created for marketing purposes, kind of perversely.

Here was a market doing something interesting but also incredibly counter-productive, from my point of view. (To translate things to tech, it would be like video card buyers suddenly saying: we don't care about image quality or performance; we just want PhysX and CUDA. Haha. Burn.) I realize that I am perhaps not the typical customer for the average coffee machine, but it was remarkable to see not a single option geared toward somebody like me on store shelves.

That's an incredibly long-winded way of bringing me to tonight's question, which is: what other markets are like this one? What categories of products are marketed, segmented, and sold on the basis of the entirely "wrong" criteria? The new Coors Light cans that change colors come to mind.

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