Inside Out is Backwards – Feature Focused or Goal Driven

backwards clock

Kathy Sierra has another great post on the problems people face when using products. One of the sources of the problems is when engineers think “from the inside out” and focus on features or capabilities. People have goals, and they want to achieve goals, not use capabilities.

Feature Focused

Kathy uses a new digital SLR camera as the example for her article. She wonders if the problem is that the company spent too much time thinking about the camera, and not enough time thinking about photography. She points to the user manual as an example – the manual tells users exactly how to perform action X, but never talks about why someone would want to do X.

Goal Driven

Some cameras “get it.” Canon makes a digital camera where the primary adjustment knob doesn’t let you set f-stops, aperture, or shutter times. The primary adjustment knob has available settings. “Action”, “Portrait”, and “Landscape” are some of the settings. Canon’s product manager realized that his customers use the camera with a goal of taking pictures. And the features of the camera support this.

Opposing View

You could argue that the feature focused camera is designed for people who already know why they want a 1/60 shutter setting. And therefore, we don’t need to worry about it. Only relatively inexperienced people would face problems with this camera.

There is a valid argument that features and design should be optimized for competent users. But there is a barrier to entry for those users – they need a way to get enough experience with the product to gain competence. One barrier to entry results from having too many features.


When we’re designing software (and prioritizing requirements), we have to approach our jobs from the perspective of our users. Users have goals. We should design for them.

4 thoughts on “Inside Out is Backwards – Feature Focused or Goal Driven

  1. I own 3 Canon cameras (SLR film, Digital Elph, and video) because I like their user interface as well as their optics. Canon’s SLR (I have the film version, but have also played with the digital version) has the “Action”, “Portrait”, etc. settings, but also has fully manual settings for aperture and shutter speed. Interestingly, if you shoot using one of the preset modes, you can only shoot to JPG, whereas shooting under full manual control gives you the choice of JPG or RAW (which most professionals would use if they’re going to do any enhancement of the photos later). In other words, they just created two different user interfaces (although on the same set of controls): one for the person who doesn’t understand all that f-stop stuff and doesn’t care as much about the end quality, and one for the photo enthustiasist. I’m not sure that this solves the problem, although I’ve shot a lot of great pictures in one of those preset modes instead of under full manual control — in order to get the most out of the camera, you still need to learn the basics of photography, which means understanding aperture and shutter speed.

    To get back to your original point about software design, I agree that things need to be designed with the users’ tasks in mind — when I design custom BPM systems for my customers, that’s exactly how I’m focussed. That being said, however, I think that a camera is more like Microsoft Excel than a custom, task-specific piece of software: how many people use even 10% of Excel’s funtionality? How many use formulas, or VBA, or even value-specific formatting? These things are the f-stops of Excel that only those who really want that sort of control learn to use; most people use what’s in front of them, or do a few more complex things with wizards (the software equivalent of Canon’s preset modes). Excel, like an SLR camera, is a generalist tool, not a specialist tool; a huge set of features, most of which are never used by the average user, is an expected result.

  2. Thanks Sandy for reading and commenting!

    I’m a bit of a gadget nut myself, so I also prefer the ability to set aperture size and save to raw or tif. I have the same approach with software, I love the autofilter, pivot tables, conditional formatting and array-formulas of excel – use them all the time.

    Alan Cooper makes a great point in The Inmates are Running the Asylum, that people like us are homo-logicus, and our approach to the world is very different than most people – who just want to get the job done. Perhaps I overcompensate a little, because I know my predisposition, but I try and stress the user-task focus over the user-tool-use focus as much as possible.

    I think we also draw the line differently when we’re talking about twenty users versus twenty million.

    It’s great to know that even the SLR from Canon has dual-controls – and that’s a common approach in software too, making common tasks easy and infrequent tasks reasonable.

    Thanks again, and keep reading and commenting!

  3. “I try and stress the user-task focus over the user-tool-use focus as much as possible.”

    Very well put, Scott! :)

    I just added that to my database of quotes about software design. I recommend anyone involved in defining software products (or any products for that matter) to stop and think about it. Most high tech companies focus on user-tool-use aka product-feature-list way too much.

    – Michael

  4. Thanks, Michael!

    You’re absolutely right about the tool-use focus that most companies have. Just think about it whenever seeing an ad for a new product or new release of a product. How often do we see “Manage your email more easily” or “Get your job done faster” as release notes? We always see “Added one-click deletion of all spam” and “20% speed improvement of nightly arcane batch process X.”

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