The 37th Button On Your Remote Control

Last Updated Mar 21, 2008 11:45 AM EDT

The 37th Button On Your Remote ControlOur headline today comes from a line used by innovation expert Scott Anthony in the excellent post Innovation Gone Overboard.

His point: Companies often try to freshen their existing products with too much innovation; the 37th button on the remote. But their mistake is your opportunity.

Automakers, for example, are trying hard to replace the time-tested, simple, and easy-to-use starter key with push-button starters that can only be activated with a wireless owner-verification device. Says Anthony:

Saving 10 seconds is wonderful in today's hectic world, but there's a catch. In exchange for saving those 10 seconds, drivers have to make sure they don't walk away with the activation device in their pocket when they valet-park their car. More importantly, they have to hope that their new key doesn't run out of batteries or malfunction. While some activation systems include manual keys, using those keys involves following a complicated set of instructions, with helpful owner's manual advice like "call your dealer."
Missing The Mark
In the literature on disruptive innovation, this is called "overshooting." Companies want to keep upgrading their existing products with incremental innovations, but at some point they overshoot. A feature is added that the customer will accept but not pay for. And that's when trouble sets in. "Overshooting creates conditions that encourage the formation of disruptive attackers who change the game through simplicity or low prices," says Anthony.

Here are some classic overshoots I've noticed:

  • Too Wordy. Microsoft Word is the classic whipping boy for unusable innovation. Many writers I know have jumped ship to simpler tools such as Scrivener and WriteRoom.
  • Just Suck. High-end vacuum cleaners come with more features than a new Gulfstream. Keep your HEPA filters, all-terrain drive, and dog hair attachment -- I just want more suck at a reasonable price.
  • Snail Mail. Heard at the Post Office: "Would you like to send this overnight? Ground? Insurance? Receipt verification? Priority mail? Express mail? Parcel Post? Media mail? Registered? Delivery confirmation? Certified?
Sometimes an overshoot is not really an overshoot -- just bad execution. Take the attempt by cell phone makers to cram as many features as they could -- camera, calendar, SMS, GPS, Internet access, ring tones, world clocks, eye-brow trimmer -- into their tiny handhelds. But using these features was difficult to the point of why bother, and it drove a little bit of resentment in me that I was paying for things I couldn't use.

Along comes the iPhone and suddenly, with some smart design, all these features are a breeze to use. And people were willing to pay more for the experience.

Share some overshoots you have noticed creeping into the market.

(Car key image by billaday, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.