The High Cost of Product Line Complexity (plus Proof the Cranky Product Manager is Female)

Every now and then the Cranky Product Manager learns that some member of the Crankerati is theorizing that she is not really a woman, but is in fact a hot dog and beans totin’ Dude. After all, what better way to be a spineless wuss than by hiding behind an anonymous persona of the opposite gender?

Well, this post (coupled with the recent few about sexism in software), should debunk that theory once and for all.  No way you’ll think the Cranky Product Manager is a “Dude” after this.

Let’s set the scene.  A few weeks ago, the Cranky Product Manager went to the pharmacy to purchase the most womanly of accoutrements. Yep, you guessed it, maxipads.  Now, even women who LIVE to shop don’t like to shopping for “feminine protection,” but alas it must be done now and then.

Anyway, the Cranky Product Manager walked into the store aisle dedicated to such matters. And, as usual, she was confronted with an overwhelming morass of confusing product choices.

The below photo does not do the scene justice – it covers only about 20% of the entire product selection and only shows about 1/3 the shelf space dedicated to the Always brand. Over 50 product varieties, 20+ from Always alone.

IMG00380-20091009-1137

The Cranky Product Manager has to tell you that when she saw this, well, she was frackin’ PISSED.  Again. Cuz it was the same way last time she bought pads too.

WARNING TO MALE READERS: you may skip the following paragraph.  Yes, you men are all so tough and manly and have copious hair on your chests. Plus you can HUNT DOWN PREY and kill stuff, WATCH sports, use POWER tools, and belch like beer pong champions.  But alas, despite the awesomitude that your Y chromosomes have collectively bestowed upon you, your delicate ears simply cannot handle maxipad talk, much as you cannot function when you have a cold.  So, squeamish males, please skip the next paragraph and recommence reading after the italicized text.

OK, ladies, believe me when I say this product assortment made no frackin’ sense. As far as the Cranky Product Manager could tell, she was dealing with at least 6 different variables — wings/none, absorbency, thinness, length, width, odorless/”fresh”  – and each box on display had a different combination. PLUS each box had a different number of pads, which made price comparisons nearly impossible. From what little she was able to discern, the pricing made no sense, with the less desirable combos costing as much or more than the more desirable ones (who on earth is going to buy super-thick, minimally absorbent pads without wings anyway?).  And then there were the “marketing nonsense” features, where they claim something is “Infinity” and charge more but don’t explain wtf “Infinity” is or why it’s worth more.  (Also, someone please let the Always people know that NO ONE wants a period that lasts until “Infinity.”)  To further add to the confusion,  there are multiple brands, plus the damn CVS brand which THEY INTENTIONALLY package to look just like the manufacturer brands, just to eff with your head.

Yes. The Cranky Product Manager was pissed at this ridiculous cornucopia of choices. Why?

1. It made the purchase take WAY too long. The Cranky Product Manager wanted to spend 10 seconds on this purchase, not 5 minutes.

2. She realized NO WONDER her Darling Husband (the household’s designated grocery shopper) always came home with the wrong frackin’ pads!   Those jerks made the purchase process so complicated that it couldn’t be delegated.

But even more annoying were #3 and #4…

3. She felt she was being tricked.  WHY put out a ridiculous product assortment like that, with pricing that looked randomly generated, unless they were trying to confuse consumers into buying something less desirable for too much money? After all, they deliberately made it impossible to compare features and prices, plus there was that marketing nonsense talk about Infinity “features” that have no apparent benefit. It just felt dishonest.

4.  She felt that the perpetrators of this crime against products did not respect or understand the purchase process of long-time repeat customers. Sure, they might have understood how she USED the product and provided great products to meet those needs.  But they did not respect how she wanted to BUY the product.  As in, I DON’T want to learn about your new features and packaging options while I am AT the store! Don’t make me the weirdo who hangs out for long lengths of time (or takes photos) in the feminine hygiene aisle!

The Cranky Product Manager was highly annoyed. Stupid retailers & manufacturers!  Idiots!

But then she thought about the byzantine nature of most software companies’ product and price lists. And how nearly every good, simple product inevitably decays into a labyrinth of derivative products/options with dubious differentiation and cryptic pricing.

Seems that we software product managers and marketers are not so different than those maxipad people.  In fact, we are way worse.  If a software company has shipped product for more than 5 years, the product/package/price list probably has 100+ lines, each with its own method of calculating price and with multiple dependencies between items.

And we are thereby annoying the heck our customers. The complexity of our product lines:

  1. Forces repeat customers to spend time they don’t have researching purchases for products that they already know quite well
  2. Increases customers’ workload, by preventing them from delegating the purchase
  3. Makes customers feel like they’re being taken advantage of
  4. Makes customers feel like they’re not being respected or understood.

This situation is not at all what Product Managers intend when they decide to make that new feature only available as an add-on option. Or when they introduce that new technology in a bunch of completely new products, while letting existing customers to carry on with upgrades to the old products.

Alas, it only takes a few of these well-meaning decisions to make product line complexity explode. Watch as your efforts to make customers happy completely and utterly backfire, and as your sales, support, development, marketing, and overhead costs simultaneously skyrocket.

40 comments

  1. Dan Callahan

    Thanks for this post, CrankyPM, and thanks for sparing me the MaxiPad details. Product lines are like garages. Once you have a garage, throwing one more item in it costs almost nothing. So once the initial product/platform is built, it’s easy to overlook the total cost of adding one more variant to the product line. Having “cleaned out the garage” for multiple product lines, I can tell you the impact is almost always an increase in sales, because customers and salespeople have an easier time figuring out what to buy to solve their problems.

  2. Tim Johnson

    Being one of those husbands tasked with making such a purchase, I can relate to your and your husband’s dilemma. It the same buying motor oil or Dell computers. Way too much complexity in figuring out what you want to buy with too many line extensions, etc.

    Great post and I’ve never doubted your gender, FWIW!

    • Geoffrey Anderson

      Glad you mentioned Dell computers. I love when geeks tell me that “Apple doesn’t have enough choice”. Bah. Good, better, best for laptops and desktops.

      Try to configure a comparable Dell, and after pages and pages of customized configuration, you still don’t know what will arrive in the box.

      For the record, I have been the delegated purchaser of feminine products, and my wife wrote down the brand, style, and quantity in detail. No other way to proceed.

  3. Howard

    Too bad not one of our software companies has a return policy. When I go to the store, I just buy one of each and then return the ones that weren’t correct or desired. That way, I don’t have to make the decision until there is more information.

    No contract cell phone companies get it. Maybe we all could figure out how to sell software that way too….

  4. Steve Duncan

    Oh boy, you hit the nail on the head.

    You MUST read “The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less” by Barry Schwartz. I doubt you’d find it in the business section but it’s the most important product marketing / product management book I’ve read in a long time. The book talks about how our culture of abundant choices only robs us of satisfaction and adds stress.

    The book also discusses the optimal number of choices before consumers tune out or decide “maybe I’ll look into that later”. You’d be surprised how low it is.

    And while I can’t appreciate the experience of shopping for feminine products, consider how too much choice has made shopping for the following stressful and unsatisfying. Take jeans: You used to just have one choice. Now we have to choose between materials, colors, boot cuts, leg cuts, waist height, button fly, zip fly, relaxed fit, euro fit, acid washed, pre-washed, etc. etc. And the moment you buy, you start to regret.

    Great post!
    Steve

    -

      • Yuhri

        There was another great TED talk by Sheena Iyengar on the question of choice. It was featured just recently on several blogs, but she had some interesting commentary on American cultural assumptions about more choice is better, among other things….

        http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_on_the_art_of_choosing.html

        (And not entirely related, but not entirely unrelated either, the recent Fortune article about Trader Joe’s and their less choice is better model:

      • The Cranky Product Manager

        Steve & Mark,
        Thanks for the pointers. I just watched Barry’s TED talk, and RIGHT ON! _Exactly_ what I experienced.

        I feel another post coming on about limiting a software product to just 3 incarnations: good, better, and best.

        • Patrick Masi

          Point taken about how product line complexity _could_ be upsetting your customers, but I can’t help but feel like we’re missing something here.

          Isn’t this whole thing a trade-off decision that a product manager has to make when thinking about the buyer personas in their market? What if your buyers are bean counters who actually want that complexity to make sure they aren’t spending a penny more than they have to? Sure, Apple might have success selling one (expensive) product to people who want simplicity, but plenty of other buyers want to feel like they had a choice in the matter. Those buyers place value in knowing they are maximizing the product they get for the money they’re spending.

          Besides, are you saying you’d rather go to that isle and have just one maxipad staring at you? That I should be happy to be stuck picking from one brand of jeans that doesn’t fit me properly, because at least I didn’t have to actually try them on and think about it? That Henry Ford was right to only let me have my Model-T in black?

          Success in the marketplace ultimately depends on consumer choices, and in certain situations if you aren’t offering customers that choice, you can bet that your competitors are.

  5. Diane

    I don’t know how to make the connection between this and software, but to at least alleviate your continual troubles with feminine hygiene products, I have four words for you: Buy a menstrual cup.

    Maybe menstrual cups are the equivalent of open source projects? I’m thinking they’re like the equivalent of Linux/Unix: cheaper than buying the standard products (i.e. Windows), a steep learning curve at the beginning but WAY more reliable once you get the hang of things… and then of course they come with the crazy die-hards who will talk about it every chance they get, whether it is appropriate in that situation or not.

  6. Rich Mironov

    As the male who does all of the supermarket shopping for my household, and who especially doesn’t want to be the weirdo in *that* aisle, and who carefully writes down all of the specs hoping to make this a 20 second stop…
    I’m ALWAYS frustrated by renamed or stocked-out or repackaged products and the 5 minutes of label comparisons. 10x worse on returning home to find out it’s “the wrong thing” than my similar failure on the conditioner aisle, which suffers from related brand bloat / buyer irritability / hunter-gatherer mood swings.

  7. JT

    They may not want you to make an informed comparison and choice. And if you do finally decide, you will have a lot invested in that decision, so you’ll be loathe to change. (A switching cost.)

    Once upon a time I embarked on a badly needed pruning & simplification of a sprawling product line. I found the product manager from 20 years hence, and he told me to put my shears away: “Confusion is your friend” he said.

    I didn’t agree with my predecessor, but I do remember Diesel Jeans having success with a modified version of this merchandising strategy. Donald Norman used it as a counter example in his book Emotional Design.

  8. nick coster

    i suffered this same bewildering experience when i went in search of information on Microsoft websites looking for information on user licences for a small business server.
    There seems to be deliberate effort to make it so confusing that only a dedicated reseller can explain it (and add their margin to the deal) grr.
    thanks again for the cranky fun
    –nick coster

  9. Tom Leung

    Great post. I’ve been tempted to implement a pay-go philosophy with some of our older products which have so many features, no one really knows what they all are and QA is none too pleased. For those of you who aren’t political junkies, pay-go is a theory of reducing government bloat by making politicians cut a program for every new program they want to add. Imagine if you had to cut a feature for every new one. Probably only work with older products and might be a 1:3 deal but you get the idea.

  10. Linda Merrick

    CPM,
    Love the post, and there are many more examples of product lines gone mad. The grocery store is full of product management and marketing lessons for every industry. Such a great lab!
    And who knew that so many guys are the primary shoppers in their family units? ‘scuse me, gotta go convince hubby that it’s his turn…

    • Chris

      Hi Steve,

      (By the way, when I saw your choice of words, my first reaction was not to respond with thoughtful discussion.)

      I’ve been reading through both today, so I’ll explain: both deal, in their own way, with the consequences of brand dilution. The chapter “The Line-Extension Trap” in Ries and Trout is the most related chapter I’ve read so far.
      The book typically covers larger brand segments (cars, conglomerates, etc.) but some of the examples include families of related products. The company says, “Hey, let’s put our name on this new product; it’s a reputable brand and will cause immediate sales.” Which it does, but at the expense of weakening the original proposition.

      FTA:
      “The below photo does not do the scene justice – it covers only about 20% of the entire product selection and only shows about 1/3 the shelf space dedicated to the Always brand. Over 50 product varieties, 20+ from Always alone.”

      FTB:
      “You’d think the missed opportunity represented by Pall Mall Gold would have discouraged them.
      But it didn’t…so now we have Pall Mall Menthol, Pall Mall Extra Mild and Pall Mall Light 100s. The confusion has detracted from the sales of the basic Pall Mall brand.”

      It’s one of plenty of examples that Ries and Trout argue “blur the sharp focus of the brand in the mind.”

      And what could blur the mind more than 20 brands of maxipads?

      • Steve

        Thanks Chris,

        If you’re put off by “WTF” I suggest you stop reading CPM right away (she says “Frackin” a lot).

        It’s been many years since I’ve read Ries/Trout, and to be honest I wasn’t a big fan (I know I stand alone on that) when I first read it. Thanks for the reminder on their line-extension trap chapter. Mea Culpa.

        SD

  11. Pingback: Why Product Managers Should Avoid Product Complexity : Product Management Insights
  12. Camille

    Very good post – Just wanted to through this thought into the mix: “to extent is the product line complexity a result of the sales process/deal structuring process or PM’s desire to support add-on sales ?” . Products grow organically not doubt about it, add more features, charge for the new features….after a few iterations over time you’ve got your 100+ options. However in my experience with enterprise software, the sales folks will want various bargaining chips that they can use either in the initial deal structuring (no I can’t change the pricing on named licenses , but tell you what , I’ll throw in the XYZ module(s) for free…) or for-add on sales into an establsihed account ( Hey Mr customer, heard you got some leftover budget this end of year, how about buyin those three new modules we got ?).

  13. Pingback: Why Product Managers Should Avoid Product Complexity - Product Management Insights

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>