The Perils of Kitchen-Sink Design

For harried IS professionals, the "features checklist" has become a necessary tool for quickly comparing similar products. Too few of us have the time to genuinely evaluate two, three, even four products in the same category before making a selection. A savvy purchaser will read product reviews and comparisons in trade journals such as ENT and search newsgroups in an attempt to get honest user feedback.

In spite of our best efforts, many of us use features as our number one criteria for product selection. Well-heeled software vendors, knowing our preference, will often attempt to grab market share from smaller, established players by adding everything but the kitchen sink to their products. Extra features are often tacked on without regard for the product’s usability. I recently ran into a perfect example of this "kitchen-sink" design pattern when I purchased a new Windows CE palm-sized PC.

I’ve used a Palm Computing PalmPilot since the very first units shipped back in April 1996. Every appointment, note, contact, status report, article idea and shopping list since 1996 is still alive and well in my ever-present digital buddy. This unit has been my multilanguage translator, world clock and currency calculator in a dozen countries. About the only thing it hasn’t been is a decent alarm clock. In fact, its volume-challenged buzzer has let me down more than once. When I first sighted the next-generation Palm III on a trade show floor, I grabbed the device, jumped to the setup page, touched the alarm test button, and was rewarded with only a faint beeping, lost in the din of the show. "Arrgh," I thought, "this device was nearly perfect two revisions ago, but it still can’t match the volume of any $10 digital watch." Palm Computing, in its new home at 3Com Corp., had seemingly become complacent.

Enter the Windows CE palm-sized PC (formerly the PalmPC). Microsoft Corp. noticed that tiny Palm Computing had come out of nowhere to spank its clunky, first-generation Windows CE offerings. Microsoft quickly copied (oops, I mean, "innovated") everything that seemed cool about the PalmPilot, including its name. (Microsoft would later drop the PalmPC moniker to avoid a nasty court battle.) The resulting Windows palm-sized PC specification describes a machine with all the features of a PalmPilot and then some: high resolution, gray-scale display, recording capability, Compact Flash card slot, and controls laid out for one-hand operation. Yes, a Microsoft palm-sized PC would have everything but the kitchen sink.

Between my disappointment with 3Com’s evolutionary Palm III and the sexiness of the Windows palm-sized PC feature set, I started creating rationalizations: It’s OK for Microsoft to "re-innovate" someone else’s product as long as Microsoft does it better. I guiltily snatched up the first palm-sized PC that hit my local CompUSA shelves. The new unit immediately solved the one major flaw of the PalmPilot by providing three different notification methods: a loudspeaker, a light that flashes until dismissed, and a pagerlike vibrator.

It quickly became clear that while the folks who designed Palm OS in the PalmPilot and Palm III really like helping people get organized, the people who designed the Windows CE palm-sized PC simply want to sell Windows. In spite of it laundry list of neat features, the Windows machine floundered at basic tasks.

Even my decade-old BOSS electronic organizer didn’t hesitate when creating or deleting records, but my new 66-MHz hand-held computer dawdled on nearly every task. An animated hourglass appears for even some simple operations, which makes me wonder if the fancy cursor is consuming all the machine’s CPU time. The pen-stroke recognizer software is brought to its knees by the Internet-friendly characters : and @, and its algorithm scatters a random period (.) throughout written text for each accidental pen tap. I was forced to use the tedious virtual keyboard whenever I tried to capture an e-mail or Web address.

In the bundled Windows CE software, many of the input screens that could easily fit on one page are spread over multiple pages, forcing you to use a scroll bar or other awkward navigation method. Sometimes, you must temporarily dismiss and reactivate the virtual keyboard to see the whole form. The numerous external buttons make it difficult to pick up the device without accidentally activating it. By the end of 2 weeks, I was still finding standard daily tasks difficult. When I finally switched back to PalmPilot, I felt as though I’d just freed myself from a room filled with jello.

It takes virtually perfect execution to improve on the convenience of pen and paper. While the PalmPilot is easily outclassed by the palm-sized PC in terms of features, the former is a great tool and the latter is an expensive toy. This experience has me wondering how many other great computing experiences are kept just out of reach by our obsession with features rather than execution. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to CompUSA and exchange my flashy new companion for an old friend.

Eric Binary Anderson is Development Manager at PeopleSoft's PeopleTools division (Pleasanton, Calif.) and has his own consulting business, Binary Solutions. Contact him at