The High Cost of Product Line Complexity

A few weeks ago, I went to the pharmacy to purchase the most womanly of accoutrements. Yep, maxipads.

Now, before you click away, be assured this post does have something important to say about product management. Please sit tight and bear with me.

Anyway, I walked into the store aisle dedicated to such matters. And, as usual, I 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.

When I saw this, well, I was pissed. AGAIN. Because it was the same way the last time I 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, use power tools, and belch like beer pong champions. But alas, despite the awesomitude that your Y chromosomes have 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 two paragraphs and recommence reading after the italicized text.

OK, ladies, believe me when I say this product assortment made absolutely no sense. As far as I could tell, I 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 I 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 mess with your head.

Yes. I was pissed at this ridiculous cornucopia of choices. Why?

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

  2. I realized NO WONDER my husband (the household's designated grocery shopper) always came home with the wrong pads!   Those jerks made the purchase process so complicated that it couldn't be delegated.

    But even more annoying were #3 and #4...

  3. I felt I 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.  I 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 I USED the product and provided great products to meet those needs.  But they did not respect how I 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!

I was highly annoyed. Stupid retailers & manufacturers!  

Alas, we're not so different in software

But then I 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 probably way worse.  If an enterprise 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:

  • Forces repeat customers to spend time they don't have researching purchases for products that they already know quite well
  • Increases customers' workload, by preventing them from delegating the purchase
  • Makes customers feel like they're being taken advantage of
    • 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.

Sue Raisty

Product management geek, born-again engineer, adoptive mother of boys, coach & mentor, mountain trail runner, tinkerer, no-bull communicator, wannabe writer, room mother & compulsive researcher.

Silicon Valley, California http://blog.sueraisty.com