The modern washing machine has a dozen or more cycles that no one has ever used. The “baby cycle”, for example, aimed, presumably, at parents too lazy to wash their babies in the bath. Or, quoting now from a variety of machines, the “duvet”, “sports”, “bed and bath”, “reduced creases”, “allergy” and “freshen up” cycles. As in “I’m just going to hop in the washing machine and freshen up.” (Yes, I realise it freshens up clothes, not people, but still I bet no one has ever used it non-ironically.)
The washing machine is hardly alone in this; all our appliances have learned new tricks. Posh kettles heat our water to a choice of temperatures, tumble dryers offer a variety of “dryness levels” and even fairly basic toasters now proudly boast a “bagel function”. At the top end of the market you can now buy a fridge with a built-in radio and voice recorder, proving we’ve reached the stage of combining functions entirely arbitrarily. It has all become a little overwhelming.
Function inflation or “setting creep” – both of which are names I’ve just made up – is not, of course, confined to the kitchen. We can see it in our computers and cars, our phones and televisions, and, in its purest form, in the deranged one-upmanship of a top-of-the-range Swiss Army knife, complete with a “fish scaler”, a “chisel” and a “pressurised ballpoint pen”. But is the surreal image of a war fought using descaled fish in Switzerland really progress? Or are all these settings just getting in our way?
“Fundamentally,” says David Mattin, lead strategist at trendwatching.com, “I’d say function inflation is one consequence of the ever-increasing consumer thirst for the new – new products, services, brands, and yes, new functionality and features – and the way brands and businesses typically respond to that thirst.”
“Throwing more functions and features on to an essentially standard product is one easy way for consumer-facing brands to serve the consumer demand for new, more, and better; or at least claim they are serving it. It allows them to constantly iterate and relaunch essentially the same product with new features, and argue that their product is new.”
It is not without its benefits. Plenty of life-changing innovations, from the handy oven timer to the job-endangering snooze button, started out as added gimmicks on familiar household items. Many objects we now consider normal were once separate and unrelated: the clock radio, for example, or our DVD-playing games consoles.
But, in the kitchen at least, things are moving a little fast, and rampant function hyperinflation has left many of us staring, uncomprehending, at a washing machine control wheel with more cycles than we have outfits to wash.
In theory, all such functions must be a response to consumer demand: if a washing machine has a “freshen up” cycle, it is because in a focus group somewhere, or on some customer feedback survey, at least a couple of people piped up and said: “I want my clothes fresher, but not cleaned.” Yet such demanding shoppers are in fact a small minority: research shows that 70% of people use the same wash cycle almost every time, and nearly half of us are put off by complex multi-setting controls.
“The innovation is obviously being driven by manufacturers’ desire to add value and to differentiate themselves,” says analyst Neil Mason, head of retail research at market research company Mintel. “But from a consumer’s point of view, what they want is convenience and simplicity. When you run into trouble is when you add all these extra functions and consumers just get perplexed as to how to actually use them.”
New settings clearly continue to be seen as an easy road to higher sales. Yet, as Mattin points out, some of the most successful products on the market “succeeded specifically because they did not succumb to function inflation, indeed they made a virtue out of having very few functions”.
Though Apple’s app store is now a fast-moving bastion of user-controlled function inflation, the iPhone and iPad’s predecessor began life as a reaction against it. “The iPod,” says Mattin, “is a now-legendary example of a tech product that was beautiful in its simplicity. Compare earlier MP3 players, laden with various buttons and switches and features, with the iPod’s click wheel.”
“There’s good evidence,” he argues, “that the marketplace rewards designers who edit a product down until it does just what it should, and no more. But that takes designers of genius. Mediocre designers – that is, 90% of them – just throw more and more functionality at consumers and see what sticks.”
Perhaps, then, despite the current trend, the household of the future will be free of such baffling settings, switches and dials. The ideal household gadget – be it a washer, dryer or toaster – may one day sport a single, simple button marked “Sort this stuff out for me, will you?” The machines can work out for themselves when, if ever, we merely want our clothes freshened up.
Appliances with too much science
Breville VTT377 4 Slice Toaster
Six “toast settings”, “independent slot operation”, “high-lift”, “cancel”, “defrost” and “reheat” functions, plus “variable browning” and “illuminated controls”. They might as well have called it a toastiere.
Bosch TWK8631GB Styline Kettle
Heats water to your choice of 70°C (white tea), 80°C (green tea), 90°C (hot chocolate or coffee) or a familiar 100°C (boiling). Also beeps at you officiously at the beginning and end of its cycles.
Bush WQP8-9347 Built-In Dishwasher
Five wash programmes, four temperature settings and “a residual heat drying system”. Sounds like more hassle to learn, load, configure and unload than just washing the dirty dishes yourself.
Vax Zoom Family and Pet Bagless Cylinder Vacuum Cleaner
The ridiculous name aside, this £150 monument to excessive disposable income includes a “crevice tool”, “dusting brush”, “turbo tool”, “stretch hose” and “flexi crevice tool”. You know, for cleaning your flexi-crevices. Which, obviously, aren’t a thing.
Hotpoint AQ113D697I White Washing Machine
Although by current standards this model’s total of 16 wash programmes is relatively modest, the sheer range of them is baffling. Boasts both the aforementioned “Baby” and “Freshen Up” cycles, as well as “Duvet”, “Allergy Care” and “Bed and Bath”.
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