Featured Stupid Feature: Auto-Off Scales

Home kitchen scales have a common "feature" so bad customers pay more for offerings without it.

The blue ocean strategy process includes the well-known “Four Actions Framework” where we eliminate, reduce, raise, and create key factors in search of a new offering. Eliminating and reducing features that add cost but not value is often key to creating a blue ocean megahit.

Traditional marketers have a knee-jerk reaction; they never want to eliminate a “feature” — using the term loosely — especially ones common in competitive offerings. Marketers and red ocean product developers scour competitive products and box themselves in by assuming every feature, each which invariably adds cost, is necessary or everybody wouldn’t be offering them.

However, it’s not uncommon for features to increase cost while decreasing buyer value.

I’ve repeatedly cited remote controls that have more buttons than an Apollo-era spaceship. A small number of those buttons allow users to change channels whereas a large number enable … I’m not sure and neither are most users. Finally, more than a few of those buttons put the TV in a mode where watching television — the primary purpose of the device — doesn’t happen.

Despite the uselessness of all those buttons, somebody had to specify, program, manufacture, test, and support all those extra “features.” Lots of costs creates no value at all and arguably reduces value.

I thought TV remotes must be the worst offender for worthless yet costly features yet I’ve found something worse … digital home kitchen scales. Specifically, the auto-off function that quickly turns off a scale to save battery life. It’s a feature so bad that top-tier gadget reviewers highlight the lack of the function as a bonus.

Check out this New York Times review, “The Best Kitchen Scale.” Each individual product review is less than a hundred words yet every scale reviewed, without exception, calls out a longer auto-off function as a benefit. The very best scale reviewed has an auto-off function that can be entirely disabled.

Congratulations to the “My Weigh KD8000” for paying attention to what the gadget is actually used for. Quoting the New York Times, “It’s one of the few scales we’ve come across that allows you to disable the auto-off function.” Priced significantly higher than other scales, it sells so well it’s out of stock at Amazon when I’m writing this.

Since all scales weigh things, the sole differentiator seems to be that it doesn’t turn itself off. That is, the product developers realized this “feature” — presumably to save battery life — gets in the way of cooking.

The New York Times isn’t alone. A quick check of reviews, by amateurs and professionals, show the auto-off feature is reviled. “Auto shutoff became erratic and much too fast. Ruined the utility of the scale.” reads an Amazon review. One product labels itself the “CBW 10 Minute Auto Off Professional Kitchen Scale,” acknowledging the problem in the product name. The only review that praises auto-off, by “heavy.com,” shows the reviewer clearly doesn’t know and hasn’t actually worked the product she’s reviewing.

Why is auto-off so despised by cooks? Speaking as a budding bagel baker that’s easy to answer: because the scale turns itself off and loses the amount of food that you’ve weighed out in the bowl sitting on the scale. This causes cooks to lose track of what they’ve added making it easy to mess-up a recipe. This problem is so common in auto-off digital scales that countless cooks use old-fashioned analog scales instead.

The auto-off feature is presumably there to protect battery life but let’s think about that. I don’t know how long two AA batteries would last powering a digital scale that either didn’t turn off or had, say, a half-hour turnoff time (most are two-minutes but the better-reviewed ones are four minutes). But I’d guess those two batteries would last a long, long time.

A quick check shows Amazon sells 48 high-performance AA batteries for $15.49 which comes to $.32 each, $.64 for a pair. A 5-lb sack of King Arthur bread flour costs $9.95 or about $2 a pound. So it’s three times more expensive to waste one of the lowest-cost ingredients as it is to simply replace the batteries that’d cause a recipe to be ruined.

Some product developer, somewhere, paid to vastly reduce the functionality of what should be a simple gadget, a home coking scale, and everybody else who makes a similar gadget copied and made the same mistake.

Eliminating the auto-off function, or at least making it far longer, increases the value of the offering. How much? Enough that the New York Times spent a sizable amount of their review praising scales that have eliminated or vastly reduced this “feature.” Also, enough that one of the home scales that disable the dubious feature sell at a far higher pricepoint yet sells out compared to the lower-cost scales.

Despite that, there are countless home scales that contain the auto-off functionality. The only way to explain this is 1) a marketer or product developer studied and copied the feature in competitive products and 2) they didn’t bother trying to actually cook with their scales, to use their product.

When we discuss the pitfalls of red ocean competition — of looking at competitive products and trying to compete by making something “better” — we normally discuss that it’s difficult and costly to differentiate via traditional marketing. However, there is another dimension apparent here; if all the competitors are making a mistake then, by copying their offering, you’ll make the same mistake. Even if that mistake is obvious and if avoiding the mistake would cost little or nothing (or, in this case, reduce the cost) they almost all do the same thing.

Home scale product developers copied one another like lemmings walking off a cliff and all included the same annoying feature which, frankly, sucks. Their scales fail to do the most basic core function well, helping cooks accurately measure food.

Some of the other scales I’ve tried add even stupider expensive to implement features, obviously added by marketers who believe more is better. For example, many support measurement units the vast majority of people do not need or want. Grams alone would be fine with me. Maybe ounces for Americans still stuck in the middle ages. But fluid ounces? Since a kilogram weighs the same as a liter of water, weighing anything but water could and would produce an inaccurate result whereas weighing water or similar fluids would yield the same measure in grams.

The core of value innovation is differentiation and low-cost. Adding a feature to a product or service that’s universally despised — a feature that adds to production cost — is the opposite of this ideal. Compounding that, scale manufacturers are causing recipes to be ruined, food to be wasted, and home cooks to be stressed out. All for absolutely no reason except to save an insignificant amount of money on battery life.

When creating a product or service, think about how it will be used by the majority of customers and noncustomers. Bring your thing home and try it yourself not once or twice but over and over again.

I worked for a consumer products company and went to one of their top reseller stores, a large flagship store not far from the manufacturer’s headquarters. I told the store manager I was from the manufacturer and asked if I could watch people buying the product and talk to his employees. He agreed.

Every salesperson at the store said buyers were confused at the enormous selection of similar products the manufacturer offered. Similarly, customers confirmed they were overwhelmed and confused. The manager confirmed that in the 6+ years he’d been at that store, nobody had come from headquarters to talk to either the salespeople or the customers. Marketers were proud to maintain the extensive product line, which was significantly more expensive than a scaled-down version.

When I brought my findings back that customers were underwhelmed, marketers rejected them saying their focus groups (with core buyers) showed there is no problem. A few years later, the division of that company was sold for scrap.

It’s easy to get stuck in the red ocean. The vast majority of MBA programs guide students there. Countless books talk about the virtues of competing. Marketers and engineers constantly benchmark and push to add “features” no matter how useless those features are. Yet, like a scale that stops measuring in the middle of a recipe, this is a recipe for disaster.