Specs and Feature Checklists

Everyone is aware of the shift that is happening in computing and technology. We’re moving away from the days where techno-lust was incited by the latest and fastest processor or the most amount of RAM. Now, it’s all about experience. Which gadgets (phone, tablet, laptop etc.) provide the best experience? Which tablet is the best to read on? Which laptop goes from off to loaded webpage the fastest? What app ecosystem has the best selection?

Apple is dominating the laptop market with the MacBook Air. It may not be the fastest in terms of raw numbers, but it’s winning the only numbers game that matters: sales.

Specs matter less for a variety of reasons. Paraphrasing MG Siegler, computers became “good enough”, Windows lost its iron grip (thus making comparisons harder) and new platforms made benchmarking impossible. The average non-nerd doesn’t understand what “Intel Core i7 2670QM (2.2 GHz, 6MB L3 Cache)” even means. They don’t actually care and they shouldn’t have to.

Feature Check Lists

In addition, selling products using neat little tables of feature check lists doesn’t work anymore. Imagine if tech reviews compared the iPad, Kindle Fire and Samsung Galaxy Tab using a little table 1:

Feature iPad Kindle Fire Galaxy Tab
Reading Yes Yes Yes
App Store Yes Yes Yes
Music Store Yes Yes No

In reality, the differences between reading on these devices are substantial and although they all may have access to a music store, which one provides a better experience?

The point is that in a post-spec world, comparing hardware or software based on a feature list is impossible and results in poor choices.

Trouble for Institutions

This shift in priorities causes problems in enterprise and insitutional IT departments. So many purchasing decisions for both hardware and software are made based on specs or feature check lists.

My MacBook Pro may not have the same checkmarks in a feature comparison as the Windows 7 Enterprise machine my colleague is using, but I’m more productive in the same IT environment as he is. On paper, it doesn’t appear that way, but paper and reality usually have very little correlation.

Reliance on feature checklists is especially problematic with software. Example: another department asks for a solution to allow event tickets to be purchased online. Someone in IT researches a few solutions that appear (based on a feature list) to be compatible with whatever system the organization is using. The list looks like this:

Online Checkout Solution
Compatibility: Works with blah, blah and blah
Encryption: Yes, industry standard
Processes credit cards: Yes
Allows custom forms: Yes
Generates registration lists: Yes

The IT analyst sees that the product meets all the requirements and the job is done. The product is bolted on 2 to the existing systems and everyone pats themselves on the back that they solved another challenge.

Meanwhile, Joe Customer is trying to actually use the online ticket purchasing system and is ripping his hair out because it’s user-hostile, requiring far too much work to understand and it looks like garbage. Mr. Customer decides that it’s not worth the trouble and ends up not buying tickets. The institution suffers as a result.

Institutions need to move away from making major purchasing decisions based on “this seems like it will do what we need it to do” and move to focusing on what the end user experiences. In their lives as consumers, customers have stopped caring about specs, so it’s only fair for them to expect the same from the institutions and companies they deal with.


  1. Yes, table comparisons are still useful and are normally far more detailed. ↩

  2. Lack of good integration is another huge problem. It ruins the user experience. ↩