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Every single modern washing machine has a significant number of functions, e.g. this machine from LG:

lg control panel washing machine

There are 13 modes, 5 spin settings, 5 temperature settings, 4 extra functions, a Start button, and a Power button. There are also 4 non-wash related settings (child lock, tub clean, etc). So in total you can choose from over a thousand (!) different combinations each time you start a wash, which seems like an overkill to me. Even after reading the manual I still don't understand what most of the modes do, so I just use the same options most of the time.

Why are the settings so complex? Is this UI actually intuitive to users?

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    Not my industry so maybe there's more to washing machines than I'm aware, but I believe this is more a marketing decision than a UI decision -- it makes the washer appear to have more features than the other available models. ("Wait, this one even has a 'baby care' feature! That'll be so much more convenient than having to bathe little Johnny by hand!") – Daniel Beck Nov 12 '16 at 19:46
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According to Wikipedia this is called Feature creep, creeping featurism or featuritis.

"The most common cause of feature creep is the desire to provide the consumer with a more useful or desirable product, in order to increase sales or distribution. However, once the product reaches the point at which it does everything that it is designed to do, the manufacturer is left with the choice of adding unneeded functions, sometimes at the cost of efficiency, or sticking with the old version, at the cost of a perceived lack of improvement."

The idea is that

more features = more desirable product => more sales

This article is also interesting on the topic. Here are some of the points from it which relate to your question more specifically:

  • A belief that this feature is “the one.” a.k.a. The feature linchpin that launches your product into unicorn status.
  • A (big) potential customer requests it
  • Your competitors have features that your product doesn’t provide
  • A belief that if you don’t build the feature someone else will and you’ll be at a competitive disadvantage (this is similar to the point above)
  • It would be great to give customers the option to utilize this feature
  • “Lots of” customers are requesting it.
  • You want to incorporate emerging trends

http://dilbert.com/strip/2001-04-14

Edit:

This article has some interesting points about kitchen appliances "feature (or setting) creep":

"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."

  • very nice answer :) – Devin Nov 13 '16 at 4:08
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    I'm not sure that "according to wikipedia" is actually the answer. What the Wiki gives is an answer that seems to make sense, but it doesn't really explain why washing machine manufacturers have spent 40 years producing more washing options than anyone ever uses. Just because something seems to make sense doesn't mean that its actually the reason. As with most of UX the first reference I know of to 'Feature Creep is in Don Normans 1988 "Psychology of Everyday Things" and that's not cited by the Wiki article. I can't remember if Don gives a 'why' or just notes it happening. – PhillipW Nov 13 '16 at 6:44
  • Some manufactures are selling the same hardware with different controls or just labels (and possibly slightly modified software) at different prices. A single feature can easily add 50 or 100 bucks (€$£) to the price tag, although it costs nothing extra in production (but maybe a bit more in development and maintenance). – Crissov Nov 16 '16 at 9:32
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Early washing machines basically had just one mode of operation. The user would use the knob dial to select the starting point of the washing cycle and it would then spin like a kitchen timer. I remember a washing machine that used the same control, but supported two different washing cycles: the dial would either turn clockwise or anti-clockwise. Then came modifier knobs for prewash, extra high or low temperature, spinning speed or water use. Today and mostly out of tradition, the radial knob is often still being used, but it selects programs that can differ by a lot of mechanical details and are not mere supersets of each other any more.

The UX has improved in that the user now can select what kind of laundry they’re putting into the drum (either fabric or degree of dirtyness and desired cleanness or a combination thereof). Sensors monitor ingoing and outgoing water to improve washing time (i.e. stop when clean, “eco mode”), but if it’s too quick or even just faster than estimated users will believe it malfunctioned. (Similarly, vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers must not be too silent.) There are even washing machines that can automatically choose the type and amount of detergent (but usually come with a vendor lock-in like inkjet printers). Although people might consider water, detergent and energy efficiency when originally purchasing the machine, many of them think “longer and hotter and faster means cleaner” when choosing the program.

The reasons why there are so many modes of operation are manifold.

Efficiency labels are based upon an optimal program, which most users would not choose. (In my washing machine, for instance, the longest-running program, at over 3 hours, is the one claimed to consume the least water and energy – how counter-intuitive!) It still needs to be there to get the “A+++”.

Many users like to feel in control, especially if they think they know exactly what they and their tools are doing. Like Linux nerds, stay-at-home family managers can achieve exceptional results, but they will also shoot themselves in the foot quite often and badly in the resourceful process leading to proficiency – which is often just self-assumed. Lab tests will show that the ideal program indeed works wonders when compared to an inappropriate one, and it’s up to the ambituous user – pride in accomplishment – to replicate such success at home. That means, optimal results require this level of control, but actual users will almost always lack the expertise or opportunity to achieve them, e.g. it’s cumbersome (and feels inefficient) to wash (and then dry, fold and stash) all whites, colors, hand-washables or delicates separately each and every time, especially if you (or your dear household members) want to wear some of them tomorrow.

Even if you know you’ll probably never use a feature, it feels good to know it’s still there if you’ll ever decide you need to use it anyway – clever salespeople know how to exploit this behavior: “You want kids, right? You (or your spouse) will love the extra hygiene of the Baby Care program. How could you not want the cleanest-possible clothes for your precious ones?” It’s much the same with vehicles, entertainment devices, (electronic) tools and telecom contracts, by the way.

Most people only need two programs in their washing machines: “freshen up” (sweat and dust) and, usually much less often, “intensive clean” (stains and dirt). They should only be bothered to sort by fabric and color if really necessary.

3

As PhillipW's comment points out, Alvaro hasn't really answered the question.

Washing machines, more than fridges, are an interesting peak into the morphing of culture by media and advertising. There's a good case to be made for the changing nature of relationships between people, and those things that they own, and where they live and how they relate to communities, being reflected in the design considerations, engineering properties and manufacturing qualities of washing machines.

The simple answer is "to sell more washing machines, for more profit", but the key words here, and the definitions important to understanding this, are the two different uses of "more", how they compound each other, and understanding the contextual market influences and evolving expectations upon (and of) technologically focused equipment versus the ageing out of previous expectations upon the lifespan and costs of mechanical equipment.

This is not more of an individual washing machine, and it's not more washing machines in total. It's a specific desire to differentiate those washing machines with higher prices and profits by features, because their core benefits are difficult to market. Other manufacturers have subsequently glommed onto this technique, and abuse it to pretend to be selling superior, more capable machines.

And this is where the crux of angst about Japanese, then South Korean, and subsequently Chinese made washing machines stems from.

The forces involved and that a washing machine must suffer can be tremendous: spin, wash cycles and heating of water. Three brutal mechanical activities, especially given the provisions of loads without balance and little to no control of the quality of water, detergent and dirt and filth, oils and bleaches on (or put on) the clothing.

Controlling the rate of a washing machine's operations are rather trivial when compared to the engineering, manufacturing, quality control, servicing and repairing of something that's built to take a veritable hiding of sustained use over many years and is/was central to a family's presentation of itself to the world, from the back rooms of a house.

The real difference, between a good washing machine and a great one, is the grade, capacity and power of internals: the engine and mechanics of its operation. But expecting people to spend the kinds of monies required to buy a great washing machine when its interface is simplistic is asking a lot of the buyer, and the salesman and his store.

So... some superficiality of added features, easy to add, increase the visible worth of a product so discussion can move to it not only having a better mechanical design and engineering, and having been produced to a higher standard of manufacturing, but it also does linens more gently, etc.

Eventually features became associated with quality.

Then other manufacturers realised they could mimic features without mimicking the hidden aspects of engineering quality, and make much larger profits, and sell more washing machines from this "category" more often, because theirs weren't serviceable and repairable, died earlier, and most people no longer communicate about the lifetime and quality of their washing machine experiences.

Samsung has now pushed this too far, and created exploding washing machines to match their exploding phones.

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    I like this answer because it suggests that the world of washing machines is COMPLEX. If a washing machine designer wanted to get ahead in the market, they might have done some focus groups and discovered that 'although people don't use most of the functions, that they won't however buy a machine without them'. So because manufacturers want to sell machines, that's what they make: machines with lots of functions. So really it might come down to irrational anxiety in the purchase process... What's needed to answer the question is some actual research on how people buy washing machines. – PhillipW Nov 13 '16 at 23:02
  • It's impossible to research how people buy expensive items because they won't tell you the truth. You can only see what they buy, not what they're responding too or why they're making decisions the way they do. We've just seen this on a grand scale with the USA election, wherein people not only obscure their decision making process, but also their decision. – Confused Nov 13 '16 at 23:31
  • I don't think comparing qualitative market research to political pollstering is a fair comparison ! You can learn a lot about your customers by having a good researcher talk to them. – PhillipW Nov 14 '16 at 8:04
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    Yes, this is one of the reasons "minimalism" becomes popular, as a swing back against any move towards too much arbitrary, nonsensical or misleading complexity. This question is good because it highlights the fact we've not yet reached this with washing machines, despite being well past the point we could pare down the UI and improve UX. Part of the delay might be them not having shareable, displayable status or position in our homes. So beyond presumed ability, there's no marketability for or of preening and public presentation of our new Bauhaus inspired washing machine. Though I'd like one. – Confused Nov 14 '16 at 10:46
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    btw, @JustAnotherPM, I'm fascinated by this question on a personal level. Our 5 year old washing machine has almost exactly this interface. Only difference is colours and a few extra modes on ours. And I only ever use one setting: Cotton (longest, strongest wash), hottest temp water, intensive, with a prewash and the fastest spin cycle. My wife complains that I don't know how to use it, and that I put the longest possible cycle on... but I've smelt myself. – Confused Nov 14 '16 at 10:50
0

When I was a young mom of four boys and a husband who was a commercial fisherman, I washed 2 loads per day 7 days per week. Our first washing machine was very basic. It had two speeds and only a basic wash cycle with a single rinse cycle. It was the lowest price available, yet it worked well for 12 years. I got a bonus check and decided to upgrade my washing machine that was still working. I sold it to another woman and got a model that had a setting to recycle the wash water. It emptied the soapy wash water into a wash tub and completed the rinse cycle for the first load. Then I put in dirtier (fisherman's smelly jeans and shirts) clothes and refilled the washer with the used sudsy water from the laundry tub and ran a second cycle. This was a very useful feature. There were also options for delicate cycle (for lingerie and fancy dress wear that could not withstand a high-speed agitation). There were temperature options for the wash cycle (hot, warm, and cold) as well as temperature options for the rinse cycle(s) (same) and a double rinse cycle. The double rinse cycle was good for babies diapers (yes, we used to wash diapers) and sheets etc. as some babies have very delicate skin that can rash easily from soaps. So the Baby Cycle is not simply a gimmick. I believe that extra features are not simply gimmicks to make people want to buy a fancy machine.

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