There are some products I love to use despite them being far from perfect. My manual espresso machine is awkward to fill, the steam knob sticks and falls out, and the drip tray is a pain to remove. But I forgive all of these faults.

There are some products that I care very little about but they perform faultlessly. In seven years my washing machine has washed clothes without a murmur of discontent. Sometimes though, the door doesn’t close properly so the machine beeps and the wash cycle doesn’t start. The inconvenience of returning to close the door never fails to annoy me.

Why is it that I’m more likely to overlook faults and quirks in some products, but have no tolerance for less-than-perfect performance from others? To explain, we need to understand three different parts of a product: core, tangible and augmented. We also need to explore the differences between features and benefits.

Features are important to product engineers—they are the physical attributes of the product: ten wash programmes, a 500ml brass boiler, an audible door alarm or a removable drip tray. The overall feature-set defines a particular product and allows product to be easily differentiated.

Features are unimportant to us as consumers. We think of benefits: How does this product make my life easier, richer or more exciting? We don’t buy a washing machine just because it has 10 wash cycles, we buy a solution to a problem: we want clean clothes, but we don’t want to spend our valuable time hand-washing them.

The core product is the solution to my problem—a machine to clean my clothes. Once I’ve identified a washing machine as the solution, a few more specific benefits help me to decide which particular model to buy: I may have different types of clothes to clean, or be concerned about the environmental impact of cleaning clothes.

The tangible product is the physical realisation of the solution to my problem. This is where the benefits (consumer language) are translated into product features (technical language). The need to wash different types of clothes becomes 10 wash cycles. My environmental concerns become an efficient pump and motor. By considering the benefits required by a wider group of consumers, a tangible product with a broad set of features is created. It is important to note that, as an individual consumer, some of these features may not be of use to me (for example, I only ever use three of the 10 wash programmes on my machine).

Finally, the augmented product is used to tailor the physical product even further. It consists of features that enhance the physical product. For my washing machine that might be a service offered to remove my old broken machine and deliver and install my new one. As a consumer I still interpret these features as benefits—removing my old machine means I don’t have to get friends around to load it into a van (that I don’t have) and deliver it to the scrap merchant. Of course, if I don’t have an old machine, this augmented feature isn’t a benefit.

So, back to the original question: why is it that I get frustrated with my quietly efficient washing machine and not my temperamental espresso machine? It comes back to that core product and the benefit at the heart of my purchase.

I purchased the washing machine to free the time I’d waste washing my clothes by hand. When the door doesn’t close and the machine beeps I have to return to it to restart the wash cycle. In that moment it reminds me of the chore I hate—it has, on some small level, broken its core promise to me.

My espresso machine never promised to make my life easier. I didn’t buy an Italian manual espresso machine to just make coffee—I bought it to provide a ritualistic escape where I can destress and focus on the measured task of manually producing a good espresso coffee. It doesn’t matter if chrome plating is missing. The quirks of emptying the drip tray have become part of the ritual. In this case, lesser performance from minor features doesn’t detract from the core benefit.

My espresso machine has become loved. My washing machine is merely functional.

We are all bombarded every day by marketers touting the latest and greatest product enhancements and advertising encouraging us to choose “better” and more feature-packed products. I say ignore it all. As consumers, we can use this knowledge about benefits and features, and the core, tangible and augmented product to make smarter purchases. The first question we should ask is always “what is the problem I need to solve—what is the core benefit I’m looking for from this product? We shouldn’t let ourselves be swayed by unimportant features: does it make a difference to me if the washing machine has 5, 10 or 15 washing cycles if it contains the three I actually need?

One of the advantages of a Consumer NZ test is our independent assessment of product function. Our lab testing of my washing machine showed that it functions rather well. My coffee machine performed OK, but it wasn’t functionally the greatest choice. Determining the benefits for you is impossible in some cases—we could never measure the kind of satisfaction I get from my espresso machine. That’s where we hand responsibility over to you, to think about what it is you really want from a product—what is important in your particular situation. Between us, we can ensure that you make informed purchase decisions that suit your needs and make you a happy consumer.

About the author:

Paul Smith manages Consumer’s product test programme. He has spent most of his career pushing user-focused quality into the design and manufacture of cars in the UK, and educating design engineers of the future in New Zealand. Paul wants Consumer’s independent tests to empower people to make informed purchase decisions. He’ll only be satisfied when he rids the world (or at least New Zealand) of underperforming, poorly designed products. Paul’s favourite items are his steel fixed-wheel bicycle and Dieter Rams-designed Braun travel clock.