I recently downloaded an application called Delicious Library when I found myself having to pare down my selection of books to take on my move to New York. The program has the ability to read the barcode on the back of a book via the camera built in to a laptop, and automatically import the title, photo, and other information about the book. I soon found myself intoxicated by the periodic beep signaling that the barcode on the back of my book had been successfully recognized. After importing some a hundred or so books, I considered what I had just done and why. I suppose others who frequently lend their books, or have far more extensive libraries would find more use than me, but I had really just spent 30 minutes waving my books in front of my computer.
Having just read the first chapter of Predictably Irrational, I realized I had just judged the value of the software using a relative, rather than absolute frame of reference. Dan Ariely suggests that it is easier to judge whether one thing is better than another, rather than if it is good in an absolute sense. I think part of the allure of Delicious Library is that it takes the laborious process of entering ISBN numbers by hand and completely automates it. Thus the novelty prompts a useless comparison: “holding the book up to the camera for a second is so much easier than the tedious, error-prone process of typing in information.” The logical question of course should be “does having this database of information help me?”
The bottom line is that a feature need not provide real utility to all potential users–the mere potential is enough to draw people in. I think the same dynamics are what drive the sales of much new technology. Consumers are deluged by products capable of doing amazing things and distracted from asking the simple but important question: “Will this actually improve my life?”