Keep It Simple: How to Prevent Complexity Bias in Product Development

No matter its stage, the objective of any product should be to solve a problem in the simplest, most elegant manner possible. However, many people believe complex problems cannot be solved with simple solutions. This belief introduces a new challenge into the product development process, the concept of complexity bias.

Complexity bias is more than refusing to believe a simple solution can solve a complex problem; it results in valuable time and resources wasted on developing a solution that makes the product development team feel smarter and more capable. This positive feeling feedback loop is dangerous. Product teams may feel like they are doing the right thing, but instead they are prioritizing their egos instead of working in the best interest of the problem and product.

The negative impact of complexity bias causes product teams to:

1. Overbuild

Overbuilding is a manifestation of ego protection. Instead of realizing the problem can be solved with a simple solution, many insist on producing something complex and more impressive. Product teams create more work for themselves and overbuild even when it is not in the best interest of their product or users.

2. Look inward

Because product teams often equate complex problem with complex solutions, they convince themselves that users cannot possibly understand the situation at hand. Instead of involving users and listening to their suggestions, product teams convince themselves they understand the problem best and develop a solution they believe is in the best interest of the user. However, this is a huge mistake that excludes critical user feedback from the development process and can ultimately negatively impact the success of a product.

3. Lack prioritization

The more complex a solution, the less we have to decide what matters most. It is easier to not force ourselves to prioritize ruthlessly and to protect the sanctity of what ends up part of a product.

Overcoming complexity bias is accomplished by executing against and defending the belief that the simplest, most elegant solution is what is in the best interest of the product and user. The following principles can prevent complexity bias from negatively impacting the success of your product:

  1. Understand the problem at an expert level.

It is nearly impossible to create a simple, elegant solution if you do not fully understand the problem. Understanding the intricacies of the problem provide clarity on how to develop the most simple, elegant solution. The more complex the problem, the more imperative it is to understand the elements of the problem at the most granular level possible. Conversely, not understanding a problem at an expert level will result in complexity bias. If a product team does not have the understanding and context to solve a problem simply, they will attempt to solve it in ways that are more complex, broad, and less successful.

  1. Defend the product from user complexity bias.

User validation is a crucial aspect of countering complexity bias. It is important to note that users are not immune to complexity bias either. This is because users may not be aware of the concept of complexity bias and are not educated on how to avoid it. They may push back and think the solution offered is too simple. This is a manifestation of complexity bias affecting their ability to believe a simple solution can solve a complex problem. Therefore, product teams must proactively defend the simplest, most elegant solution during user research and validation.

3. Iterate with users during each round of review and validation.

Keep looking for ways you can remove unnecessary complexities to create a simple, elegant solution. Most product teams do not complete enough rounds of user experience simplification. They reach a point where they believe they have cut and simplified as much as possible. However, user experience simplification is an ongoing effort of evaluation and refinement. Regardless of the stage of the product (net new or new version), when a product team can substantiate why every interaction and piece of functionality is in the product, then they have accomplished the simplest, most elegant solution.

In conclusion, when we overthink product development and lack a deep understanding of the user problem, we allow complexity bias to drive the solution and associated negative impact. By following these fundamental principles of product creation, product teams can successfully overcome complexity bias to develop a simple, elegant solution.

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