Product Leadership Book Excerpt: Simplicity

The following is a chapter from my newly published book Product Leadership.

“I have written you a long letter because I did not have time to write a short one.”
– Blaise Pascal

Simplicity is a design philosophy that prefers products leaner on features over loaded ones. The idea is that a simple product done right offers more flexibility and variety in usage options, and consequently more value to the customer. A simple product is more likely to become a platform for user creativity and extensibility, simply because the absence of certain features makes this necessary. It facilitates this by not fixating on specific features, leaving room for others to do so. On the business side, the hope is that a simpler product will enable upsell opportunities. Simpler products are also often (but not always) cheaper to build.

There’s something magical about simple products. They allow the user to focus on the essence with minimal distraction, thus making the product stickier and engagement deeper. They are often more elegant than their more complex cousins, and tend to have a longer lifespan.

As Blaise Pascal noted, getting to simple is complex. A typical creative process is additive in nature. People get attached to the features they have added and find it difficult to let go. Mature products are more likely to be elaborate patchworks than minimalist artworks. Add to that the ubiquitous engineering principal “If it works, don’t touch it” and you sometimes end up with an amalgam of old and new features held together with zip ties and duct tape.

How do you break out of this death spiral? By insisting on simplicity. Simplifying will cost you, but it’s worth it. Ruthlessly cut out deadwood. Redesign the product to be simpler. Refactor the code to be nimbler. Re-engineer your processes to be more efficient. Be the steward of simplification in your company. True to form, simplify your own (and your team’s) habits: write shorter requirements documents, hold fewer meetings with fewer attendees, and transfer ineffective employees to greener pastures.

Simplification is a constant battle, and too many people succumb to the complexity beast. If it seems too difficult to beat, it’s probably worth it. Don’t give up. Insist on simple.