How to win by doing less.

Ross Gales — May 14, 2021

We live in an age of more. We’re buying more stuff, have more information at our fingertips and expect more of the products and services we use….more support, more transparency, more value….more, more, more.

Digital product companies are more in tune with their users than ever before, they have more data, more research and they just keep adding more to their products in the never-ending pursuit of growth. On and on it goes as they pump out more features, deliver more value and hit more targets until one day someone else enters the market and steals all their customers by doing less! They have fewer features, fewer people, less complexity and yet your customers love them more.

How is it that in the race to scale our products and services we’ve lost the ability to focus on what matters? This sense that more research, more features, more options, more data, more value is the path to success is a false dichotomy.

Maybe it’s time we stopped doing more, and did less, well.

The term “less is more”, championed for decades in design circles, was originally coined in 1947 by one of the founders of modern architecture, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. Industrial designer Dieter Rams, of Braun fame, had his own take of “Less, but better”.

At Pollen, we call it disciplined simplicity. because simplicity is hard. Taking things away is harder than putting things in. Sometimes it takes an external unbiased eye, with discipline and focus, to advise where your efforts are adding value or where they’re just increasing complexity. The long-term benefits can be the difference between life or death for a product.

The decluttering movement of 2019 made us rethink our consumerist ways, focussing on what sparks joy and removing what doesn’t. Marie Kondo reminded us that we can become emotionally attached to items in our homes. We can also become attached to features in our products. It can be hard to let go having invested time and money. It’s called the sunk cost bias, where we continue to invest in a losing proposition because of what it’s already cost us. No one wants to admit that time, energy and money have been wasted. Sometimes you do indeed need to kill your darlings.

The problem is that promotions are rarely doled out to those who admit prior efforts were a waste of money. People don’t get paid to remove features, and accolades aren’t earned for simplifying. So instead we’re incentivised to build something new and shiny.

Don’t get me wrong, we all love deploying something new and shiny; pouring everything into a new whizz-bang piece of delightful functionality. Teams love bringing a new baby into the world as it boosts morale, our managers love it because they can show it off to leadership, marketing love it because it gives them a carrot to dangle and shareholders love it because it promises short term gains.

Jeff Bezos put it well; “A company shouldn’t get addicted to being shiny because shiny doesn’t last.”

However the main issue may not be that we incentivise building new shiny things, it may, in fact, be that we mere humans have a natural bias when problem-solving, and wanting to add more rather than subtract. A recent study shows that people default to thinking of additive solutions and that finding subtractive alternatives often requires more cognitive investment.

Co-Author of the study Benjamin Converse said:

“The conclusion from our studies is that when people are trying to change something, their habit is to ask, “What can I add?” rather than to ask, “What can I subtract or add?” They are fully capable of thinking of subtractions, they just tend to think of adding first — and, often, they choose an additive solution before they even consider a subtractive one.”

So when asking how can we make our product better our natural bias is to think of things we can add, when the best solution may actually be to take something away.

At Pollen, we start the conversation of simplicity by carrying out a quick audit of your product’s features and functionality against customer needs and usage. We set out to better understand what it is that users want and expect of your product, and how good it is at getting that job done.

One of the key measures we use is “Customer Effort” which scores the level of anxiety a user experiences when completing a task. We labour over reducing this score. Why? Because if we can deliver the same amount of value as our competitors with less anxiety or effort for our users, they will prefer us.

The race to reduce complexity is the new product battlefront, if you’re not already focussed on reducing customer effort, someone else is.

The problem with complexity is that not everyone can see it. I call it complexity blindness because everything makes sense for those close to a product and so it’s not seen as complex.

It’s only through the eyes of the customer that complexity can be seen.

Ross Gales

Watch people using your product for the first time and complexity will fast become evident.

Like any good piece of design, if a feature in your product is not adding value it should be removed. Start by asking your team and more importantly your customers how their product experience would change if a piece of functionality didn’t exist. If the answer is ‘not much’ then remove it.

When you’re looking for the next wave of growth, consider a complexity audit before you start ideating on new features. Often a 3rd party will look at your product more objectively help you see through the fog of complexity blindness and advise on where you’re adding the most value and where you should simplify.

Maybe your next move should be to do less. Your product will be better for it and your customers may just love it too.