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How to Build Simpler Products

Written by Dave Bailey

Man on laptop struggling with complicated product idea

Are you over-engineering your products? Use these tips to reduce complexity and build simple products that delight customers—without making them complex.

You’ve hired a development team, built a product to address a consumer need, and found your first few customers. As you want to be ‘customer-driven’ you listen to their feedback and collate their ideas in a backlog.

‘Wow,’ says your head of engineering. ‘There’s a lot more to build.’

You add feature after feature, confident that it will make a difference. But despite customers telling you exactly what they want, the uptake is disappointing. Every new feature becomes one more feature to maintain, and the ever-more-complex codebase starts to slow progress.

The Other Way to Add Value

Product features aren’t the only way to help customers. According to Ogilvy chairman, Rory Sutherland, there are two ways to add value to a product:

  1. Find out what people want and find a clever way to deliver it to them.
  2. Work out what you can deliver and find a clever way to make people want it.

Engineers tend to gravitate to the first option because it’s both objective and logical. Ask customers what they want. Convert what they say into product requirements. Invent some clever features.

The issue is that value can never be completely objective. Nor is it necessarily completely logical.

Value, like art, is in the eye of the buyer. It depends on the circumstances and the customer’s frame of reference. And like art, value doesn’t always make sense. My wife is convinced that she needs a Chanel handbag and, to be honest, I can’t see any logic in that purchase at all.

Value is as subjective as it is objective and it’s a blind spot of many tech-driven companies. Indeed, some people believe all value is subjective.

When Tech Meets Marketing

Marketing has a bad reputation, especially among engineers. Critics will often say something like

Marketing is about making people want things they don’t need.’

However, this misses the point and marketers don’t get the credit they deserve for making people want things they do need.

Think about it. There are lots of things people need but don’t really want — vegetables, pensions, and, if you’re reading this essay, perhaps even your product.

If you’re building a tech product, and you want to increase the perception that it’s valuable, try to reframe the logical problem as a psychological problem.

Psychological Problems

If you’re serious about understanding why marketing works, you should read Rory Sutherland’s masterpiece, Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense.

Rory concedes that logical, engineering problems have their appeal — after all, you can measure them — but they can be time-consuming and expensive to solve. Paying attention to your customer’s state of mind while experiencing the problem often provides alternative, more imaginative solutions that are cheaper and quicker to implement.

In his 2014 Ted Talk, Rory discussed the question: ‘How do we make the journey from London to Paris better?’ The engineering solution, as implemented, was to spend £6 billion on new tracks that reduced the journey time by 30 minutes. Rory proposed an alternative solution that would cost half the price:

Employ all of the world’s top male and female supermodels, pay them to walk the length of the train, handing out free Chateau Petrus for the entire duration of the journey . . . and people will ask for the trains to be slowed down!’

It might be tongue in cheek but there’s a real insight here.

Rather than focus on an objective issue — the duration of the journey — consider the subjective issue: it’s boring. It’s far cheaper to adjust the perception of the trip by making it entertaining than it is to fix the engineering issue.

A Compendium of Psychological Reframes

Rory often sprinkles his talks with some ingenious psychological reframes of customer problems. While many of them don’t necessarily resolve the objective issue at hand, they are often ‘good enough’ and far cheaper to implement than logical alternatives.

I’ve collected some of my favourites here, not because I think they’re guaranteed to work, but because I find them compelling.

1. ‘There should be more cash registers

  • Logical interpretation: We need more cash registers. Let’s buy and install more cash registers and hire more staff to operate them.
  • Psychological interpretation: The customer is feeling hungry and impatient. Let’s place free peanuts by the queue. Customers place extra value on what they know you don’t have to do. Thanks, Five Guys.

2. ‘The elevator doors take too long to close

  • Logical interpretation: We need faster doors. Let’s optimise the door closing algorithm.
  • Psychological interpretation: The customer is feeling restless so let’s install a fake button that people can press (this is actually done in the real world). The button doesn’t have to do anything at all.

3. ‘This wine is ok but not great

  • Logical interpretation: The wine isn’t high enough quality. Let’s upgrade the manufacturing equipment.
  • Psychological interpretation: The customer is feeling skeptical. Let’s make the bottle 20% heavier. We judge books by covers.

4. ‘I can’t decide which product plan to choose

  • Logical interpretation: The product plans’ descriptions aren’t clear. Let’s expand on the features and their benefits.
  • Psychological interpretation: The customer is feeling overwhelmed so let’s add a label that says ‘most people choose this plan’. Customers use simple rules of thumb to make complex decisions.

5. ‘I’m unsure whether this product will work for me

  • Logical interpretation: We need to prove the product works so let’s commission some scientific trials.
  • Psychological interpretation: The customer is feeling suspicious so let’s reassure them by creating a high-quality video with customer testimonials. Customers use what they see as a proxy for quality.

6. ‘The competitor has a feature you don’t

  • Logical interpretation: We need to copy our competitor's features. Let’s add new features to the product.
  • Psychological interpretation: The customer is feeling indecisive. Let’s draw their attention to one of our unique features — even if it isn’t our favourite feature. Customers look for an easy way to justify their choice.

7. ‘Oh no, we’ve got an air shuttle instead of an air bridge

  • Logical interpretation: We need more air bridges so let’s get planning permission.
  • Psychological interpretation: The customer is feeling aggrieved. Let’s explain that Air Shuttles take you straight to passport control. When we have no choice in a situation, we look for the bright side to avoid feeling bad.

8. ‘The elevator is too slow

  • Logical interpretation: We need faster elevators so let’s replace the motor and cables.
  • Psychological interpretation: The customer is feeling bored so let’s install mirrors inside the elevator. A mirror is all many people need to entertain themselves.

Clearly, Rory spends a fair amount of time in elevators.

Focus on Feelings

We’re getting better at tracking our customer’s behaviours, yet we still have relatively little insight into their emotional reality. When it comes to human behaviour, emotions are very much in the driving seat.

Next time you look at your feature list, pause and ask this question:

How can we under-complicate this?’

Get curious about the emotional reality of your customers. Because maybe your expensive solution won’t buy them happiness — but something far simpler will.

Continue reading about product development:

Originally published Apr 8, 2020, last updated Aug 21, 2021

management marketing product

About Dave Bailey

Hi, I’m Dave Bailey and I coach tech CEOs from Series A to pre-IPO. Join 20,000 entrepreneurs who receive my new essay every week. 

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