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Our apps are too complicated

George Brooks
October 1, 2018

We launch with products that are too complicated.

I’ve spent the greater part of a decade designing and building digital products with and for startups, early ventures, and brands. Our aim always starts the same. Choose an audience, uncover a clear problem and then build the simplest solution possible to solve that problem. Iterate on that solution to build value and achieve product-market fit. I can honestly tell you that I’ve only seen it done right a handful of times.

And here’s the problem…. it is complicated! Simplicity is not simple.

Building a simple product or at least the illusion of a simple product takes a careful dose of both art, science, and luck. We live in a culture that expects to be instantly satisfied, while at the same time completely satisfied. So there is this feeling that creating a simple solution will come across as being unfinished and not valuable because it’s not as robust as other apps they may have seen. We are distracted by the “Facebook”(s) of the world that have spent YEARS and millions and millions of dollars iterating, testing, building, breaking, failing, scrambling, grinding to build what we now know today as a large ecosystem of apps.

We forget

We forget that even simple apps have a lot of moving pieces under the hood. Authentication, email services, texting, user accounts, file management and image uploading. There’s subtle education cues, micro-interactions, and real-time interactions. There are 3rd party services, analytics tracking, customer support tools, and social authentication options. But above the kicking under the water, it needs to appear that the experience is smooth and intuitive. Simple.

We forget to listen to ourselves. We preach “Build fast and break things”. We quote lean principles to “build, measure, learn”. We ooh and aww over design concepts that look simple, fluid, intuitive. Then we turn around and say, “but what if we add this”… “Yeah, that absolutely has to be there or we’ll be missing out on a HUGE group of customers.”

And that huge group is usually one…. maybe two individuals that probably looked at our solution before launch and said, “you know what would be great is if…..” The next we know, we change launch timelines, testing schedules, and budgets, and get back to work building yet again another feature.

Everything is shiny!

It’s always just a bit greener on the other side. And the other side for us is more complicated, bigger, and with more moving parts. It’s a space shuttle with switches, backup systems, huge amounts of fuel, a communication system with mission control, and ability to survive in SPACE. But the problem we are trying to solve is how to commute across town for a cup of coffee.

It’s clear that as humans we are never satisfied. We work like crazy to get degrees, to get jobs, to get better jobs, to have status in life that leads to the next status in life, that leads to the next status in life, which leads us longing for the simplicity of life before all that status and responsibility. We are never content. This plays out in our businesses as well. We believe that if we just had a bit more function we’d be better. A little more value with one more service, one more feature, we will be faster, stronger, richer, and more people will like us and want what we have to sell.

The result is we are too late and too hard understand

We took too long, spent too much money, and a now have a solution that will be harder to sell because there is more to explain. Our own tunnel vision on our products leads us to see a “happy path” of exactly what we believe our users will see. We see what WE want. Value where value may or may not be. We are paralyzed by the fear of releasing a product only to find that it wasn’t perfectly accepted. We want so badly to release an instant success that sometimes we just never release. Or we release far too late and far too complicated. And now we not only have to sell a bigger more expensive app, but a more complicated one that we’ll have to teach them to use, and support them as they struggle to grasp so many features.

By the time we’ve shown the world our incredible solution to their problem, we spent so much money building this more complicated fully featured experience that our capital runway is shot! We’re out of cash. No resources to market, test, iterate. We have a very expensive, robust solution that we can not afford to tell people about or learn what we did right or wrong. We can’t adjust the product to truly solve the problem in a way that people will pay, continue to pay, and tell other to pay.

Let me be clear. This does not mean that your product is ugly, or isn’t somewhat intuitive. It may look great or you may have turned a simple solution into a MONSTER! It doesn’t mean that you’ve lost all hope, but likely your missed an EXTREMELY important part of the cycle. Learning.

“Simplicity is hard to build, easy to use, and hard to charge for. Complexity is easy to build, hard to use, and easy to charge for.”

Chris Sacca (A venture investor, entrepreneur, and proprietor of one of the most successful venture capital funds in the US.)

So what are going to do about this?

Let’s get back to the basics

I’m going to steal a lot from Lean, Agile, Power of Habit, and about 300 other medium articles on the topic, but let’s own actually doing these things and not just talking about them.

Open up

Lets all agree to be WAY more open with our ideas. Stop shoving our heads under a rock out of fear that we don’t have it all figured out. Let’s stop worrying that someone is going to steal our ideas. “Keeping it close” is fine, but not so close that you literally never move. Share your concepts and ideas early and often. Build rough prototypes, wireframes, design clickable prototypes, functional prototypes. Build something. Pitch decks and business plans sitting in a folder on your desk won’t solve any problems.

Test more often.

There is no reason that you shouldn’t be testing everything. Interview potential customers to prove you’re actually solving a problem. Test the name. Test the brand. Test interactions. Test colors. Test concepts of new features. Test smaller chunks of work. You can always design more, but in testing what you might find is that less accomplishes the same outcome with small development and less cost and reduce product complexity.

But don’t let testing stop you from moving forward.

Learn fast and move forward

After testing, use that data you found to make decisions and more forward. (I think I’ll write more on this later) It’s so easy to get stuck in feeling like you don’t know the right decision to make and at the risk of getting it wrong, you don’t make any decision at all, and then you’re stuck.

Plan for sales, marketing, and growth.

Once again, I’ll say it. If you believe the idea “If we build it, they will come” you will be sadly disappointed. Think about your rollout plan. Start pre-selling even while you’re testing. Get people to commit to your solution even before you have it built. Consider your influence. If your business or service may have a geographic rollout, start planning how you will roll out to each area, but PLEASE don’t shotgun all geographies at once.

Plan to spend money to get qualified leads. Build an email list, pump social media, hire a marketing team, but preferably one that does not suggest that you buy banner ads. Just walk away if they even mention banner ads.

But above all, start selling NOW! Do not wait until you have the “perfect product” to start selling.

Business of people, not apps

I will likely find a way to have that headline be in every blog I write, but the long and short of it is that as we build our businesses and apps, we MUST be focused on our users and customers. We must treat our customers like kings and queens. Serving them beyond all costs (figuratively speaking). We must listen to them with intense focus. Carefully collecting data, affirming their requests, feedback, critiques, etc. Court your customers. Not like tender. More like your grandparents treated each other. Open the door for them, buy them flowers, meet their parents. (more to come on this topic soon)

Look for trends, not “one-offs”

Finally, we won’t take the loudest voice demanding another feature as a trend that all the users will benefit from. We’ll take the feedback from that loud voice and test the request across a larger group. We’ll look for trends in requests or feedback and, we’ll make decision based on the need, not on the impulse.

We can do this!

Given the pace at which apps are hitting the market. Given the statistics that 9 in 10 business fail within their first 3–5 years, let’s work hard to build smaller more focussed solutions to our customer’s problems. Lets test and learn quickly how to iterate forward. And let’s share and sell early while we carefully hold the hands of our customers building a meaningful relationship that they will invest into our solution, service, and value long term.

We can do this. Actually, we’d love to do this with you! Let’s talk

Let us know how you work to keep focused, and avoid making things too complex. Leave a comment below.

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