Complexity Masks the Thing
2 min read

Complexity Masks the Thing

Complexity Masks the Thing

I’ve been training a lot lately for a bike ride across Iowa called RAGBRAI. When you start cycling long distances lots of things hurt: hands, butt, legs... the list goes on. And as each pain comes on, you buy a new thing to solve the problem. A new seat for your butt, gloves for your hands, new pedals to reduce the stress in your legs.

The interesting thing about cycling, though, is that the thing that hurts often originates from another problem on the bicycle — not where the pain is happening, but somewhere else downstream.

Hand problems are often related to posture in different areas of your upper body or core. Same goes for the legs and butt. The thing is never about what it seems it’s about.

In design school we teach students how to conduct user interviews, which is the process of talking with people as the interact with your designs to get feedback. One of the things you learn early on about user interviews is that often, when a user says X is a problem for them, there’s really some deeper underlying problem there. But it’s easy to forget this, and designers often fall into the trap of solving for a problem that they believe exists when it doesn’t and, furthermore, making the problem worse.

For instance, if your hands are hurting when you ride your bicycle you may be inclined to buy padded gloves. But the padded gloves can actually exacerbate problems and create numbness in your hands. The purported solution to the problem ultimately makes the problem worse. And the real solution to the problem requires a more fundamental change — something harder than simply introducing a new “thing” into the mix.

This is more broadly applicable. A stress relief app might actually make a user more stressed after they miss successive check-ins. Purchasing a new bookshelf to reduce clutter could actually invite the hoarding of more things. There are many examples of new pieces of technology and objects that create more noise than signal in an already-noisy world.

The answer might, more often than not, be to reduce and remove complexity rather than to add to it. The answer might be that things are already too complex, and rather than searching for solutions that add to an already-confusing system, we need to re-evaluate the system itself and search for the deeper underlying problems.

Remove the complexity, and you begin to see the shape of things.