In product design and life, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. All too often, we contrive complex, Rube Goldberg-like reasons for why things are or are not working. These explanations serve a purpose, albeit an empty one: they pander to our ego and self-image. Individuals who are particularly intelligent also tend to like long-winded explanations because they enjoy “using their brains” and playing with complex ideas more than they enjoy simple, razor-sharp explanations. Simplicity is boring. There are too few variables. This is one of the reasons that so many apps coming out of Silicon Valley take seemingly strange, even nonsensical, turns.*
In the world of design, a product's problems can be attributed to three root causes:
1. The product didn’t solve a real problem in people’s lives
2. The product was too challenging to use (too complicated)
3. The product was forgotten (and no reminder was sent)
We can unpack all three of these explanations as much as we want, which my nerdy self likes to do endlessly. But such exercises in analysis don’t necessarily add much to the fundamental insight contained in each statement, since each of these explanations consists of simple common sense. In many ways, this is the core of good product design: common sense that’s liberally applied.
These same explanations are at the heart of most personal shortcomings in our own lives. We stop exercising because it isn’t solving a tangible problem in our lives. Sure, we may look better, but if we’re not dating or dealing with a concrete, immediate health problem, it’s not immediately useful to us.
We might stop eating a Paleo diet because it’s hard to find the right food at nearby restaurants and cooking just takes too much time. In other words, it’s too challenging.
We might stop reading before bed because, in the tired blur of the evening, we forget to pick up the novel that's been in progress finish for months. We aren’t reminded.
While it’s tempting to launch into complex explanations for these personal shortcomings (“I wasn’t raised this way…”, “If only my parents…”, “I guess I just don’t value fitness…”, “I’m just not talented enough…”, etc.) we should first ask ourselves if there’s a simple reason why these things weren’t done. Could it be that these “shortcomings” are actually not shortcomings at all? It’s quite possible (and usually the case) that you didn’t read or go running because these tasks are actually not very important to you. It doesn’t solve a problem in your life. It also might be the case that you forgot to do it—we have busy lives, after all—or that what you’re asking yourself to do is too challenging for your skill level.
Whatever you do, don’t get lost in your mind and come up with convoluted explanations based on slivers of evidence excavated from your memory. We all have failures in our lives, but the causes of those failures are usually a bit simpler—and a bit less nefarious—than we think. Complex explanations make for good stories, but rarely make for good remedies.
*Don’t even get my started on the literature coming out of our universities.
Image: Steve Jurvetson / Flickr