The simplest explanation is often the correct one. This principle is the basis of Occam’s Razor, which I’ve written about before. In 2019 I dialled up its application as we’ve started building Drop. That’s because I believe that a significant amount of time can be saved by examining the simplest explanations when making products and serving customers.
The reason we don’t is that the simplest explanations can look, well, too simple. As a result, these explanations are paid lip service, and non-essential features get designed in an attempt to make the product or service look more appealing.
The irony is that when we look back on a venture’s history, there is often a handful of simple explanations that make or break a company. The last 20 years of the consumer internet has countless examples of decisions or events, which changed the course of a venture’s history. And of course, it’s easy to apply a reductionist view with hindsight. When you’re in the daily grind of building a company and firefighting, it’s challenging to know what effect each decision will have on the companies future. That said, I have two favourites that serve as a constant reminder to seek out and actively test the simplest explanations.a
A simple, real-life explanation
The first is close to home and relates to one of my ventures called AirShr. We launched a product to help radio listeners capture moments (interviews, music, ads and announcements) when they were driving. In hindsight, our name could have been more straightforward (it needed to be spelt out when announced on the radio). And we could have built AirShr as software that integrated within radio apps with large existing userbases. Instead, we launched standalone apps that needed to be downloaded by listeners before they started using AirShr.
If acted upon, these two simple explanations may have changed the companies trajectory.
Airbnb is my second favourite example of a simple explanation. On the Masters of Scale Podcast, Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO and Co-Founder, explains that the addition of photos to accommodation listings significantly improved Airbnb’s acceptance with people looking for a place to stay. While Airbnb had to hack processes to enable the taking, uploading and presentation of photos until smartphone photography became mainstream, acting on this simple product development paid off big time!
What are we hearing and why are we building?
I think the main reason why founders don’t act on simple explanations is their ego.
We invest enormous energy in convincing others that our vision and product are game-changing. In doing so, we can start believing our message and discount simple explanations for fear of creating a mediocre product.
I have suffered from this before.
I have also overcome this and now use a tactic to tune into simple explanations.
It involves a mindset shift. From the need to create novelty to a desire to listen and become the expert of the problem. All while knowing that when it comes time to reflect on the venture’s life, there will inevitably be a handful of simple explanations to describe the companies success or death.
This tactic has three components.
First, I keep the AirShr and Airbnb experiences in the front of my mind. In other words, I use these examples to be vigilant in checking my ego at the door and identifying simple explanations that are likely to inform product development.
Second, I ask for evidence to support why we’re building particular product features. And research papers or articles won’t cut it. The evidence must include insight from a cohort of humans in our target market.
Third, I continually ask (often myself), what are we missing? This question helps to reinforce my desire to look for the simple explanations that might be hiding in plain sight.
I encourage my team and mentees to start developing a habit with this tactic as quickly as possible. By identifying an example like Airbnb but which make sense for them, so they have a reference point for a simple explanation. Gathering evidence for product development and then asking, ‘what are we missing?’ then becomes second nature.
One last thing…
I often find that personal experience is at the heart of why most simple explanations are dismissed. And I think it’s wrong to accept this as a reason. A sample size of one is always tricky, but more importantly, their context is likely to be very different from those for which you are designing.
My tip is to always be on the lookout for a simple explanation. They might not be sexy. They might not use cutting edge technology. But they are the clues to help you move people closer to happiness or further away from fear. These are the hallmarks of products that people love, and they are often hiding in plain sight.