The Product Complexity Curve

New features increase customer value until the complexity tips the balance and actually decreases value

How do you know when you’ve hit the tipping point of the complexity curve?

Unfortunately, there is no perfect indicator. It would be amazing if we could have a product EKG that would alert a code red when the value curve starts to flatten out. The reality is that we have to use several different data points as proxies and indicators.

  • Feature usage
  • Product paths and navigation flows
  • Churn and reasons for churn
  • Time to onboard
  • Time to value
  • Net promoter score
  • Support resolution times
  • Customer surveys and interviews

How do you prevent hitting the tipping point?

It starts with awareness. Your entire team should be thinking about the product complexity curve with each new feature they build. Different industries and personas will have different thresholds for complexity. Make sure you understand your customer segments and personas well enough to know this. One thought exercise for new features is, ‘how will the business be different if we build this feature’ vs ‘what happens to the business if we don’t build this feature’. The general rule of thumb is to not build “nice to have” features.

Facebook profile page designs changed to reduce complexity
Salesforce home page designs
  1. Stop building new features
  2. Wall off experiences within your product to hide some of the features. For example, you might have basic features easily accessible and more advanced features accessible through deeper navigation
  3. Change the trajectory of your complexity curve
Through thoughtful design and hard choices you can change the trajectory of your complexity curve

What do you do if you’ve hit the tipping point?

You may have to face the reality that some features need to be killed off. First, analyze the usage for features and if there are features that add complexity or clutter to the product that are used by less than 5% of your customer base, then you should consider deprecating the feature. This is extremely hard to do because there is usually a small group of customers getting value from even your least used features. You’ll have to decide if reducing complexity for the greater good is more valuable than that small group of users, even if they churn because you kill the feature. If you do kill features be sure to have an internal and external communications plan.

Respect the curve

The bottom line is that no company is immune from the tipping point of the product complexity curve. There is no perfect way to forecast it or to measure it, but there are a lot of indicators. Be thoughtful about the value to complexity ratio. Staying on top of it and making small, ongoing improvements to ease-of-use and simplicity will be much less costly than waiting for it to topple over.



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Johny Wudel

Johny Wudel

Product leader specializing in B2B SaaS. Adjunct professor of product strategy and product management at Brigham Young University.