Iceberg method (of product development)

February 04, 2021

RecruitLab applicant tracking software had its one-year birthday on February 1st 2021. Thank you, Paavo and Marie!

I remember a phrase from a user interview in Feb 2020 - from a recruitment agency manager about recruiters: “details make their head hurt”. Being hard to use and having a steep learning curve are common complaints (and thus fears) about applicant tracking systems (and maybe business software in general).

No problem - if users don’t want complex software, let’s only build simple software.

Uh-oh!

They still have pretty complex needs.

For me, the way around this contradiction has been what I call the Iceberg Method. Of course, I stole the name:

The iceberg theory or theory of omission is a writing technique coined by American writer Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway believed the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface, but should shine through implicitly.

I’ve been trying to apply this principle to building software products - to only show the top 10% and “hide” everything that could distract the user from the most useful features. This should ease the learning curve so that getting the initial value out of our product is a matter of minutes.

An obvious downside of this approach is the reduced discoverability of advanced features. If you hide it, they won’t find it. I imagine the solution is to use consistent UI patterns to indicate that there’s always more to it. To establish the implication of “deeper meaning features”. This way, if the user discovers a feature once, they learn to discover features in other places.

This style could be followed recursively - once an advanced flow is started, it should still look relatively simple on the surface. We can achieve this with sensible defaults and well-worded tooltips.

P.S. Riffing on icebergs - I hope that our radical strive for surface simplicity will pierce some hulls of incumbent titanics - of course providing clients safety on our charming iceberg.


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Written by Karl-Sander Erss who builds software products for human users. Co-founder at RecruitLab. Drop me a line on linkedin.