Great products require trade-off. Which features should you promote with big, glossy buttons? Which materials or technologies should you use, and at what cost? When should you release it? How heavily should you test it first? Should you fix a crash bug that affects 2% of users or a cosmetic bug that affects 90%?

These trade-offs are unavoidable. If you don’t make them explicitly, you make them implicitly. Can’t decide which feature get a big button? You can create ten buttons but you’re making another trade-off: each will be a little less prominent, and your product’s simplicity and elegance will suffer.

Trade-offs are necessary at every stage of the product lifecycle:

  • Apple is often praised for simplicity. Less is more: remove all the physical buttons and do the rest in software. But that’s not the whole truth. The iPhone has two volume buttons, a power button, a Home button, and a ringer switch. Only the power button is necessary. Someone made a trade-off, sacrificing a certain degree of simplicity for the convenience of four more buttons. The result may, in fact, feel simpler: without taking the phone out of my pocket I can adjust the volume or set it to vibrate. What we call simplicity is, in fact, a successful trade-off.
  • Facebook has repeatedly favored speed over caution, angering users by releasing features and design changes (e.g. the newsfeed) without vetting them thoroughly. Many look to the resulting uproar as a cautionary tale, but I believe this is the wrong lesson. At worst, Facebook’s tremendous growth has proceeded in spite of these choices. But I suspect Facebook has succeeded because of them: by trading speed for pre-release research and by making sure they can correct course quickly, Facebook has innovated, stayed ahead of the competition, and gotten free user research in the bargain.

Make no mistake: trade-offs are hard. They require sacrifice. They require risk. But then, it should come as no surprise that these qualities are needed for great product design as well.

Originally published at on June 30, 2010.

Like what you read? Give Dave Feldman a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.