Diminishing Returns

Smashing Magazine published a good article by Paul Scrivens titled “MUD: Minimum Usable Design” in which the author talks about satisfying groups of audiences, starting with the largest – i.e. what is the minimum that the site must do for the majority of users – and then following on to the smaller and smaller ones, that is, implementing more specialized features. Like an MVP (minimum viable product), which introduces the bare bones feature set needed to get the first sale (maybe just one feature), a MUD is a design that starts by implementing the very basic stuff needed to get it to work for the largest audience. It’s a good thought exercise in prioritizing your design process.

In economics, there is a term called the law of diminishing returns. The idea is that as you add more and more of a specific factor of production to your process (e.g. assigning more people to a task), while keeping everything else constant, there will come a point at which each unit will start to yield less and less returns. In some cases adding even more of this factor will decrease the overall output (too many cooks spoil the broth). For example: there is an optimal amount of fertilizer you should use to improve crop production. Past this optimal point you can still keep adding more fertilizer, but the improvement you will see per unit will decrease, and if you add too much you may even be in danger of reducing the crop yield.

It’s the same with design, much like the way Paul has expressed in his article. Once you implement the core foundation, you’ve satisfied most users, and as you go up from there, adding more and more features and refinements, the payoff for your efforts will steadily fall. There’s never a truly perfect design in the sense that our work will never arrive to a point where no further improvement or changes can be made. Use the idea of the law of diminishing returns to recognize situations when the amount of effort spent isn’t going to make a big enough difference to justify itself. Reflect, prioritize and draw a line. Limiting your work by prioritizing efforts is not the same thing as putting in less effort into the execution just so it’s “good enough”. It’s about figuring out what matters and implementing this in the best way you can.