Humans love to over-engineer and over-complicate things

Ever since my childhood days, I’ve seen this phenomenon, where something that could be so simple is over-complicated just because.  Here’s a story about that.

A true border-crossing story (but not what you are thinking)

My name is Jim Young, a very “gringo” name.  My dad, who grew up in Cajun country Louisiana (Pollock LA) moved to Venezuela in the 1950’s to work in the oil industry in Venezuela, got married to a local girl from Cabimas, and had 3 kids.  I’m the middle kid.  We grew up in oil camps (similar to military bases) during my childhood in the late 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s.  Back then, it was a pretty cool place to grow up.  A lot of freedom to do whatever you wanted to do.  But when it came to government-related things, everything seemed complicated.

Here’s an example: In 1987 I was doing an internship in Bogotá Colombia, living with a buddy of mine from college.  I had the idea of visiting some old childhood friends that were now living in Caracas Venezuela. We could make a long weekend out of it, maybe even have time to go to to the island of Margarita for some fun in the sun and great seafood.

“why don’t we take a local Avianca flight from Bogotá to Cúcuta, cross the border by taxi, and take a flight on Avensa from San Antonio de Tachira to Caracas?”

So my college bud and I looked into international flights from Bogotá to Caracas.  Too expensive for our measly internship salaries.  So we came up with an idea: “why don’t we take a local Avianca flight from Bogotá to Cúcuta, cross the border by taxi, and take a flight on Avensa from San Antonio de Tachira to Caracas?  These will local flights, and both combined airfares were cheaper than a single international flight.”  So we did that.  We flew to Cúcuta, got a taxi driver to drive us across the border and check points, and to the regional airport in San Antonio de Tachira.

We got in line to board the plane, and a military official who looked at our passports said “where are your exit stamps from Colombia?”  Huh?  So we missed the flight, had to cross back into Colombia, go to the downtown area, wait until 2pm because offices were closed for lunch, buy some “exit” stamps in one building, go to another building a few blocks away to have someone review those stamps and the rest of our documentation, cross the border and do the same thing on the Venezuelan side (go to downtown San Antonio de Tachira, buy “entry” stamps in one building, go to some other building a few blocks away, get someone to look at our exit documentation and ask questions, get the approval stamp in our passports, take another taxi to the airport, and wait on standby for several hours for the next flight out to Caracas.

My bud John Colvard (on the left) and I in October 1987 on a small boat near Puerto Cabello Venezuela

Why was this simple border crossing so complicated?

I mean, all we wanted to do was to drink some beer with old friends, eat some arepas, go to a nice beach, and maybe see some bikinis.  Why couldn’t the exit and entry stamps be sold at the same place that reviews and stamps your passport?  Something as simple as that would have removed a ton of friction.  We had no idea of the process for this and had to learn by doing.  It was a lot of needless running around.

My childhood friend Alfredo Cepeda (on the left) and I in October 1987 at Cerro Ávila near Caracas Venezuela

Andy Gross (on the left), Sandra Alvarez (middle) and I in August 1987 at Piedra del Peñol Colombia

Not an isolated example

The above example is not an isolated case.  Unnecessary complexity is a regular occurrence everywhere.  In both government systems as well as private industry. And the thing is, oftentimes, you just go with it and not question the complexity.  Just chalk it up as part of life, or as an “it is what it is” kind of thing.

How does this relate to forms??

I’ve seen it a million times…super complex and elaborate forms.  Complex forms are so pervasive that I think every single human on the planet has encountered a form that asked a bazillion unanswerable or ridiculously difficult questions to answer.  Questions that you ask yourself “why the f**k are they asking this question on this form?  How is this relevant??”

Why do we have these ridiculously complicated long forms?

Because someone that never has to fill out that form…someone in an “ivory tower”, in upper management, someone that wants piles of information, designed it.  And almost always, as time goes by, that form will inevitably ask for even more information.

The thing about complex forms is that the more questions the form contains, and the more complex the form is, the less likely that people will actually fill it out.

So…what do you do to fix this?

Make the forms simpler. Ask fewer questions.  Make the forms bare-bones…just enough questions to get the answers you need to capture, and nothing more.  Break out the questions into groupings of similar questions. Break up a large form into a few smaller forms.

But before doing any of the above, use “why” to reduce complexity.

How to use “Why?” to reduce complexity

For every single field on a form, ask why it’s there:

  • Why do we need to ask the user for that piece of information?
  • Do we need that info?
  • Can we live without it?
  • What are the consequences of not having that information?

If the answer is “we really don’t need that info but its more of a good-to-have”, then get rid of it. Your users will thank you for getting rid of it.

 Simplify, simplify, simplify

“No one in their right mind wants to live in a form.”

When in doubt, get rid of it.  Get rid of that question. Simplify. Ask that question in simpler terms. Don’t use complicated speak. Say it in plain English. Human-understandable speak.  And follow a less-is-more approach.


Because no one in their right mind wants to live in a form.  No one wants to spend gobs of time filling out a form. Especially when they are outside in suck-ass weather, battling the clock to get their shit done, and battling who-knows-what….mosquitos, equipment malfunctions, strange people walking up to you while you work, and even in dangerous situations.  No one.  Except that dirt-bag in the climate-controlled office setting that designed the form in the first place.  That guy who has no frickin’ clue what it’s like to work outside, let alone fill out a dumb-ass form just to satisfy the suits in the office.

So put yourself in the field tech’s shoes when designing a form

Here’s the thing: field work is really hard work. It’s hard enough already, so don’t add more pressure to your field crews by forcing them to fill out really elaborate, long forms with complicated software tools.  Because they are not going to do it.  They are going to tell you to fuck off (in a nice way) and fill out what they can and go on with their work.  And if the system you force them to use is complicated to use?  They are going to abandon it in droves, deeming your digital transformation project a death knoll.

Point is, it has to be simple.  Like the wheel in the cartoon above.  And not like that mechanical walking thing.


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