Research, empathy, simplicity, speed

October 17, 2018 · 3 min read

photo by Toa Heftiba
photo by Toa Heftiba

Earlier today, I read a thought-provoking tweet from John Maeda:

John refers to Samin Nosrat’s fantastic cookbook, Salt Fat Acid Heat, and poses a fantastic question: as Nosrat provides a simple list of essential ingredients for any great meal, can we describe a simple list of essential components for digital products?

Here are four elements that I believe are the foundation of great digital products: Research, Empathy, Simplicity and Speed.


Research answers a vital question: “What do our users want?” Market research, qualitative user research, usability research, quantitative research and analysis; these are all flavors that can fuel a great product.

Too much research results in analysis paralysis. Signals get lost in the noise, and the team works in fits and starts.

Not enough research results in overconfidence based in subjective judgement. Without research, it is difficult to respond to change.


Empathy is commitment to delivering what users want. It’s important to have empathy when building products; it helps you focus on what gives users value, not just on what gives your business value.

Too much empathy results in overfitting. Users needs change quickly, and are extremely varied at a microscopic level.

Not enough empathy means high churn. If your product doesn’t help your users, they’ll find one that does.


Simplicity means focusing on doing less, but better. Simpler processes increase the efficiency of the team, and simpler interfaces are more accessible to users.

Too much simplicity will undervalue your product. It’s hard to get users excited when their first impression is, “that’s all?”

Not enough simplicity will make your product hard to use. Even extremely sophisticated products can benefit from a simple interface — spreadsheets are my favorite example of this phenomenon.


Speed means delivering your product at the right time. Shipping regular, incremental, valuable updates will keep users engaged. Timely feedback can add immense value to any product.

Too much speed can exhaust your users and your team alike. Snapchat’s “Cheetah” initiative was an impressive feat of reinvention, but is now seen as a critical mistake.

Not enough speed makes it hard to take risks and explore new ideas. If you’re make large, infrequent changes, bugs stay around for longer, and user feedback stays on the backlog.

A perfect blend

Salt, fat, acid, and heat are four fundamental elements of great food. Even if you aren’t a Michelin-star chef, or an award-winning cookbook author, you can cook great food if you balance those elements.

Research, empathy, simplicity, and speed are four fundamental elements of great digital products. You may not be Google or Facebook, but you can still deliver great products if you find the right balance between those elements.