Do you have FOMO?

Fear of missing out (FOMO) refers to the anxiety that other people are having rewarding experiences from which one is absent. We often use FOMO to describe the feeling we get when we are constantly online, looking at the Instagram photos of friends, celebrities and strangers, and obsessed with what they are doing and comparing that to our own lives.

However, I have observed that FOMO is pervasive in our work environment too. We are obsessed with what others – competitors and disruptors – are doing. While it is vital to scan the environment and adapt ourselves to stay competitive, we need to be mindful that FOMO can result in needless complexity, which harms our customer experience as well as our competitive advantage.

One of the side-effects of FOMO is adding more things. If a competitor launches a credit card targeted at active travellers, we feel obliged to develop one too. Our new app might have launched with essential features presented in a clean interface, but as new features get tacked on with insufficient thought, it becomes cluttered and complicated.

Complexity is the nature of our business. That’s why it’s imperative to increase our sensitivity towards evolving complexity and to know how to change the current before it goes too complicated and gets in our way.

Adding more can hurt customer experience.

During a project simplifying a bank’s corporate website, I was stunned by the sheer number of products (e.g. account types) that had to be presented. As the project unfolded, I learned that this was because product managers had been tasked to develop more products as their innovation KPI.

During the customer research, however, we discovered that having many products didn’t help customers choose the account that was right for them. No matter how great your individual products are, an overly large number of products can hurt the overall customer experience.

The more choices people have, the harder it is for them to choose. This is called the Paradox of Choice, a theory formulated by the American psychologist Barry Schwartz. His research found that streamlining or eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce their anxiety.3 So why do we continue to think that more is better?

Comprehensiveness vs Simplicity

One of the reasons why it is hard to simplify systems or documents is because we tend to go for “comprehensiveness”.

For one, we don’t want to miss out on requirements coming from the legal and compliance departments. And we often believe that it is important to state everything, no matter how lengthy that is. When I look at an investment form that was designed in 2008 as a response to the global financial crisis, it is evident that we had to ask more questions in the form and state more terms and conditions to meet the legal and compliance requirements as a way to protect the bank (provided the customers understood all of them).

We also want to be comprehensive in meeting requirements from different users and stakeholders. We don’t want to leave anyone out. Behind a healthcare company’s complex intranet system jammed with boxes of information, I found that the intranet was treated as “real estate” by the various business heads such as corporate communications, marketing, products, operations, technology, human resources, research and development, finance, etc. In order to make everyone happy, the intranet system was designed to provide space for each business unit to fill with information they wanted to say.

In dealing with massive amounts of information and requirements, the temptation is to be as comprehensive as possible. While being comprehensive is important, in order to achieve simplicity, we need to be able to make certain “trade-offs” based on priority. If a form is meant to help customers make a confident investment decision, we need to trade off the comprehensive lengthy terms and conditions in legalese for a concise summary that highlights the implications in plain language. Legal professionals will certainly argue that by doing so, the clause may not cover all possible scenarios, but through a thorough examination of the matter and its implications, you may need to trade off perfection for practical simplicity.

If improving employee productivity by changing the intranet system is the priority, we should be willing to trade off the comprehensiveness of information provided by all the business units for curated time-sensitive information that matters to employees.

When I was working on a digital wealth management platform, we made the bold decision to significantly reduce the number of products we offered (75% less than what the bank’s competitors were offering then). It was a conscious trade-off between making it comprehensive (offering every single product we had) and helping customers build confidence in investing (offering fewer but better products).

Adding more is easy. If feels safer to say more than less.

Adding more is lazy. Because you don’t need to examine the implications and take responsibility for the decision.

In all the complex forms, communication materials, processes, websites, systems I’ve worked with, the primary reason for having too much info, too many features, was that the owners of the content or process were not challenging the status quo in order to pursue what really matters.

Innovation doesn’t end at creating more and more better products. The job is done only when we also eliminate things that are no longer relevant, and ensure that the launching of the new product enhances the overall experience. Find your innovation opportunities in doing fewer things but better.


For more stories and methods to design for simplicity, get your copy of The Simplicity Playbook for Innovators – creating lovable experiences in a complicated world.