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August 1st, 2023

Over-Engineering: Balancing Complexity And Necessity

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Over-Engineering: Balancing Complexity And Necessity

Over-engineering refers to the tendency to implement more complex solutions than necessary to solve a problem or to add unnecessary features to a product, resulting in increased development time and costs, reduced maintainability and scalability, and negative impacts on user experience. It can occur due to a lack of understanding of user needs, pressure to deliver features quickly, or a fear of technical debt.

Causes of over-engineering

Lack of business acumen among engineers: When project requirements are not well-defined, engineers may add unnecessary features or overcomplicate the design in an attempt to cover all possible scenarios. The majority of software engineers are technically well-trained which is desirable but sometimes lack the business perspective and tend to go along with their intuition.

Perfectionism: Perfect is the enemy of good. Often doing something in an ideal way will result in achieving much less (as the Pareto rule says – 80% of our work is based on 20% time, and you will need to focus much more than the remaining 20% of your time to achieve 100% of results). Bear in mind, that ideal code does not exist, and the changing environment means you will have to refactor it anyway at some point.

Need to show off: Stars like to shine, and some people like to show off. A good engineer or leader doesn’t have to boast about their skills and prove they can do difficult things. They know that drawing attention to themselves does not necessarily mean that a product will succeed.

Pressure to deliver features quickly: When there is a tight deadline or a focus on delivering new features quickly, engineers may opt to implement more complex solutions rather than taking the time to design a simple, efficient solution.

Effects of over-engineering

Increased development time and cost: Over-engineering can lead to more complex code that takes longer to develop, test, and deploy. This can result in higher development costs and delays in product delivery.

Reduced maintainability and scalability: Overly complex code can be difficult to maintain and update over time, and may be more prone to bugs and errors. It can also be harder to scale the product to meet changing business needs or user demands.

Impact on user experience: Over-engineering can result in software that is slow, bloated, and difficult to use. This can lead to frustration for users and decreased adoption of the product.

Opportunity cost: Over-engineering can also lead to missed opportunities for innovation and growth, as development resources are focused on building overly complex solutions rather than exploring new ideas or features that could drive business value.

How to avoid over-engineering

Be clear about business goals: People tend to drift away from the bottom line because they don’t understand it. If your communication is honest and transparent, it’s usually enough to set a clear goal and the product team will reach it.

Embrace simplicity: When designing solutions, aim for simplicity over complexity. Use straightforward, easy-to-understand designs and resist the urge to add unnecessary features or overcomplicate the code.

Think modularly: Use modular design principles to break down complex problems into smaller, more manageable components. This can help you identify areas where you might be over-engineering and simplify the solution.

Focus on user experience: Keep the end user in mind when designing solutions, and prioritize features and functionality that will improve the user experience. This can help you avoid building unnecessary features or overcomplicating the design.

Cases to over-engineer

Mission-critical systems: In certain scenarios where a system must be highly reliable and failure is not an option (such as aerospace, medical, or military applications), over-engineering may be necessary to ensure safety and avoid catastrophic failures.

Complex systems: In cases where the system is inherently complex and requires a high level of performance or reliability (such as financial trading systems or large-scale data processing systems), over-engineering may be necessary to achieve the required level of performance.


However, even in these scenarios, it’s important to carefully consider the trade-offs involved in over-engineering and ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs. Engineers should always strive to build solutions that are as simple and efficient as possible while still meeting the necessary requirements.