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How Depth and Complexity Icons Help Us Design Digital Products

Here is an introductory post about the Depth and Complexity framework and how we apply it in software development.

April 27, 2021
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As you might have spotted, in addition to being a design and development company, EGO Creative Innovations possesses deep expertise in different business areas, such as healthcare, fintech, and automotive.

And even though we narrow our knowledge to things relating to digital product creation only, it seems evident that the amount of knowledge required to become an expert in these fields all at once must be impressive. But is it so?

Turns out, to address sophisticated issues in your area of knowledge, you should shift your thinking from accumulating as much knowledge as possible to applying it most effectively. And this is where the Depth and Complexity framework comes on stage.

What's Depth and Complexity?

In 1994, education and learning experts Sandra Kaplan and Bette Gould took multiple interviews to figure out what makes experts in various fields different from laypersons. It turned out that no matter what areas the professionals had expertise in, they all used the same ideas and ways of thinking to approach and talk about it.

Kaplan and Gould summed them up in 11 traits and came up with a symbol and a name for each. First, teachers used them to help push students forward in their thinking and understanding of the subject. Eventually named the Depth and Complexity framework, it also became useful in understanding and solving business problems.

Understanding Depth and Complexity Icons in Business and Product Analysis

Although the framework explains concepts, the icons used for them represent a visual language helping to get to more analytical and profound ways of thinking. And vice versa, when spotting a specific argument or an idea, you can immediately recall a concept that was used to come up with it, and this concept gets eventually represented in your mind with a relevant icon.

So now we will list those 11 icons, but we will explain them as a mobile and web development company so that you could see how we apply this framework in our everyday work. We will also suggest emoji substitutes that you can use in your day-to-day online communication, but feel free to use any other emojis you like.

All the JPEGs below are done by us, though you can find variations of them possessing same visual ideas on the Internet as well.  

1. Big Idea


When we study or think up a product concept, we first need to find a statement that sums up its purpose and core idea. Usually, a group comes up with a few messages, which is excellent, but agreeing on only one helps the team figure out and get laser-focused on the desired outcome.

Since we need to understand the product better, it is essential to come up with a big idea that is not obvious or too simple. It means such a statement would need to have justifiable arguments listed in the following concept of the list.

Suggested Emoji:  🏠

2. Essential Details

Looking closer at the suggested product, we can spot many details, but it is crucial to understand which points are essential and not. This will help later figure out the functionality of the MVP and prove that the big idea you agreed on earlier is accurate and working.

When there are too many details to support the big idea, it helps our software/QA company experts to categorize them: like architecture details, user experience details, or business requirement details.

Suggested Emoji:  🌻

3.Language of the Discipline

Like any other kind of business, digital product creation has its own set of professional terms like refactoring, usability, SaaS, skeuomorphism, microservices, etc.

Of course, just throwing jargon words here and there doesn’t let you get a deeper understanding of the product you're planning to build. But agreeing on the shared language – especially if people with various backgrounds from the client's team are actively involved in our activities – is essential for perfect mutual understanding and moving forward in exploring possible solutions to existing problems.

Suggested Emoji: 👄

4. Rules

Rules are things that you strictly define about your product, service, or solution—hierarchies, laws, requirements, norms, etc. In software development, we usually talk about business and technical requirements (like deadlines, budgets, and target devices) and limitations those devices might put.

There are also laws that we need to consider to be able to release the product to the market.

You might formulate some rules based on human behavior psychology. For instance, there's a boom of mobile apps leveraging neural networks to, say, make old photos animated or put your face into a short video. Those operations are done on the server side, but you might notice that the processing time is never too long since it will directly affect your exit rate.

Paying attention to rules helps us divide functionality expectations into necessary/required and unnecessary/desired.

Suggested Emoji: 🚦

5. Patterns

Exploring new things brings excitement, but repetition can comfort and pleasure us as well. That's why most of us prefer to stick to daily schedules and love eating at, say, McDonald’s, though their hamburgers and French fries always taste the same.

So in digital product design, patterns help understand the usual routine the users will go through with it. How can the experience your app offers be entwined with people's everyday routine? If your app is going to be used often in similar ways, how can we make it more comfortable, intuitive, and non-annoying over time?

And then there's another question: what can break that UX pattern? And what's going to happen then? These questions are a great way to figure out corner cases for users and plan quality assurance works.

As a mobile and website application company, we might also think about what we have been doing in the same way in the latest products and whether we should review this approach and search for something more innovative or fast.

For instance, when you type the URL in the Google Chrome address bar, you'll be offered to play that running dinosaur game in case you're temporarily offline. Isn't that a pleasurable way to spend a minute or two while waiting for your router to reboot?

Suggested Emoji: 🌀

6. Ethics

Ethics is often an underestimated aspect of product design and business analysis.

Every new business idea is born with the desire to address someone's problem or relieve someone's pain. Sometimes we might think this solution redundant, but we never consider what might be bad about it and how we can minimize it.

And everything in our life has both good and bad sides. The tastiest food is always either unhealthy or too expensive. Doing sports helps you to stay in shape but steals family time from you.

With digital products, the first ethics questions that come to our minds are:

  1. Can the product be used for malicious purposes, and what is the possible outcome of such usage?
  2. What can happen to a user if they spend too much time with the product or abuse its functionality?
  3. What can happen if the product or user data it stores will be compromised?

Even more, questions appear when we dive deep into a specific situation and concept.

For instance, lately, there are many talks about how big social networks like YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram can take more care of the communities using their services. Instagram hides the number of likes; YouTube doesn't show the number of downvotes; comments with hate speech get hidden. All of those are the issues of ethics that companies could anticipate and avert before it could affect the political life of some societies.

Suggested Emoji: ⚖️

7. Change Over Time

There's always a reason why the new product idea has come up now. But what would it look like 5 or 50 years ago and how it might look in 5 or 50 years? Answering these questions helps see what appears to remain the same (and thus is the essence of success) and changes as per requirements of the time.

Sometimes this concept might even help understand that the time has not come for this particular idea. Like when Apple released its first smartphone (called PDA then), Apple Newton, in 1993.  

Sometimes it, on the contrary, helps to come up with new product ideas, especially if you're armed with Gartner's Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies.

Suggested Emoji:⏳

8. Multiple Perspectives

As a startup app development company, we talk a lot about laser-focusing and having deep expertise; however, this framework is called Depth AND Complexity for a reason: it's vital to have a broader view of the problem or its solution.

Multiple Perspectives is a great approach to that. In product design, the first perspectives that come to mind are different stakeholders and their motivations. There is always a client who wants to build a profit-generating product. Some users want to be entertained and/or address their problems. And there are also us and our interests.

However, there are many more perspectives that you can consider depending on the purpose of your product. For instance, we might be talking about users having special health conditions or various disabilities in healthcare. In automotive, we might expect people to use a studied product when driving a car. How to design an app for them? And should it be an app?

Suggested Emoji: 👓

9. Unanswered Questions


When you're trying to understand any subject in-depth, there's a great contempt to say at some point, "OK, I got it." Yet understanding what we still don't know or can't know helps us stay more objective and better act in today’s world of constant uncertainty.

The first thing that can't be answered in the beginning is if this new venture succeeds. Thinking in this direction helps young entrepreneurs learn what is more important in the product, what's the process of building it, etc., and lower the chances of failing.

In more specific situations, we start with questions like "What can go wrong with this product?" and "What we might not know yet that brings the risks of failing to this product?" And then we come narrow down those questions.

Suggested Emoji: ❓

10. Across Disciplines

This idea helped EGO Creative Innovations (a softdev and project management firm back then) transform from a simple software development team into a digital house. Brainstorming on the company’s future in the middle of the 2010s, we realized business people and technicians would never work together effectively without a shared language. So we started developing a business unit inside the company, with experts in different business areas, to understand our clients better and help them in business analysis and product strategy processes.

Since then, we also apply a multidisciplinary approach to app development. We research industry insights, software development trends, human psychology patterns, and best business practices to determine the best way to achieve the set goal.

Suggested Emoji: 📚

11. Trends


This concept is a question "What is changing on the market now and what are the expected further changes?" Yet since entrepreneurs are often visionaries, we quickly find ourselves on the same page here and don't pay a lot of attention to this idea. Besides, in some way or another, trends get mentioned in the concepts above, such as Change Over Time and Across Disciplines.

In addition to that, we follow, study, and highlight the trends by having this blog, so feel free to subscribe to the updates via the form at the bottom of this page.

Suggested Emoji: 📈

EGO's take on the Depth and Complexity Framework

This framework is beneficial when it comes to joint brainstorming. However, we don't think that the list above is necessarily 100% complete. When it comes to individual creativity, anything might sparkle an idea. And after using the framework for a while, we realized how easily a small visual symbol – an icon – might be a powerful starting point for looking at a problem differently.

Hence we, a mobile and web development firm, asked our UI designers to share resources they use to deliver icons for products, and regularly open them to get creative. Here is this list:

https://tablericons.com/
https://visiwig.com/icons
https://heroicons.dev/
https://icons.theforgesmith.com/
https://systemuicons.com/
https://www.rubicons.app/
https://icons.getbootstrap.com/
https://iconhub.io/
https://ui8.net/pigodesign/products/iconly-essential-icons
https://www.iconshock.com/3d-icons/
https://icons.mono.company/
https://emblemicons.in/
https://lordicon.com/
https://github.com/bytedance/IconPark
https://icons.modulz.app
https://phosphoricicons.com
https://myicons.co/icons-viewer/3d-shapes-line-icons
https://tabler-icons.io/
https://basicons.xyz/

It is also interesting to reflect on the visual differences of these sets. Often they are subtle yet affecting the overall feeling about the icon so much. Sometimes we think whether we can invent such small differences that help the products stand out on the market, like the animation of the Remembear's bear looking at your master password as you enter it.

SOURCE: https://miro.medium.com/max/1098/1*1OxDpSqmW3ugfAzp_i4OgA.gif

Bottom line

The Depth and Complexity framework is not the only approach to exploring the idea and designing a product. There's this whole neuropsychology science helping us understand how we think and how we create. However, in our humble opinions, Depth and Complexity is the easiest to remember and use in everyday work to keep your thoughts straight and remain objective when evaluating the idea.

By the way, if you want to see our brainstorm in action, check out our Business Analysis and Product Analysis plans. Plans are time- and budget-limited services we offer our first-time clients to help them understand how we work and get the most value within the first weeks of our partnership.

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