Illusion of Control

Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt:
Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt: Show a 2D, minimalistic character holding puppet strings attached to a cloud, a wave, and a tree, illustrating their futile attempts to control these uncontrollable elements of nature. The character should have a confident posture, unaware of the illusion of control they're experiencing


The illusion of control is a human tendency to believe we can influence events, even when we have no control over them. This phenomenon, a cognitive bias where individuals overestimate their ability to control events, is a common occurrence not just in everyday life, but also in the realm of software development1.

The Illusion of Control in Software Development

In the software development process, the illusion of control can manifest itself in a variety of ways. It can lead to overconfident estimations of project timelines, underestimations of the complexity of tasks, and assumptions about user behaviors that may not align with reality. It's essential to recognize these illusions and strive for a more grounded approach in software development.

Let's explore three examples of how the illusion of control can manifest in software development:

  1. Project Timelines: Project managers may fall into the trap of the illusion of control when estimating the time it will take to complete a project. They may feel that because they have a strong grasp of the project's requirements and a talented team, they can predict with certainty when the project will be completed. However, software development is often unpredictable, with unforeseen bugs, scope changes, and other challenges that can delay progress.
  2. Task Complexity: Developers themselves may also experience the illusion of control. For example, a developer may underestimate the complexity of a task because they believe they have full control over the code they write. But in reality, there are many factors out of their control, such as existing bugs in the codebase, changes in project requirements, or unpredictable interactions with other parts of the system.
  3. User Behavior: UI/UX designers can fall into the illusion of control when they assume they know how users will interact with a product. They might design a feature with the belief that users will use it in a specific way, only to find out that users behave differently in reality. This can lead to features that are confusing or difficult for users, negatively impacting the user experience.

Connecting the Illusion of Control to Digital Product Creation

The illusion of control is especially relevant in the creation of digital products because it directly impacts how we approach design and development. By being aware of this cognitive bias, we can implement strategies to counteract its influence.

One such strategy is to adopt an iterative development process, which allows for regular feedback and adjustment. This can help counteract the illusion of control by providing frequent reality checks and opportunities to adjust course based on real-world data.

Another strategy is to foster a culture of openness and humility within the team. Encouraging team members to voice doubts and concerns can help identify potential issues early on, preventing the team from falling into the trap of overconfidence.

Ultimately, understanding and acknowledging the illusion of control can lead to more realistic planning, better risk management, and a more user-centric approach to software development. It encourages us to accept that there are many factors in software development that we cannot control, and that's okay. The key is to focus on what we can control: our responses to challenges, our willingness to learn and adapt, and our commitment to creating the best product possible.

In conclusion, the illusion of control is a powerful cognitive bias that can significantly influence the software development process. By recognizing its presence and taking steps to mitigate its effects, we can improve the way we create digital products.