Survivorship Bias

Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt:
Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt: Visualize a large, minimalistic bookshelf filled with different types of books. Among them, only one book is highlighted, standing out from the rest, signifying its success. The remaining books are subtly faded, representing the numerous overlooked authors whose books never sold

Survivorship bias is a cognitive phenomenon that tends to skew our understanding of success and failure. It occurs when we focus solely on the winners, the survivors, or the outliers that have weathered the storm, while overlooking the many who didn't make it. This bias can lead to overly optimistic expectations and can influence our perception of reality in various domains, including the creation of digital software products1.

One common manifestation of survivorship bias is the tendency to idolize successful companies or products, without considering the vast number of similar products that failed. In the realm of digital software products, this can lead to a distorted understanding of what it takes to create a successful product.

How survivorship bias can manifest in digital product development

The Misunderstood Success Stories

Consider the story of a successful app like Instagram or Twitter. While it's true that these apps have achieved massive success, focusing solely on their triumphs can lead to an overestimation of one's chances of achieving similar success. For each Instagram, there are countless other photo-sharing apps that never gained traction or were unable to sustain their user base. Ignoring these "failures" can lead to a skewed perception of the ease or likelihood of success in the app development sphere.

Over-Reliance on 'Best Practices'

"Best practices" in the software industry are often derived from the strategies of successful companies. However, these practices often ignore the multitude of companies that employed similar strategies yet failed. This selective perspective can lead to an overconfidence in the effectiveness of these practices and an underestimation of the role of other factors such as luck, timing, or specific market conditions.

Ignoring Failed Features

When developing new features for a software product, teams often look to successful products for inspiration. However, focusing only on the features that have been successful in other products can overlook the potential lessons to be learned from features that were tried and failed. Understanding why certain features didn't work can provide valuable insights and prevent repeating the same mistakes.

Survivorship bias can subtly affect the decisions we make when creating digital software products. By recognizing and acknowledging this bias, we can strive to make more informed decisions, take a more holistic view of success and failure, and thereby increase our chances of creating truly successful products. So, the next time you find yourself in awe of a successful digital product, take a moment to consider the unseen majority that didn't make it. There might be more to learn from them than you think.