Code icebergs


A lot of good products have features that appear somewhat trivial to replicate, but in reality would be quite complex to do so. I call these features code icebergs because they expose what a casual observer or competitor imagines is a weekend hackathon, but underneath there is a humongous mass of necessarily complicated code that makes everything work as seamlessly as it appears.

In my experience, the iceberg part of a code iceberg often involves handling of a lot edge cases. These edge cases are sometimes actually created by making the user interface simpler, e.g. less or free-form input fields.

At my current startup, DuckDuckGo, a good example is the seemingly straightforward task of taking Wikipedia and turning it into good Zero-click Info to display against queries.  At first blush it's trivial--I mean come on, the Wikipedia dumps output something called abstract.xml with a description of "extracted abstracts for Yahoo."

Yet when you get into it and start exposing it to real users, you surface all those edge cases. That dump in particular is actually completely unusable IMHO and I ended up discarding it within a few days of discovering it. It chokes on lots of things. 

Wikipedia has templates, disambiguation pages, initial warnings and infoboxes, redirects, malformed/complicated sentences, etc. etc., all of which you want to deal with if you don't want glaring errors. And then once you're in there, you might as well start capturing more good stuff like related topics, categories, the right images, good external links, etc. etc. And what about updating it in real time? It starts to really add up.

I like code icebergs. They're really a marvel to look at when you can see the whole picture. They also lure competitors in, who often get sunk (at least initially) not understanding the scope of the problem. They're good barriers to entry, fuel in build vs buy decisions, and the underpinnings of good UX.

Update: good comments on HN.

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I'm the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you. I'm also the co-author of Traction, the book that helps you get traction. More about me.

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