Specifically something which seems simpler than an alternative at first glance but is actually complex on a closer examination.

There are some things that have been coming up at work that fit this description, but I feel like if I had a good word or term for the phenomenon people would better heed my warnings.

Edit: My particular situation is in software development, but isn't exactly scope creep or over-engineering. I'm not at liberty to provide a detailed example, of which there have been several, but the one that motivated this post is the selection of a tool. The tool that a coworker has recommended has a very simple interface. The fallacy that I'm trying to describe is that the tool will make easy tasks easier at the expense of making harder tasks harder.

Edit 2: A better example (for the software engineers, anyways) would be duck-typing like in Python. At first glance, it should make things easier, you don't need to declare a type for every parameter and variable. In large projects (IMHO) this adds complication because its harder to track which parameters expect which data types.

  • 3
    FWIW, that's not how you're supposed to use duck typing. You're not supposed to care about tracking which parameters expect which data types, because your parameters aren't supposed to expect data types - they're supposed to expect object capabilities. I.e. interfaces. They still exist without formal definition in code or an interface language keyword. :) Commented Sep 12, 2011 at 21:16

6 Answers 6


You write, "The tool that a coworker has recommended has a very simple interface. The fallacy ... is that the tool will make easy tasks easier at the expense of making harder tasks harder", and are looking for a phrase to describe the situation.

The phrase "steep learning curve" might apply. According to wikipedia, "The familiar expression 'steep learning curve' may refer to ... a pattern in which the marginal rate of required resource investment is initially low, perhaps even decreasing at the very first stages, but eventually increases without bound", and "the metaphor has become more commonly used to focus on the pattern's negative aspect, namely the difficulty of learning once one gets beyond the basics of a subject." However, the page also notes "confusion and disagreements even among learned people" about this phrase, so it is not of unmixed value.

You might adapt the phrase, and refer to a "learning cliff" to emphasize the difficulty of doing more-involved tasks with whatever tool you are talking about.

If you are quite sure of your facts -- that is, if you have used the tool in question, for easy and difficult tasks both, and also have used competing tools for similar tasks -- you'll be better off providing solid comparisons instead of using rhetorical devices to make your case. That said, here are some phrases that may serve your purpose in product quality discussions: "This product has a beautiful camel's nose, followed not far behind by a giant camel's ass" (referring to "camel's nose" paradigm); "This product has a Lamborghini body grafted onto a model T chassis"; "You can do anything you want with this product, as long as it's what x wants you to do with it" (x = giant software company name).

  • I agree with the common confusion on the meaning of "steep learning curve" but I like the phrase "learning cliff". If I use that phrase along with a description of the problem I expect that it will stick. Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 14:20

While "deceptive" has many connotations, "deceptive" or "deceptively complicated" might help trigger the right alarm bells in your situation:


adjective /diˈseptiv/ 

1.Giving an appearance or impression different from the true one; misleading - he put the question with deceptive casualness

(deception) misrepresentation: a misleading falsehood

  • Just for the record, if it wasn't for jwpat7's answer I would have chosen yours as my accepted response. Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 14:23
  • Its cool :) thx!
    – Rikon
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 16:32

You might want to look at the word counterproductive.

EDIT:Just saw the update to the question. Some might balk at the usage, but Pyrrhic Solution seems to describe the interface.

  • 1
    Gotta give +1 for Pyrrhic solution! (Not sure it's exactly right for what the OP wants, but the question is slightly muddy anyway, and this is a great, vivid phrase!)
    – John Y
    Commented Sep 12, 2011 at 22:05

The term false optimization came to mind when I read your initial post, and seems only more appropriate after your edit. I usually see it used in reference to actual performance optimization, but it can address the usability/process perspective as well.

  • This doesn't fit what I'm trying to say, but I like that term and will probably use it for something else down the line. Relevant quote by Donald Knuth "premature optimization is the root of all evil" Commented Sep 12, 2011 at 18:13
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    Yes, that Knuth quote has sparked its fair share of internet debates. I was thinking of a slightly different form of misguided optimization though. For example - altering a programming language to make 'Hello, World' easier to write, at the expense of making other I/O tasks more complex.
    – ajk
    Commented Sep 12, 2011 at 18:26

Not exactly what you describe, but, in the context of software development, there are some related terms: overengineering, feature creep and scope creep. All of these terms denote the attempt to improve a product or project by adding more "stuff" to it. Usually, these additions are made with good intentions. But, despite the initial gain, they prove to be useless as well as a burden to maintain, in the long run.

  • Overengineering may be a subset of what I'm trying to say, but doesn't cover everything (see edit to original question). Commented Sep 12, 2011 at 17:43

I've always liked using the phrase "looking under the hood" to refer to things that, under scrutiny, were found to be unexpectedly difficult. Related to this are the terms that refer to "selling someone a bill of goods" which blends into the notion of conning someone.

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