Incidental vs Accidental Complexity

Incidental vs Accidental Complexity

Developers often talk about accidental vs essential software complexity. But is there a difference between accidental complexity and incidental complexity? I think there is.

I like this definition of essential complexity:

Essential complexity is how hard something is to do, regardless of how experienced you are, what tools you use or what new and flashy architecture pattern you used to solve the problem.

(source)

That same source describes accidental complexity as any complexity that isn’t essential complexity, and this may indeed be the way that the terms are typically used. But I’d like to propose a distinction between accidental and incidental complexity:

Accidental complexity: non-essential complexity you introduce into the design by mistake (by accident), and you can realize your mistake in an “oops” moment (and consider correcting or learning from it).

Incidental complexity: any non-essential complexity you introduce into the design, which may be by mistake or on purpose (it may or may not be accidental and may or may not be accompanied by an “oops” moment).

Accidental complexity is when I accidentally knocked a drinking glass off the table and it shattered into pieces, making my morning more complicated as I cleaned it up. It’s marked with “oops” and the realization of causing something I didn’t mean to.

Incidental complexity is when I choose to turn off the hotplate on my stove by pressing the digital “down” button 8 times until the level reaches zero, when my wife later informed me that pressing “up” once would achieve the same thing (since the level wraps around under certain circumstances). I did not accidentally press the “down” button 8 times, I did it intentionally, but was still ignorant of my inefficiency.

Clearly, there’s a fine line between the two. Defining something as incidental complexity but not accidental is a function of my ignorance and depends on my level of awareness, which changes over time and various from person to person.

Why introduce unnecessary complexity on purpose?

1. Simplicity takes effort

Paradoxically, often the simpler solution is also one that takes longer to design and implement, so it can be a strategic design choice to go with a more complicated solution than a simpler one.

This is especially true for POCs and MVPs in unfamiliar domains or where the business requirements aren’t completely clear. In these cases, you can’t be confident of all the details upfront and you’re quite likely to be rewriting the solution a few times before it reaches its final state. Spending time simplifying and organizing each iteration can be a wasted effort if it will just be thrown away.

There may also just not be time for the simpler solution. The added effort defining a clean abstraction and structure takes time and there is an opportunity cost to taking longer on something, maybe through losing business revenue when the feature is delivered later, or through the cost of not working on the next feature. There are tradeoffs to be made.

2. Ignorance: You don’t know any better

This might be a little controversial, but I would argue that if you design something as simple as you can possibly conceive, then any remaining incidental complexity is not “accidental”. Like the example earlier of me pressing “down” 8 times instead of “up” once.

As a concrete example in software, JavaScript never used to have a async/await or the Promise type, and as a result, code was often structured with nested callbacks to handle sequences of asynchronous actions (known as “callback hell”). This kind of code is clearly unnecessarily complicated, no matter how hard people tried to contain the complexity. But designs based on callbacks are not accidentally complicated — they have exactly the design intended by the author which is believed to be the best possible design.

But yet, promises could be (and were eventually) implemented as a third-party library, and so could the async/await pattern (through the abuse of generator functions). So the potential was there from the beginning for every developer to structure their code in a simpler way if they could just realize the potential to do so. The complexity was not imposed as a restriction in the programming language, it was imposed by ourselves because we hadn’t been awakened to a better way of seeing things.

It’s worth noting one more thing: if you’ve ever tried to explain JavaScript Promises to someone, you’ll know that an explanation of what a Promise is or does is unconvincing. Understanding how to think in terms of Promises requires a mental paradigm shift, which doesn’t occur merely by explanation. Even a concrete demonstration may be unconvincing since the code may be “shorter”, but is it really “simpler” when it’s full of all these new and unfamiliar concepts? The way to internalize a new paradigm like this is to use it and practice thinking in terms of it. Only then can we really see what we were missing all along.

Why does it matter?

I think the distinction between accidental and incidental complexity matters because it should keep us humble and aware that the way we write software today is probably ridiculously inefficient compared to the techniques, patterns, and paradigms of the future.

It shows that certain kinds of incidental complexity can look a lot like essential complexity if we don’t yet have the mental tools to see those inefficiencies. The biggest productivity boosts we could gain in our designs might be those that aren’t obvious from the perspective of our current ways of thinking, and which might take a lot of time and effort to see clearly.

It shows that finding incidental complexity is not just a case of looking at a project and identifying what we think is needless, since there’s a good chance that we’re blind to a lot of it and all we will just see are things that make us say “yes, that thing is important for reason xyz — we can’t remove that”. Like all the callbacks in callback hell: every callback seems important, so it seems like it is all essential complexity, even though there exists a completely different way of structuring the code that would make it easier to understand and maintain.

But on the positive side, it shows that we are capable of identifying a lot of incidental complexity, if we spend enough time and effort thinking through things carefully, and if we remain open and curious about better ways of doing things.

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