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Fierce Reduction

Digital innovation based on the science of less.


Ian H Smith

I work with three Design Principles applied to digital innovation: Meaningful Journey; Fierce Reduction; and, Progressive Disclosure. It is the second of these Principles that I am focusing on here: Fierce Reduction.

This is all about taking things away from a Web app.

In writing this blog post I have made a few references to a great book: Subtract, by Leidy Klotz. This includes a related article in Harvard Business Review (HBR): When Substraction Adds Value. This was co-authored by Gabrielle Adams, Benjamin A. Converse and Andrew Hales.


Being Subtractive

Although we have seen Information Technology (IT) move from expensive, exclusive mainframe computers to widely-available consumer networks and devices, in business and government, we are still drowning in complexity. We live in a world where digital innovation is intended to improve the life of employees and consumers, yet mostly, this is additive.

Sometimes, additive is OK, but all too often with digital innovation, most people overlook subtractive changes. Through the test illustrated below, participants mostly elected to follow the Additive Solution, rather than the Subtractive Solution. It is human nature to choose an additive approach. In the quest for simplifying IT, we know that subtractive is best. We call this Fierce Reduction. 


Simplifying IT

Although we have moved most enterprise IT from clunky on-premise systems to more affordable Web and mobile apps, organisations are still buried deep in bureaucracy, endless meetings. This is where paper and spreadsheets are still exploding. Design Thinking can enable digital innovation to emphasise the subtractive over the additive: "I/we should do less of ..." rather than "I/we should do more of ..."

In an Empathy Mapping Workshop, key questions to ask could be:

"Do you spend moere time acquiring information - when you should be be spending more time distilling what you already know?"

"Do you spend more time writing new content - when you should be editing existing content?"

"Are you busier today than you were three years ago?"

"Are your Web or mobile apps confusing you, with too many tabs or links to press next?"

Seeing more means overlooking less. The power of observation is key to the quest for subtractive outcomes in digital innovation.  


When it comes to Web and mobile apps, Fierce Reduction is key to maximising user experience and is very much a subtractive state of mind. In thinking of my three Design Principles, the User Interface (UI) design of each Web or mobile app screen is all about creating a Meaningful Journey. In turn, this often means clicking through more UI screens with fewer features or actions per screen, so engaging in Progressive Disclosure

A complex, life-critical process should be accompanied by a simple, easy-to-remember sequence of practices. For example, in emergency healthcare:

1. Does the Patient require immediate life-saving intervention?

2. How many and what resources will the patient need?

3. What are the patient's vital signs?

 A simple sequence, with Fierce Reduction truly applied to a process. In turn, this can ensure that you subtract before you improve (any related Web or mobile app). Less is more.


To apply Fierce Reduction to digital innovation, Design Thinking applies in the following way.

A. Invert. Try less before more.

B. Expand. Think add and subtract. 

C. Distill. Focus on people.

D. Persist. Keep subtracting.


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