Product Innovation – What can you Subtract?


Share on LinkedIn

Image by Kai62 on Pixabay
There is a strong human tendency to add rather than to subtract – even when subtraction is an easier and better solution. Nature magazine recently published a paper with the headline – People Systematically Overlook Subtractive Changes. The study was carried out by Adams, Converse, Hales and Klotz at the University of Virginia. Here is an abstract of what they found.

‘We investigated whether people are as likely to consider changes that subtract components from an object, idea or situation as they are to consider changes that add new components. People typically consider a limited number of promising ideas in order to manage the cognitive burden of searching through all possible ideas, but this can lead them to accept adequate solutions without considering potentially superior alternatives. Here we show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations. Across eight experiments, with different conditions, participants were less likely to identify advantageous subtractive changes. Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape and damaging effects on the planet.’

In one experiment, people were asked to change a pattern on a grid of coloured squares so as to make it symmetrical. Fully 78% chose to add squares even though taking away existing squares was an equally good solution. In another study, participants were asked to improve an essay – 80% added material while only 16% cut words out. We see something similar in the many books which could have been much more concise. They would have benefited from pruning, yet the author and editor chose to add rather than subtract.

It is generally agreed that the tax codes in most countries (and certainly in the USA and UK) are far too complex and provide many provisions and loopholes that can be exploited by clever accountants. A simplified tax code would be easier to administer and would collect more revenue. Yet each new finance minister tends to add new clauses and tax breaks rather than eliminating them.

Innovation efforts tend to follow similar lines. When people are asked for ideas on how to improve a product or service, they typically add more features. But many products suffer from feature bloat today – which makes them unwieldy and complex to use. It is rare for people to suggest slimming down a product by eliminating little-used functions. I dare say that your mobile device is overloaded with apps that are rarely used.

When planning a new product or service start by focussing on the market leading product (or products). List its top features and identify the benefit which customers get from each of the features. What problems are solved and how important are they? Then prioritise the list. From a customer perspective which are the most valuable and least valuable features? You may need input from a survey or focus group to help at this stage.

Ask what features could we add to our product to make it more valuable and different. Brainstorm this topic and come up with ideas which will appeal to some customers and make your new product stand out. Prioritise the ideas by customer appeal and feasibility.

Now look at the features of the leading product and ask – what elements could we eliminate? In particular look for ways to make the product or service simpler, easier to use and cheaper to produce. Focus on the items which are of lesser value to the customers but add complexity to the offer. Prioritise two or three.

Next put together your new product packages. Add and subtract. Can you differentiate your innovation and increase the appeal of the product – maybe to a certain segment of the market – by adding something and removing something else? Does the new combination work? It does not have to appeal to the whole market. It is more important to find one segment which would love it.

Consider the Apple iPhone compared to the Blackberry. The iPhone added new functionality such as camera and music while eliminating the physical keyboard. Similarly with the low-cost airline Ryanair. It eliminated allocated seating and travel agents. It added new destinations of smaller airports that the major airlines did not use. And it offered lower cost.

Don’t just add features for the sake of adding features. Add something special and at the same time eliminate something costly or awkward. Give with one hand and take away with the other.

Paul Sloane
I am the author of 25 books on lateral thinking, innovation, leadership and puzzles. I speak, train and blog on these topics. See my Tedx talk, Are You Open-Minded? on Youtube. Join my 40,000 followers on Twitter. Have me speak at your event.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here