I just finished an article on David Sirlin’s blog about subtractive
design. I wanted to comment on it but the forum was seriously off topic so I
decided to share my thoughts here instead and make sure it gets to Sirlin as
In general, I agree with the concept which is based on the book Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander. It consists of subtracting any elements which isn’t essential to a design. Sirlin uses excellent game references such as Ico, Braid, Portal & Team Fortress 2 as well as stuff from other fields such as the Google Chrome browser. My thoughts are mostly related to the Google example…
It is definitely crucial to understand necessity in order to avoid over-complex designs. Google chrome is so pure and simple compare to Internet Explorer. They got rid of everything that was useless and even merge certain key elements together. But there’s one thing Sirlin did not explore in his article that I feel is quite relevant. He doesn’t mention the risk to alienate consumer’s habits while streamlining features from something already embedded in people’s culture. Most people I know are not big fans of Google Chrome which I love, but I am as far as you can get from mass market concerning internet browsers.
In Art of Innovation, Tom Kelley talks about many fascinating experiences IDEO went through over the years. One of them was about a toothpaste tube designed to prevent paste to get stock into the cap. They came up with a pretty good design and one of the necessary modification was to remove entirely the necessity to twist the cap. When they did consumer tests, they noticed everybody was twisting the cap anyway and had a hard time using it. They ended up adding a very small twist step and sure enough the product became natural for consumers. Certain features are embedded in our unconscious and even if they are poorly designed, we can’t get rid of them easily even if the new design is much better. IDEO are probably the masters of subtractive design and still, they constantly consider consumer habits to make sure they improve things one step at a time to avoid alienation.
Ico is an interesting game example for this. It's a great game but it wasn’t adopted by nearly enough players. Was that related to player’s habits? On Far Cry 2, we removed prone which is a classic position in FPS. PC gamers wished they had it. Their perception of the African environment was that it screamed for a prone. They did not know our AI would have destroyed them if they were in such a position and they did not care, they simply wanted it because for them it was natural. So really, where is the line between simplification and alienation?
While it is undeniably important to reduce our designs to the essential, starting a design with something we know and then reduce its content can lead to player's alienation. It is crucial to carefully validate if the process goes too far for a single iteration. Simplicity is a big step towards accessibility, but player’s habit awareness is also part of the equation.