Why “less is more” in industrial design is difficult: we are cognitively biased to add, not subtract

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If your child is learning to ride a bike, you will add training wheels. But one of the smartest “hacks” I have ever seen was in Japan in the 90s, where a clever father deleted the pedals of her child’s bike. The child sat on the bike and rode the street, Fred-Flintstone, using his feet to move forward. After 20 minutes, the father puts the pedals back on. The child then pedaled, very shaky and hesitant, but did not fall. Her body had already figured out how to balance itself while riding the bike. And the father didn’t have to buy training wheels. *

Check out this LEGO construction below. He won’t stand up straight. How would you fix it in one go?

Chances are your instinct was to add a brick to the left side. Far fewer people remove a brick from the right side.

Why? Leidy Klotz, an engineer and professor of architecture at the University of Virginia who “studies the science of design,” was playing with LEGOs with his son when he known the example above. “I reached out behind me to grab a block to add to the shorter tower. As I turned to the future bridge, three-year-old Ezra removed a block from the taller tower. My impulse had been d ‘add to the short support, and at that point I realized that was wrong: removing the top support was a faster and more efficient way to create a level bridge. “

Klotz brought the LEGO test to Dr. Gabrielle Adams, another AVU professor who teaches experimental design. She too instinctively added a block to the shorter tower. Klotz explained Ezra’s solution to him.

“Oh,” Dr. Adams said. “So you wonder if we are neglecting subtraction as a way to make a difference? ” A study, “People consistently overlook subtractive changes,” was born.

Klotz and Dr Adams worked with psychology professor Ben Converse and postdoctoral student Andy Hales to design eight experiments where test subjects could choose to add or subtract items to a variety of tasks. As an example, they were shown this pattern on a grid, where they can add or remove green squares. They were asked to make the pattern symmetrical.

78% of participants did so by adding green squares to the left rather than subtracting from the right.

Participants were asked to improve an essay they had written. 80% text added, rather than subtracting.

In this modification of the LEGO test, participants were asked to ‘improve’ the design, the only condition being that the minifigure must still be able to fit under the roof:

The majority added more supports to the roof, rather than just removing the one block that keeps the roof from lining up.

“We asked research participants to make changes to designs, trials, recipes, routes, structures and even mini-golf holes,” the researchers explain. write. “Our studies show that the first instinct of people is to change things by adding. When they are able and willing to think a little longer, they are perfectly capable of finding subtractive changes. But they usually don’t think longer. . They quickly identify an additive. Idea that’s good enough, put it into action and move on. “

The researchers found that simply reminding participants that subtraction was an option increased the chances of them using a subtractive solution. They also found that distracting subjects during an experiment – increasing their “cognitive load” by forcing them to simultaneously check a sequence of numbers scrolling on a screen – led them to additive solutions, which appears to be our bias. natural cognitive.

Think of these scrolling numbers like an avalanche of emails

So if you are the design manager and want to see more streamlined designs from your team: remind them less is more. Do not distract them with managerial BS when they enter the area. And if you can afford to take the time pressure off even a little bit (I know, big luck), do it.

Klotz, incidentally, subsequently wrote a book on the subject: “Subtract – The untapped science less. “

Whether we are building Lego models or cities, grilled cheese sandwiches or strategic plans, our minds tend to add before taking away. Even when we think about it, subtraction can be more difficult to achieve because a range of biological, cultural, and economic forces push us towards Following. But we have a choice: our blind spot must not continue to wreak havoc on our cities, our institutions and our minds. By diagnosing our neglect of subtraction, we can treat it. “

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* Unfortunately, I learned that the trick of removing the pedals was marketed by an American inventor in 2007 in a bike made without pedals. It is even cited in the work of the researcher. But rather than buying a bike without pedals that becomes worthless to the kid once they have mastered the balance, I think removing the pedals from an existing bike temporarily is much less expensive in the long run. Ironically, this pedal-less bike is actually an example of additive thinking.


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