black and white close up photo of scissors

It’s not that difficult to create or to add something. To remove what needs to be removed, to see what is unnecessary, what is getting in the way, that is such an unappreciated and deep skill. Not just that, to remove requires bravery. The old logic goes: "This thing is here. It must be useful." Once things are created and published they gain a status, an invisible protective layer.

Some years ago, Ben Holliday, who then worked for the UK government, wrote an article which mentioned Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman developed a philosophy called Share Space, which involved removing all traffic lights, signs and road markings from an area in a city. That was brave. Think of all the people who would have been against that. Think of the dangers. More pedestrians might get injured, killed even. That was a potentially life or death decision. “The results were the opposite of what most people expected,” Ben wrote. “The traffic moved slower, people paid more attention, and accidents ultimately declined.”

Progress bar indicators are a standard element in most digital designs. It’s just assumed they’re a good thing, that they help people navigate through a particular process. Ben and his team observed that most citizens didn’t even notice the progress bars and when they did, many got nervous or felt intimidated by them. They removed the progress bars. Their task completion rates and time-on-task remained the same. They had taken something from the environment and it wasn’t missed.

We should allocate some time every week deciding what we are going to remove. In a mature environment, most of our time should be spent maintaining because of what already exists will far outnumber what is new. To get to this frame of thinking we need to understand what success is. For Hans Monderman and his colleagues it was pretty clear what their goal was: “to create a high-quality environment offering equally high quality of life, serving people, not traffic,” explains traffic engineer Sjoerd Nota.

If your job is to design, if your job is to write, then you will likely be measured on what you have designed, what you have written.

  • “Oh, look, here comes Mary. She’s one of our designers. What have you been up to recently, Mary?”
  • “We’ve just removed all the progress bars from the website.”
  • “Oh, interesting … Ah, here’s Tom, another one of our designers. Hi Tom! What are you up to at the moment?”
  • “We’re about the launch a new feature …”

Those who create and launch are the people who are rewarded and looked up to because we still have a culture that rewards the production of things over everything else. To review, to maintain, to remove — this is all seen as lesser work. If we were measuring what really matters that would not be the case. In one town where Hans Monderman’s Shared Space philosophy was implemented, the number of accidents fell by 46% and the number of crash-related injuries by as much as 83%.

We need to truly identify what success is, and it is usually something out there in the world of the customer, rather than something inside in the world of the organization.