Taking-things-away Value

At Quora, someone asked this question:

“Why is Dropbox more popular than other programs with similar functionality”

A respondent named Michael Wolfe wrote back with what is probably the best and most amusing answer on Quora yet (read the whole thing):

“There would be a folder. You’d put your stuff in it. It would sync. They built that”.

Then he paraphrases various product managers and service designer arguments that more features should be added, responding:

“No, shut up. People don’t use that crap. They just want a folder. A folder that syncs”.

The whole is extremely amusing and very to the point. And the point is this:

We are all accustomed to thinking in terms of putting stuff into products and services. We imagine that by doing so, we’re actually creating new value for customers.

Well, of course we are creating new value, but to whom to does that value accrue? I’d argue – controversially – that most of the value is gained by suppliers, who can charge higher prices. Customers, do they really want all this extra stuff?

There’s a lot to be said for creating value by taking things away. Taking-things-away value accrues to the customer. And not just in terms of price either.

Dropbox creates value because it is just so simple. Even my family, who have technology distortion fields that break anything on a computer that’s in the same room as them, use Dropbox. Because they can use Dropbox, while everything else has too much stuff for them to understand.

In government, and before that in banking, I spent days in meetings arguing about extra stuff. Everyone has a little thing they need to add to a system, service or product without which their particular interest group cannot function.

But Dropbox, and everything else like it which is simple proves a point: if you design something well enough, there are no special interest groups. The core functionality can be used by pretty much everyone without anything special.

I really think the future of product and service design is going to be more of this reductionism to the basic in the future.  You want to do your one-big-thing exceptionally, just as DropBox does.

You also want to make it simple for customers to add your one-big-thing to other people’s one-big-things, of course. That way customers can customise for their own special interest groups, if they’re of a mind to do so.

As innovators, this is fertile territory, I think. And it is one that’s largely unexplored. When I look through the various ideas in idea management systems I’ve been responsible for, I see lots of ideas that add stuff. But I hardly ever see ideas that take stuff away, ideas that focus on being exceptional at the one-big-thing.

And I know the reason why. It’s because organisations don’t reward going basic. That’s seen as going downmarket, rather than improvement. It is this, I think, that needs to change in the future.

14 Responses to“Taking-things-away Value”

  1. February 14, 2011 at 1:22 am #

    Good post, James.

    But you missed perhaps a better example.

    Google. The page has one box. The search box. Compare that to the one that went before it, Yahoo. Who has the bigger market share now?

    That illustrates your point, I think!

    • James Gardner
      February 14, 2011 at 2:01 am #

      Oh, that’s a perfect example – thanks Neil!

  2. February 14, 2011 at 2:11 am #

    A good point, simply made. I have always like the line by Saint-Exupery, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

    And Google is an interesting example of a slight different kind of simplicity, which I wrote about a while ago – you will like the cartoon, and instantly recognise the third panel.

    • James Gardner
      February 14, 2011 at 10:05 am #

      Oh, LOL. I *do* recognise the third panel. Thanks for commenting, despite the fact that comments are in the wrong timezone! 🙂

  3. February 14, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

    I think Google’s rise had more to do with web spam. The off-the-shelf tech that AltaVista sold was very vulnerable to link farming. (Google’s anti-spam is starting to fray at the edges now too.) Yahoo cluttering their front page didn’t break anyone’s conception of a search engine. Adding levers and widgets to a folder would – it makes it the wrong shape. Wrong shaped things break user’s expectations.

    (Interestingly, re: Google..)

    • February 14, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

      I’m with James on this one. For example, Apple didn’t invent the Smartphone. It just stripped out the crap the others had put in and made everything more accessible to the market.

      I doubt many users cared about web spam or even know what it is. They just wanted to find stuff.

  4. February 14, 2011 at 6:46 pm #

    I like the argument. Does it apply to a services product? For example, if I’m selling IT consultancy services then as you say complexity is my friend as the customer needs more specialist skills (and patience!) that act as a barrier to them going it on their own. But if I strip my consultancy offering bare, then do I do myself out of business rather than accruing “taking-things-away value” to the customer?

  5. February 15, 2011 at 1:05 am #


    “Designing the Obvious” by Robert Hoekman Jr has a good discussion around this theme, and from what I remember it uses Dropbox as an example.

    The question is whether the 80:20 Pareto rule applies to your business or not. In many sectors / app areas it’s true that the 20% (simple, clutter-free and highly usable) functionality will meet the needs of 80% of the market, and it’s best to focus on this rather than the 20% “nice-to-have” features that result in bloated, overly complex and expensive code.

  6. February 15, 2011 at 4:59 am #

    Great post!

    I fully agree with you that: ‘I really think the future of product and service design is going to be more of this reductionism to the basic in the future.’

    Featuritis leads to me-too-ism. The one company that epitomizes brutal simplicity is Apple. They do it so well that it’s just expected. See this article with further commentary: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2011/01/28/apop012811.DTL


    Jorge (@jorgebarba)

  7. Mark Higgins
    February 16, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    Hi James,

    A very interesting post. I’m with you – I think suppliers have a natural tendency to reinvent a perfectly good round wheel that needs no improving. But with the tendency to free, vendors have to refresh heir offering in order to justify the continued charging. Not sure I have the answer to this dynamic.

    Disappointingly, our Security weenies here will instantly block anything like Dropbox which could be remotely useful to someone like me.


  8. February 16, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

    > I doubt many users cared about web spam or even know what it is. They just wanted to find stuff.
    I refer you to the 6 spam comments above 🙂 It was hard to find stuff when Yahoo through everything was p0rn, warez or gambling. Wrapping a portal around the search box wasn’t the deal breaker, because it didn’t break the user’s expectations.

    • James Gardner
      February 17, 2011 at 5:22 am #


      I have activated a Spam plugin on WordPress, which a newbie error made me forget to do. With any luck, there’ll be much less of that on here now.

      Thanks for commenting.

  9. cheap
    November 7, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    , , , , ,


  1. Tweets that mention Taking-things-away Value -- Topsy.com - February 14, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Graham Hill, Johnnie Moore, Spiro Spiliadis, James Gardner, Ian McDonald and others. Ian McDonald said: Taking-things-away Value http://bit.ly/eTpKjT Good post by @bankervision – neve forget simplicity! […]

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