When you use Subtraction, you don’t always have to eliminate the component. There is also what we call “Partial Subtraction.” It is a valid technique as long as the product or service that remains delivers a new benefit. To deploy Partial Subtraction, you pick a component and then eliminate a specific feature of that component. Consider the case of Twitter, a microblogging application used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. By simply restricting each tweet to 140 characters, Twitter has become a vast digital conversation about what individuals around the globe are thinking and doing. A Partial Subtraction of the traditional blog down to 140 characters dramatically increased the volume of and participation in this Internet phenomenon. How did it happen?
Twitter founders Noah Glass, Jack Dorsey, and others knew that the concept was right and that they had a potential hit on their hands. Their intent was to create a service that allowed people to send text messages to many friends at one time. Originally, Twitter was supposed to be only a way for people to easily update their friends on their current status.
But when attempting to build a service with text messaging as its foundation, the Twitter team ran into challenges. First, texts were expensive. On top of that, phone companies imposed a limit on the size of text messages. Any text message of more than 160 characters is automatically split into two messages. So the first thing that the Twitter founders did was to place a limit on the number of characters in a short message service (SMS) text (now called a “tweet”). They Partially Subtracted text messages by reducing the size to 140. That left room for the sender’s user name and the colon in front of the message. In February 2007, Dorsey wrote, “One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.”
He was right. Today more than 100 million users subscribe to Twitter. The Twitter website gets more than 400 million unique visitors each month. It has become the global “listening post” when real-time events such as the March 2011 Japanese tsunami and the Egyptian revolution two months earlier are happening. Glass said in an interview, “You know what’s awesome about this thing? It makes you feel like you’re right with that person. It’s a whole emotional impact. You feel like you’re connected.”
Partial Subtraction can create just as much value as the full Subtraction Technique. Partial Subtractions have another advantage. Sometimes you can convince skeptics to do a Partial Subtraction rather than stripping out a component completely to get them on board.