Complicated systems reduce your flexibility.

Once upon a time, I used to work in the heart of London, in Covent Garden to be exact, as a freelance web developer.

However, during that period, I lived in Brighton, so every morning, I would wake up at some ungodly hour, pop myself on the train and commute up to London Victoria, where I would hop on the circle line eastbound and jump off at Embankment. Then do the reverse in order to arrive home in Brighton for around 8pm.

One sunny July day, I had finished a day of CSS template-ing for a certain government website and was on my merry way home to Brighton.

I had walked from Covent Garden, down Garwick Street, and onto the Strand. The air was warm and moist, I was wearing a shirt and had a backpack on with my laptop containing the day’s code, I could feel myself begin to break a sweat.

I made it down the always bustling Villiers Street to the entrance of embankment tube station, the people traffic was flowing quite smoothly. My head was full of thoughts about borders, margins and fonts. In a mindless move, I pulled out my Oyster card, ready to swipe at the automatic swing door gate.


While I was pulling out my card, I noticed two people ahead of me was a man (I think) that I can only describe as morbidly obese.

In an unfortunate series of events, he swiped his card, the doors open, he went through, and…

He got stuck.

In the middle of the automatic doors.

Which as part of their anti-cheating policy tried to close, but couldn’t.

So the alarm went off.

As the alarm went off, his attempts to free himself got more and more frantic.

Somehow, he wedged himself higher and higher, until his feet were no longer touching the ground and he was flailing with all available limbs in midair while he was stuck inbetween the doors.

In my commuter mindset, long before the alarm had gone off, I had subconsciously seen the potential delay and already moved to the smaller queue to the left and made it through the barriers.

As I looked back, my final vision of this appallingly tragic but also somehow comical situation was : a hot sweaty fat man, with a bright red face, stuck, trying to escape the barriers, being pushed through from one side by a helpful citizen, and with a loud siren piercing the airwaves meaning everyone in the near vicinity had turned to gawp in dismay at the unfolding events like a live episode of you’ve been framed.

I’m pretty sure this is not what the system designers had envisaged when they sat round thinking, “how can we stop people cheating the system.” but unfortunately some bright person said, “I know! Technology is the answer!”.

In Berlin, Germany, we don’t have barriers for the tram (advanced bus), u-bahn (underground) or s-bahn (overground).

Sometimes a conductor gets on the train to check your ticket and fine you if you don’t have one. Sometimes not. It’s a very simple system. It required no large investment in infrastructure and it solves the problem adequately.

Most importantly, I have never seen a fat person get trapped in the barriers in Berlin.

The thing is, people, in general, have a tendency to abuse the tools we have, to make solutions to problems more complex than they neccesarrily need to be. It’s sad but true. You see, it makes us feel more valuable, it makes our existence seem a bit more worthwhile and our pay checks justified. Who could blame us?

As Dan North said :

We are all complex-a-holics.

Ultimately, simplicity rules, maybe it’s time to ask yourself:

Is what you’re doing as simple as it could be?