Designing with constraints

An experiment on ideation & productivity

E-commerce companies are always under pressure. They need to take feedback, iterate & release better versions of their product at an ever increasing rate.

And designing for an industry leader, like MakeMyTrip, does not make the task any simpler. Because innovation is not the only metric we look at. There is much more at stake — a failed experiment could result in loss of revenue or brand image.

So often the question we are answering is why fix something that isn’t broken? Many a times design teams of established companies end up working on micro-optimisations that hardly move the needle. Their design approach becomes increasingly incremental. Because internal stakeholders encourage them to stay within the comfort zone of what’s already done and working fine.

For designers, such environments are conducive to a good old fashioned designer’s block.

The doctor’s treatment is as helpful to the patient as short sighted incremental changes can be to a product

But, we at MakeMyTrip decided to break out of this vicious circle. We understood that it isn’t only about innovating the product but also innovating the way we build it.

And so we organised a disrupt session.

Participants in the midst of discussions

Simply put, a disrupt session is a productivity hack. It is a time based brainstorming session that enables ideation. We came across it in Adriaan Renwick’s post How we disrupt ideation.

Though there are no fixed rules, the key features of this approach are:

The more the merrier

Instead of 1 interaction designer sitting for 3 days to come up with 5–6 variant solutions, we bring together designers, product managers, content writers, business development executives etc. to ideate in small groups. This is beneficial because:

  • Together, the teams come up with a much larger number of ideas compared to one person.
  • Due to their varied subject matter expertise, participants ideate from different POVs and churn out more holistic solutions.
  • As designers, it gives us a chance to include stakeholders into our design process. And at the same time, it helps us look at the problem with fresh eyes in light of new perspectives that we gain from our stakeholders.

Theme based thought

As we have limited time, we must optimise our goal. Every disrupt session must have a theme (a broad vision). And based on it, certain predefined focus areas that participants ideate on.

Keep visible deadlines

Brainstorming or ideating in groups can become unproductive if we have no deadline. The idea is that putting a cap on the time you spend ideating can boost productivity and force you to think beyond the obvious faster.

Timely introduction of constraints

When we introduce the user need, we do not burden our participants with the various limitations we have to face. We allow them to analyse the very base of the need — whether it even exists. Constraints (whether it is the user’s environment, tech/content limitations) are only introduced after an initial discussion/ brainstorm session.


Our Game Plan

We function in a hyper-competitive market where most products including our own, are discount driven. And though the growth achieved by discount driven business models is substantial. It isn’t always sustainable.

Our aim, as a company, is to move away from the discounting model. We want to start retaining customers and improve life-time value to affect sustainable growth and a better bottom line.

This vision led us to the premise of the disrupt session:

Can content drive conversion?

That is, can improving the quality of information available to the user, keep him engaged for longer? Can it increase the number of hotel bookings?

We started by identifying themes — user/stakeholder needs that we want to solve. Then, we went one step further and defined focus areas — particular sections of our task flow where said theme could manifest.

We deviated from the way such a session is typically held. We customised the process to our needs. And kept the session 2 to 2.5 hours long:

First 15 mins| Kickoff:

We divide participants into groups of 3–4 people. And take them through an overview of the disrupt process (we talk about our aim for doing this activity and explain the theme of that session).

Next 30 mins | Initial brainstorming:

Teams discussing and jotting down their solutions on post-its

We allow participants to freely brainstorm on the theme free from limitations. We question the user/stakeholder need and try to generate as many solutions as possible — good, bad, ugly, et al. Each team puts up their ideas for the other teams to read/ understand.

Next 5 minutes | Vote down round:

Participants going through other teams’ solutions

We take some time to observe and understand all the ideas presented. Then, participants vote down the ideas from other teams that they deem unviable. As a facilitator, one must ensure that there are no differences in opinion about whether an idea should be voted down or not.

Next 5 minutes | Introducing constraints:

Design is the art of gradually applying constraints until only one solution remains.
— unknown author

We now introduce constraints. The participants analyse their proposed solutions keeping real world constraints in mind. These could the user’s environment, technical constraints, content constraints etc.

Next 45 minutes | Zero down on solutions:

Teams detailed out their initial idea in this round

We ask participants to return to their teams now. And work on ideas that weren’t voted out in the previous round.

We give participants more time in this round because we expect them to go into a more detail. More than a concept sketch, we expect them to design with a use case in mind so that they present their final solutions as task flows.

Last 10 minutes | Vote up round:

A storm of post-its after the final round of voting

Teams present their final variations — Ideally a low-fi “happy path” to explain the concept broadly. Finally we ask all participants to vote up the most viable solutions from other teams.


What do you gain from a disrupt session?

One must not compare this session to a sprint — where we churn out user tested prototypes. This exercise focuses on ideation. It helped us:

- build an internally validated repository of ideas.

- determine the approach and the time required to pull it off.

The design solutions we came up with in this session are:

Wholesome

These solutions don’t just cater to a narrow sub section of the product but are conceptualised keeping the entire product’s ecosystem in mind.

Conceptualised — re-worked — voted up

Since everyone worked together from the start, stakeholders feel more confident about the solutions.


My learnings from this session

Here at MakeMyTrip, we held 7 such 2h sessions. And the biggest challenges I faced as a facilitator were:

  • Keeping a group of people focused and motivated towards the task at hand.
Coaxing people can feel like herding cats
  • Time management. When I wore the hat of a facilitator, I had to stop being my team’s partner in crime. Trying to keep people focused and pushing them to stay within time limit often made me the object of their annoyance. Sometimes even the butt of their jokes.
My team’s passive aggressive sense of humour :P

But I also learned a few things along the way:

On-boarding and common repository:

Dedicate enough time to on-boarding at the beginning of the session. If possible, create a repository of common screens/ existing designs that participants can refer to. This helps avoid redundancy. Often, people who aren’t as closely involved in your line of business end up working on ideas that you’ve already worked on or implemented.

Quantity over quality in the first brainstorm session:

In the first round, encourage participants to focus on thinking of different ideas — as varied as possible. It is common to find participants go into too much detail of one idea. They lose time. And at this stage, they do not know the viability of the ideas as they do not know the constraints.

Timing matters:

Stick to the timelines as closely as possible. It should be alright to overshoot by 15–30 minutes but any more and the productivity of the session will decrease. It is common to find participants blaming facilitators for not giving them enough time.

Get people out of their comfort zones

Perhaps a rookie mistake — for ease of access I picked a meeting room close to everyone’s usual seating area. This backfired on me as participants were not able to segregate themselves from their usual work environment. They were easily distracted from the session.

Pick a space that is away from the usual seating area but not too far — perhaps a meeting room on another floor? That way, participants come out of their comfort zone and others aren’t able to reach them as easily to cause distraction.


This exercise helped us move faster. It also helped break the designer’s block that our team was in. Have you tried any such productivity hacks? Would you agree they add value?