How We Learnt to Embrace Constraints and Love Complexity

Martin Brown
Craig Walker
Published in
5 min readJul 2, 2020


Ideas are a dime a dozen,’ a client once told me, ‘Just give me an idea that works through all this mess.’

He pointed to the Gordian-knot of a diagram we had just spent the last hour attempting to map out. The nearly indecipherable scribble was the client organisation’s customer data environment. Systems pointing to systems, departments criss-crossing departments, and byzantine internal and statutory regulations governing the whole ecosystem.

Now, I thought, now we’re getting somewhere.

We all know that solving for customer needs is at the heart of a human centred approach to innovation — but designing real solutions requires more than a narrow focus on what’s desirable. It requires diving head-first into the wry mess of constraints of what’s feasible, and working with those constraints from the beginning. Designing solutions that actually work requires the design team to walk a tightrope: to fully immerse themselves in the constraints of the system, while also maintaining the optimism and creativity of the outsider. What we’ve learnt is that it’s far more effective to spend the time to learn and actively work with the constraints, rather than scuttle around them in the hope they’ll evaporate.

Google/Fairfax: from paper prototyping to live code

Platform as a constraint

We worked with Google & Fairfax to address the challenge of how to better service their small- and medium-sized advertisers. At the crux of the challenge was more than addressing customer needs — though pivoting their CVP was a crucial step in the project — the real challenge lay in leveraging Google’s AdWords platform to provide what was necessary.

To solve this, our team built a digital experience prototype, and by integrating live code into it, could place real customer ads across the advertising network, feeding back real data around campaign performance.

What we discovered was that there were important gaps between what the platform was supposed to offer and what was it actually was technically capable of. Through prototyping, we were able to learn from customers and, crucially, solve for the technical platform constraints that were necessary for successful delivery.

Organisational complexity as a constraint

When Westpac contacted us, they were encountering ongoing challenges in developing a new personal advice conversation guide. Behind the jargon, this was essentially a tool to help bankers have more productive financial discussions with customers, while staying within tight regulatory boundaries. It was clear we needed to unlock the stasis.

In three weeks, we built and tested a prototype with feedback from bankers and customers and close engagement from IT, legal and product. Suddenly, there was a possible solution that could galvanise the organisation toward action. A follow-on three month project was launched to iterate the design, expanding the scope across a suite of additional financial products.

The resulting prototype was a comprehensive, fully implementable, legally compliant side-by-side tool to create better conversations with customers. By creating a working prototype alongside an implementation strategy, we were able to align multiple departments around a thing: a solution that was not just solving genuine customer needs, but built with the delivery constraints front of mind. The new system was launched in 2017 across the Westpac Group’s 1200 branches, Australia-wide.

Regulations as a constraint

For heavily regulated industries such as insurance, it’s often the customer that bears the brunt of innovation stagnation. We were invited by a major insurer to help redefine an insurance product that hadn’t seen any fundamental innovation in nearly 40 years. Our research found a customer base suspicious of a set of insurance products that felt archaic and out of touch with modern-day Australian life. Not unexpectedly, there was a tangle of legal, organisational and technical constraints that were getting in the way of delivering what customers wanted.

Chief amongst these constraints was the use of a customer’s own data to help them make more informed choices. Accessing, processing and presenting the data back to the user in meaningful ways encompassed a raft of technical challenges, but by far the biggest challenge was ensuring the solution complied with a continually evolving regulatory environment.

Defining what is and isn’t compliant can’t be resolved through abstractions — we needed to have tangible examples to test. Only then, could the legal and compliance issues be worked through.

So we assembled a cross-functional team, embedding with experts from product, legal, digital and marketing to ideate designs. We then built out promising solutions as end-to-end digital prototypes, and iterated them with users, delivery experts and with legal, to ensure that what we proposed was not only desirable, but technically deliverable and legally compliant, too.

The creation of new products and services within large, complex organisations can be a treacherous process. Navigating complex organisational, technical and regulatory constraints — it’s easy to become ensnared by them. But by embracing those constraints, working hand-in-hand with experts, we can continue to design bold and creative new solutions.

Sometimes you don’t need a sword to slice through the knot, you just need a good prototype.

Contact us if you’d like to know more.