Design Constraints: Why Saying “No” is so Effective
By Micah Bowers, Designer
Picture a vegetable peeler. This is a device that exists in most homes, and you probably don’t think about it very often, unless you or someone else in your home has trouble using it. In 1989 inventor and product designer Sam Farber noticed his wife, whose grip strength was weakened by arthritis, struggling to operate the standard-issue kitchen peeler.
This was a problem looking for a solution, but would it be worth it to re-imagine such a common product around specific constraints for what would be considered an edge-case audience? Farber was inspired to take on the challenge and designed a range of kitchen tools with the constraint of impaired mobility and strength at its core. The new tools had wider grips that required far less tensile pressure, with soft plastic to make them more comfortable to use. The resulting designs appealed (ap-peeled) not only to people with arthritic hands, but became a big hit with a general audience, too.
The company that grew out of designing within this constraint is OXO Good Grips, and their wide range of over 500 kitchen products are in homes all over the world. Their products have won numerous design awards and are used as a case study at Harvard Business School. With a laser-like focus on a singular problem for a very specific audience, Farber created highly successful products that went beyond their initial constraints.
Trying to Work with Very Little
As designers, one of our most important tasks is to shape our clients’ products around a simple, yet captivating, idea. Then, we turn that idea into useful information for the benefit of others.
But it doesn’t always go smoothly. Quite often, our clients have grand ideas that distract from their product’s core feature.
Maybe they want their workout timer to also have profiles, groups, and messaging so that they can become “The Facebook of fitness.” Or perhaps they want to include features that clash with their product’s category, like a productivity app that notifies users of activity on their social accounts.
From experience, we know that a do-it-all approach seldom works, so we guide our clients through focused research toward a clearer understanding of their unique market value, target audience, and competitors. When they continue to insist that their idea will work for everybody, we warn, “If you try to cater to everyone, you risk reaching no one.”
Sometimes, a stubborn client comes along, and none of our coaching seems to get through. Before giving into any impractical, feature-packed plans, remember this article. Remember constraints.
The Power of Strict Limitations
In one sense, constraints are like gravity. They’re an inescapable reality of every design project, an oppositional force without which our creative decisions would be untethered to context and free to float into a vast and vacant sky.
However, we can harness the power of constraints by consciously choosing to place strict limits on design options, and we needn’t look beyond our own smartphones to find compelling examples of how this works.
Snapchat, Raise, Bumble, Service, and Instagram — each of these five apps was designed with a core constraint that intentionally limited user options.
These constraints are essential to the interaction expectations that users trust, but they in no way create a limited user experience, nor do they hinder feature expansion or brand evolution.
In fact, early feature constraints often pave the way for a more robust user experience as people learn to trust a product, and seek new ways to include it in their lives. From the initial design of a comfortable vegetable peeler for someone with arthritis, the OXO Good Grips company went on to turn that initial constraint as a guiding force to continually develop comfortable kitchen products that everyone loves.
Back in 2012, users relied on Snapchat to send disappearing photos and videos to friends. Snaps lasted anywhere between one and 10 seconds before vanishing from Snapchat’s servers forever.
Early users (especially teens) embraced the opportunity to share honest, unguarded moments with close friends without the fear that their private correspondence would haunt them for years to come.
In 2013, Snapchat began allowing photos and videos to be linked into “Stories” that are viewable for up to 24 hours.
Raise is a marketplace app created for buying and selling discounted and unwanted gift cards… and nothing else.
The concept of exchanging gift cards through an app may seem odd to some, but Raise is building a solid reputation among value-oriented users, seeking for deals and savings.
Raise’s main constraint is tied to its sole product offering: gift cards. By positioning itself as a savings-oriented brand, could Raise be laying the groundwork to become a marketplace for well-known companies to offer exclusive deals, and sell digital gift cards.
Led by former Tinder employees, Bumble is a dating app where female users must initiate messaging with their male matches. If a girl doesn’t reach out to a guy within 24 hours of being matched, he disappears from her feed.
Female users enjoy the safety and confidence that comes from connecting with matches on their own terms.
Likewise, guys are relieved of the pressure to pursue and impress total strangers, and initial interactions are less awkward.
BumbleBFF launched in 2016, which allows users to make friends using similar interaction constraints to their dating app. The BFF app uses the same constraints of the app for same-sex dating (both users have 24 hours to begin a conversation). Many users had already begun using the dating app for friend-finding purpose, and began requesting that Bumble to make an app for making friends.
“I love calling customer service… said no one ever.” That’s the tagline for Service, an app where people submit issues they’ve had with a business and simply wait for a resolution.
By focusing on a specific problem that few people (let alone businesses) want to handle, Service has cultivated a reputation for saving users’ time and protecting their sanity.
After the success of their website, Service launched an app with a hyper-minimal interface (“get help with the tap of a button”) to allow their users to begin to solve their customer experience problems on the go — as soon as they happen.
When Instagram launched as an iPhone app in 2016, the only way users could upload photos was through the mobile app itself (meaning no web uploads).
Founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger believed this constraint was key to realizing their vision of Instagram becoming a place where people posted images, “on the go… in real time.”
Instagram users rely on the platform to share and view images that show life as it’s lived, in its many diverse forms, amongst users across the globe.
This particular constraint hasn’t changed. The app is still the only way for Instagram users to upload photos.
However, another of Instagram’s original constraints has evolved. From the app’s launch, all images were required to fit within a square aspect ratio. The square was a practical way to keep a consistent visual interface, but it received pushback in the form of black and white padding added to images by users.
In 2015, Instagram began allowing full-bleed images, and pro photographers everywhere cried silent tears of joy.
Creating Constraints on Your App
Wondering how to integrate successful constraints into current or future product design projects? Don’t look to reinvent the wheel. The apps we just examined are a perfect place to begin building your own constraint library. Here are five powerful freebies taken directly from the big leagues.
- Snapchat: Limit the amount of time that users may access content.
- Raise: Build a marketplace focused on one simple, yet widely used product and no others.
- Bumble: Give a specific group of users abilities that other users don’t have.
- Service: Shape the app around a problem that most people experience but don’t have the time or desire to solve.
- Instagram: Limit the device (or location if you want to push it further) from which users may share content.
Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
As designers, we should strive to help our clients understand and act on the power of these words, but telling someone that her product should be simple is not enough.
We must show simplicity at work in real world examples, design a clear plan for its implementation, and provide assurance when larger visions are intentionally delayed so that a smaller, more relatable idea may take root, and grow strong.
After all, our craft is clarity not concession. The foundation of our profession, The Design Process (Define, Research, Brainstorm, Develop, Assess, Improve), exists to help us bring order to chaos.
Of course, it can be scary to tell a client, “Your plans are lacking direction. Here’s how we fix them.”. But, that’s our job.
There’s no guarantee that our advice will be acted upon, but fearful silence in the face of a blatantly unfocused product vision is like pouring a glass of juice to the brim, handing it to a baby in his first week of walking, watching it inevitably spill, and proclaiming with a shrug, “I thought he might be able to handle it.”
Originally published at www.toptal.com.
Micah is a freelance illustrator and brand designer who believes that design should tell a story.