Embracing creative constraints and experimentation to design kick-ass experiences

Illustration by Augusto Jacquier

In an experience driven economy, one that demands products and services differentiate themselves on how memorable they are, it’s critical we embrace the most innovative and efficient solutions to a given challenge or opportunity. How do we find these solutions? How can we foster and encourage creativity in their seeking? Does following a particular process help or hinder us?

Establishing a process which promotes both creativity and efficiency can be its own challenge, one which is often helped by adding creative constraints to assist in focus and prioritisation.

Increasingly, organisations are looking at the role structured experimentation plays in the design process and how conducting experiments within a framework can help drive increasingly greater value.

Why add constraints?

So we need to create these awesome solutions, why then do we self-impose or openly embrace constraints that might roadblock our efforts? Do the ‘shackles’ of process and other associated constraints encourage creative solutions?

We can talk in depth about the perception that constraints limit creativity generally and solutions within design specifically. Certainly they can feel limiting at first glance but there is much evidence which concludes that certain constraints help to produce the most creative solutions.

What is considered a creative constraint then? Simply, anything that can limit the approach in someway. The piece of marble provided to the sculptor, the hardware features of the targeted phone or timeframe can all be used to focus the approach and design.

A great TedED video explains why the apparent liberation of a formless approach to problem solving can result in wildly unfocused pursuits to a solution.

“Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity loves constraints, but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible.” — Marissa Meyer

If we accept this as the case, the question then becomes which constraints should we apply? How should they be applied to organisations creating digital products, services and eco-systems?

Enter experimentation.

Experimentation as a constraint

For the purposes of experience design, experimentation has two aspects, culture and process. We will focus on the process here as creating a culture of experimentation is a whole article (at the very least!) of its own.

“..rigorous online experiments should be standard operating procedure.
If a company develops the software infrastructure and organisational skills to conduct them, it will be able to assess not only ideas for websites but also potential business models, strategies, products, services, and marketing campaigns” — Harvard Business Review “The Surprising Power of Online Experiments”

We ensure that frameworks we create and use at Isobar contain a set of consistently understood constraints. These constraints should be initially articulated within the hypothesis and then considered in the method of testing.

Internal Isobar document

The requirements needed to create a complete hypothesis now form the foundational creative constraints we use to discover, create and refine awesome experiences.

We can then break down the challenge, solution and expected result components of the hypothesis further. This allows the identification and addition of even more (useful) constraints, and often results in further hypotheses being generated for consideration, great!

E.g Which persona, audience or segment is this solution likely to be affected by? Will other elements of the experience likely be affected? How much of an impact will there be to relevant business areas and customers?

Asking these questions will undoubtedly add richness and definition to the solutions and often have the added benefit of uncovering opportunities for other, previously untargeted parts of the experience.

From an efficiency standpoint, experiments are almost always worth our time, it’s rare even a ‘failed’ experiment will yield no usable insights. There are many great principles employed by teams to ensure all ‘experiments count’.

Certainly, it is too simplistic to say an experiment has failed rather than a specific hypothesis has been proven incorrect. Instead, consider all experiments are the springboard from which new avenues are discovered or iteration can occur.

Employing experimentation frameworks

Expanding the constraints offered to us by the ‘generic’ structure of an experiment, frameworks include elements specific to the project, team or organisation in which they are used. These specific elements help ensure the constraints used to discover solutions are relevant and contextual.

“Design depends largely on constraints. The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognise as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list. “ — Charles Eames

At Isobar, our experience design experiments, in collaboration with clients, usually happen on a digital channel or platform of some kind so our base framework acknowledges this and includes a ‘professional hunch’ section. These ‘hunches’ allow experiment ideas to be captured freely at any time, including during workshops and co-design sessions prior to more formal qualitative and/or quantitative data being collected.

The same constraints are still applied to all hunches which helps the team focus on how their idea could solve the problem, for whom and in what way.

The consistency and awareness of the elements that make up your framework allow people employing it to easily understand the ideas, iterate upon them or offer their own.

Some additional capability within the framework to register any expected effort and impact (both customer and business) so any proposed solutions can be ranked and prioritised should definitely be considered as your mature your framework. At the very least, all frameworks should demand a measure of success for the experiment as this, perhaps more than any other, is the constraint any solution should work towards.

Get experimenting

Where does this leave us? Hopefully, with an understanding that constraints are critical in the creation of truly creative, innovative solutions to experience design challenges.

Specifically, the types of constraints afforded by a design process which includes an experimentation framework at its heart will ensure discovery in the most efficient and exciting ways possible.

Dave Calleja, Associate Design Director — Experimentation

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