Finding Inspiration Through Design Constraints

Feb 27, 2014

If you could only communicate through a business-card sized screen, what would you say and how would you say it? In which ways could people respond to your message? These are some of the questions constraints lead us to ask, and the reason why constraints are so great at spurring innovative thinking.

It’s pretty common to start a project in “the sky is the limit” mode as we starting thinking of all the things we can do to create amazing user experiences. By removing all of the boundaries and limitations, we reason, we will come up with incredible designs. But, the reality is that more often than not, this leaves us spinning our wheels rather than having those eureka moments we’re seeking.

** Constraints give our problems shape**

User experience design is problem solving, and with all problems there are multiple potential solutions. The more complex the project, the more possible solutions there are – and things can get fuzzy pretty fast. By embracing our constraints early on, we remove some of that ambiguity and can quickly rule out weaker concepts to get to better ones faster.

Constraints help us focus

Constraints help us focus on only the things that matter. As our constraints are revealed, so do they reveal the solutions that aren’t possible which might have been a distraction. It’s often in the confines of the smaller spaces that our constraints place us in that we discover design insights that we may have otherwise overlooked.

** Consider these ways of using constraints to our advantage (with examples):**

  • Don’t fight established practice: When designing interactive systems, sometimes it’s better to improve upon existing practices than re-imagining them altogether. If people are accustomed to using a certain format or following a certain order to complete tasks, incorporating those into your designs can make it easier for users to get started with your application, leading to a better user experience.
  • Use existing solutions: Instead of redesigning common UI elements (like check boxes for multi-select), use established UI patterns. Your users, especially the novices, will have an easier time learning how to use your design, the design will be more consistent, you’ll benefit from the collective wisdom of many designers, and save time by avoiding ‘redesigning the wheel’.
  • Become more agile: As more and more agencies adopt an agile approach to software development, this introduces time constraints on the traditional approach to user experience research. If we break research and design into chunks across sprints, we will benefit from continuous engagement with our users. As we gain new insights, we can quickly collaborate with developers to address them, giving us a stronger influence on the final outcomes.

Lastly, if you’re still feeling uninspired, try giving yourself some self-imposed constraints. You can toss these out any time you want, but using them will often force us to see problems in a new light which might provide the traction you need to get out of your rut.

Constraints make us feel restricted, but sometimes that small space they provide is where we can really focus and find inspiration. How will you use constraints to find your UX inspiration?

David Herring is a Usability & Interaction Design consultant at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.