As designers or researchers, we dream of the day our project strategies come to realisation precisely as planned. With the best will in the world, that will never be the case, and this is because constraints and limitations are an everyday fact of life in UX design.
Externally imposed constraints are one type of constraint that designers or researchers may face. For example:
- Restricted timescales
- Restricted budgets
- Gaining access to target users
- Technical limitations
- Navigating political nuance
- Legal limitations
- Software factors.
The list of potential limitations on our lovely plans can be endless.
As frustrating as they can be, constraints can be the trigger for creativity and efficiency and help you develop your expertise and craft. Being able to respond to limitations with approaches that deliver is the sign of a good designer, researcher or strategist. To be honest, it’s the sign of a good anything!
Aside from the externally imposed constraints listed above, there may also be self-imposed constraints that you place on your process or work – and these are not to be underestimated!
Constraint as an intentional process
Intentionally imposing constraints sounds scary, but it can greatly benefit you. As far as I’m concerned they’re essential to effective working. This is because they can prevent you from overreaching or running ahead in your work, streamline and simplify review processes, and help you communicate your intentions far more effectively and efficiently.
Caption: Always begin logos in black and white. Logo the left? “Looks pretty good. Can we tweak the trees?” Logo on the right? “UGH! I hate PINK! This is AWFUL! Start again!” – Which would you show first?
Whilst it’s been a long time since I worked in branding, there was a particular rule I always lived by when approaching logo design. Always start in black and white. Never get tempted or pressured by the client to introduce colours until the form and logotype direction are nailed down. This self-imposed constraint was borne of numerous occasions in which a potentially perfect logo form was abandoned due to the client not liking a particular colour. By removing such subjectivity from the earlier review and amends process, the client can focus on the visual forms and what they communicate. Colour comes once the form is decided upon – and is a much simpler process. (Plus, every logo needs to work in black and white, so that’s also a win.)
This leads nicely into something more relevant to the world of UX…
The entire practice of wireframing is a self-imposed constraint. By focussing only on the skeleton of your product or website, you are limiting the visual elements on display.
Caption: Wireframes – the entire practice is an example of self-imposed constraint. Remove the subjective to focus on the journeys, functions and hierarchies.
As with the previous logo example, when wireframing, you remove the subjectivity of colour and visual UI design elements/ transitions from this part of the process. You are forcing yourself and your clients/stakeholders to focus on the journeys, the core function, the content hierarchy and the IA. This will massively improve the collaborative process of evolving and refining the design at this structural stage. It will also make the UI stage far more focused and efficient – your designer no longer has to plan function and structure and can focus on creating a UI to serve that purpose.
Even within wireframing, we’ve recently found applying further constraints can help us stay focussed.
Caption: Simple paper prototyping or ultra-low fidelity wireframe skeletons can streamline the early communication of concepts, functions and flows.
At the start of projects, we often produce a set of incredibly lo-fi skeleton wireframes to illustrate core pages, journeys and content/function blocks. Rather than building these in a sophisticated design tool like Axure RP or Figma, we intentionally produce these in Miro – a collaborative whiteboarding tool. Miro (and other similar tools) have some simple drawing tools but nothing we would use to create a detailed wireframe. But that very constraint means we’re not tempted to overreach at this very early stage. The limits of the drawing tools mean we can only produce simple blocks and basic skeletons of pages – and that’s all we should be making at this point. If we add more, we risk confusing stakeholders or subconsciously committing to design paths too early in the project.
A similar approach is paper-prototyping – drawing your initial designs on screen and moving through them by moving between the paper drawings. The same benefits apply.
Constraint as a creative tool
Blank canvas syndrome
We’ve all been there at one point or another.
At the beginning of a project, you face down an empty document or canvas, primed and ready to unleash your vision and… nothing. Absolutely nothing happens, and the empty nothingness swallows your brain and you freeze.
You have the dreaded ‘Blank Canvas Syndrome’.
When faced with this crippling situation, one beneficial approach is to apply constraints. Part of the issue has arisen because, in the complete limitless freedom of an empty document, you have become paralysed by choice. Using constraints at this point removes many options, meaning your choices are much more manageable, and progress can begin.
In 1975 Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno developed a set of cue cards to help artists and creators of all kinds who had got themselves stuck in a rut. Oblique strategies – as they were called – aimed to provide a jump-start by giving a random, and often baffling vague, instruction to apply to the problem. Or a constraint, if you will.
You can apply a similar approach:
- Break down your goal
- Focus only on one section
- Restrict yourself to lines only
- Limit your colour palette to 2 colours
- Design mobile-first
- Ban any moving elements or hovers
- Draw your design in crayon first
Whatever you choose, creating a limitation could free you from a rut.
Embrace the constraints
Constraints are the oblique strategy – they are potentially frustrating limitations, but they will force you to utilise your creativity and intellect to find a solution.
External constraints are a fact of life, but rather than thinking of them as a wall, think of them as a door to walk through and guide your progress. They streamline your choices and help you make smart and efficient choices.
Self-imposed constraints should be essential process models that will prevent overreach, reduce rework, ensure a streamlined workflow, and enable effective communication with partners and clients. Constraints will vastly improve your project process, and will make you a better designer.
P.S. Had I been forced to handwrite this article; it might have been shorter, which would likely have been a good thing. See? Constraints!