As digital product designers, our role is to guide visionary ideas from inspiration to implementation. Every product development has challenges, so we have developed, over nearly twenty years, a framework based on what we know leads a product to success. We call this The Ideation Framework.
One of the elements of ideation that is important in our framework is the concept of applying Constraints.
People new to ideation find this surprising. Why would we want to constrain something as liberating and creative as ideation?
Much is said about the benefits of an innovation-friendly company culture. But the reality is that most organisations struggle to get to grips with that.
The most famous example of innovation-friendly company culture must be Google/Alphabet’s “20 percent” rule, where employees are expected to spend 20% of their time working on projects that have no immediate benefit but may reveal big opportunities in the future. Alphabet credits products like Adsense, Google News and Google Cardboard to have come from this.
Although Google may have officially moved away from the “20% rule” some time ago they say they still implement it, just in more structured ways.
It may feel easier for a $1.1 trillion company to carve out time for innovation than most, but it wasn’t and Alphabet eventually found out it had to put structure and constraints around innovation to make it work.
If you do the calculations then, taken in isolation, Alphabet have paid a high price for the innovation that’s happened. And although the value of the hits (which are really very polarised) outweigh the losses of the failures, Google’s product graveyard is getting pretty full.
One of the reasons Alphabet moved away from the “20% rule” is that it was applied in an unstructured way. It was dubbed the “120% rule” by overworked engineers and the majority of people, when left to do what they wanted, naturally became misaligned with the goals of the organisation and innovation became counter productive.
Although most leaders will stand up and say “the freedom to innovate is good”, the reality is that most find it almost impossible to provide a framework as unconstrained as Alphabet’s, it’s simply too difficult to practically implement.
Alphabet didn’t drop the “20% rule” because it failed, it dropped it because it realised it could improve it – by wrapping constraints around innovation it could reach better outcomes in a more efficient way.
But here’s the twist in this tale, constraints are good for innovation. Alphabet didn’t drop the “20% rule” because it failed, it dropped it because it realised it could improve it – by wrapping constraints around innovation it could reach better outcomes in a more efficient way.
When ideating, constraints provide opportunity. The opportunity to align people and hyper-focus them on what is in the interest of your organisation. And also the opportunity to be more efficient, which regardless of how you view that, is simply a requirement in most real situations.
The three typical constraints in product development are:
At some point every idea must pass through these practical constraints – “What can we practically deliver within our budget, timescale and available resources?” is a question that will always be asked.
But there may be other constraints that are specific to your digital product or service, such as technology limits, compliance and legislation.
Some constraints come through research – “we know our users value feature X but do not value feature Y”.
Creating the right structure and constraints around innovation is key. Too little and you invite chaos, which brings no benefit. Too much and you stifle creativity.
Knowing limitations ahead of ideation allows us to apply constraints in a positive way. It’s a valuable part of the pre-ideation stage of The Ideation Framework.
Overall, constraints, when applied in the right way, will provide huge improvements in the quality of the ideas you produce.
If you’re interested in how you can use constraints in your product design process then download our Ideation Playbook.
If you’d like to talk about how we can help you improve your digital product design then get in touch.