Innovation as a last resort

I have a confession, I love constraints. They make the project interesting. They give the project boundaries, limits and above all restraint.

I tend to work on very technical interactions on sites that have a significant revenue (from millions to billions). Some of these designs have been the subject of speculative redesigns.

In particular one project I worked on 3 years ago and still live today still leads to at least 3 comments a week coming my way. I use this site 3 times a week as do most of my colleagues.

It’s a design I’m proud of. A design that solves a very difficult problem. A design that is successful (in business terms) but in terms of UX it could be better because of technical & business constraints. Constraints that are not always obvious to the speculative re-designer.

Blue sky, no limits, the best it can be

A few years ago I worked on a project for a multi-billion dollar finance company. The design brief was simple, no limits, no constraints. Make this complex system the best it can be – it scared me to death.

Design history is littered with big budget, blue sky projects. famously developed a spectacular fashion website back in 2000 and spent millions. They had no limits; investors throwing money at them, the best technical people, the best infrastructure, buy in from suppliers, buckets of free publicity. They launched and the site all though looking great with good interactions failed. – Why? They were too innovative. The book that founder Ernst Malmsten wrote sums it up nicely:

We simply were too ahead of our time, our audience weren’t ready

Constraint = restraint

Backend computer system designed in the 80s? No problem. Has to work on an old version of Android? No problem. Only 4 data requests per page view? No problem. The bottom of the page is delivered from a CMS hosted in Paris, the top, that’s in the UK, the middle bit we need to redesign, oh and none of the parts of the page talk to each other. No problem – all examples of the design challenges I’ve worked on recently.

I have a confession, I love constraints. They make the project interesting. They give the project boundaries, limits and above all restraint.

The blue sky project I mention never amounted to much. Because there was no restraint the scope became huge, the design became more challenge and above all the costs grew to a point where the final product couldn’t be a success.

The design, by it’s very nature meant a full re-architecting of some heavy weight financial systems, 3rd party data feeds had to be re-negotiated and re-written, a content team employed and trained. The project ground to halt before the team could get to grips with it. It never saw the light of day. It still makes me sad to think about it.

Innovation is a last resort

If the design cannot address the goal and be developed within the constraints of the problem then, and only then, think differently.

A project I was involved with recently took a multi-billion dollar website and radically changed the homepage. All non-essential content was thrown out. It was pared down to the bare essentials. A brave move.

It’s been a success. A lot of hard work was done to research the implications of the changes before it went live. The design is innovative but the business went into the project knowing that innovation is a risk. Nothing else was working. Innovation was the the last resort.

More often than not the innovation comes from doing the basic stuff really, really well, not a whiz-bang new idea.

Embrace the constraints and know when to break the rules

Learn to embrace the challenges, live with the constraints. By all means break the rules but be aware that you are doing it. Be aware of the risks and the costs associated with the ideas you are pursuing. For every successful innovation there have been many, many failures.

The very best design comes from a definition of the problem, embracing the constraints and, of course, breaking a rule or two.

2 Responses to “Innovation as a last resort”

Leave a Reply