Design Constraints Fuel Innovation

Hacks. Sprints. Ideation sessions. People and organization use these structures to bring people together in order to come up with new ideas. I’ve organized hackathons and I’ve judged them. I run innovation and design workshops for the public and for private companies. Over the years I’ve come to a startling conclusion, one that has inspired me to start establishing a challenging design constraint for participants: Come up with as many creative solutions as you can but the solution may not be a Web site or an App.

Design constraints are powerful tools. Studies show that obstacles prompt people to look at the big picture and open up their minds. Without constraints, people tend to copy something that already exists rather than come up with something original. Establishing constraints (time, money, preference, size) in any projects may allow people to solve problems in unique ways.

Constraining the innovation process by eliminating Websites and Apps might seem odd at first. After all, small simple apps like Snapchat and Instagram have valuations of billions of dollars! Websites like Uber and AirBnB disrupt travel as we know it! The common wisdom today is that the next big thing will come from small things like apps and Websites.

AirBnB is a good example of what I’m talking about. The founders, designers trained at RISDI, didn’t set out to make an app or a Website. They set out to solve a very human problem: on the one hand, there were no hotel rooms in San Francisco for Design Week. On the other hand, they had trouble paying the rent for their San Francisco apartment. How did they first test this out? They didn’t build a site; they put ads on Craig’s List.

I’ve found that this constraint forces people to focus on solving problems for other people. The problem is never that we need another app. The problem is usually something not working in the way that we like. The non-obvious solutions are hard. They should be hard.

At the end of the day, the only creative and innovative solutions that work are ones that other people readily embrace since it does something different for them. It makes their lives better or easier, it makes them happier or more successful, it saves them money or makes them money, or it removes irritations and pains.

Just to be clear, my design constraint doesn’t mean the idea or solution may not include technology. It doesn’t mean the solution can’t have an online component. It just means that the big idea needs to be a big idea for people.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of poor and mediocre ideas for apps and Websites. One of the challenges with Hackathons is that the organizers have, in one way or another, already envisioned what the solutions will look like before they understand what the problems or challenges really are. The old adage about if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail gets played out here again and again.

Somehow, apps and Websites have becoming the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to creativity and innovation. Need to do something new? Let’s build an app. How can we improve our business? Design a new Website. I’ve observed time and time again that people and groups try to shortcut their way to innovation by coming up with one of these ideas quickly and not digging deeper into solving a real problem.

Since I’ve implemented this design constraint, I’ve noticed something remarkable: people designing have come up with much more interesting and engaging ideas and solutions. They seem to have much more fun. Most of all, the people they design for seem much more delighted.

So, when you engage a group to develop new ideas, add a design constraint or two by removing some of the most obvious solutions. You might be surprised by what a well-placed obstacle can do for your innovation efforts.

Photo Credit: jon.riosa via Compfight cc 

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