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the good life in a digital age

working with constraints

Constraints was another topic of conversation in the coffee breaks between The Story sessions. I’m not sure how much it was inspired by the presentations or was just the direction the discussions went in.

At the BBC, our attitude to constraints and their role in design was one of the sources of friction we identified between our (finely defined) UX sub-disciplines. Those with ‘architect’ in their title tended to be very conscious of the constraints. The IAs often spent longer working with particular products and were more likely to be embedded with the product team. They developed a detailed understanding of the content structures, technical systems and the organisational politics around a product. The interaction and visual designers were more likely to work from the design hub with other designers and to work on products for defined projects. They came to projects fresh and unblinkered. Neither situation is wholly good or bad. Both bring insights.

But it did result in the designers feeling that the IAs were too aware of the constraints and were unambitious in pursuing the best solution for the users. Conversely the IAs often felt the designers were being idealistic and naive, and that’d they never get anything built.

(these are broad brush generalisations, there were some great examples of successful partnerships between the teams but there were certainly issues)

In these conversations somebody usually brings up the serenity prayer:

“God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And Wisdom to know the difference…”

My instincts are often on the side of accepting many of the organisations constraints. I like realistic plans, and I’m aware how deep seated some constraints can be. I don’t see how designs that never see the light of day help the users. But it would be simplistic to say I’m always on the side of conservatism.

In my last team, our troubleshooting explicitly involved dividing problems into ‘change’ and ‘accept’ categories but I surprised myself at how uncomfortable I felt at some of the things that ended up in ‘accept’. I wasn’t happy to just leave them like that.

This all reminded me of a creativity course that I found helpful in accommodating the instincts of both dispositions. One of the techniques the course taught was to explicitly structure ideas generation into phases:

  • firstly unshackled ideas generation (everyone is reminded they’ll be able to bring the constraints in at the next step)
  • then a step where the ideas are filtered with the constraints. Ideas are divided into do-able now or soon, and ideas that require work to tackle the constraints (which may require another ideas generation session!)

The approach helps me to use both my desire to make things better and my desire to get working stuff out the door. The different types of ideas could be taken forward by different teams but I suspect most of us would be happier if we could accommodate both types of challenge in our our work

Written by Karen

February 20th, 2011 at 6:50 am