The Role of Constraints in Design Innovation

On Good Behavior

The essentials of interaction design

May 31, 2016

In differentiating an organization’s products from those of its competitors, design innovation is just as important as technology innovation. Both are vital to the continued success of an organization’s products in the marketplace. Successful innovation requires more than just generating a lot of creative ideas. It’s about execution—actually bringing products to market that embody innovative design solutions and deliver business impact.

What is the role of constraints in design innovation? In this article, I’ll discuss three types of constraints: technical constraints, business constraints, and design constraints. According to Charles Eames:

“Design depends largely on constraints. … Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem—the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible—his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints….”

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Many different kinds of constraints can factor into a design solution. As I previously wrote in my On Good Behavior column “Design Is a Process, Not a Methodology”:

“By the beginning of your Design Phase, your entire product team should have a thorough understanding of business, market, and user requirements for your product, the opportunities that your organization’s technological innovations present, and the budgetary, scheduling, and technical constraints for your product development project.”

In my On Good Behavior column “First, Do No Harm,” I described various constraints that can impact interaction design, as follows:

“Many different kinds of constraints bound our solutions to interaction design problems, including

  • users’ physical and cognitive abilities
  • design principles and guidelines
  • the amount of space available for a feature
  • technical constraints
  • business goals”

With so many different types of constraints, it’s inevitable that some of them may conflict with one another on a particular design project. Making the appropriate design tradeoffs to resolve conflicting constraints requires experience and good judgment. But the insights their interplay engenders can drive design innovation. In that same column, I wrote:

“By thoroughly understanding the limitations that constrain a design solution, I can make the right tradeoffs and come up with the best design solution possible under those constraints. Plus, balancing different constraints often forces me to think outside the box, so inspires innovative design solutions.”

Technical Constraints

Those of us who design software or hardware products are the beneficiaries of the technology innovations that great software developers and engineers create. Technology innovations provide great opportunities for designers to innovate new interaction models that differentiate our product designs in the marketplace. As I wrote in response to a comment on my On Good Behavior column “Design Is a Process, Not a Methodology”:

“Innovations in technology often prompt corresponding innovations in design….”

However, all technologies also impose certain constraints. In the same column, I outlined the following types of technical constraints:

  • “database constraints
  • technology constraints and requirements
  • performance requirements
  • operational requirements
  • maintainability requirements
  • reliability requirements
  • safety requirements”

While most of these constraints are essential or necessary aspects of a particular technology or its use, some technical constraints result from poor architecture or implementation and impose unnecessary limitations on possible design solutions. Nevertheless, in contrast to interaction designers and UX designers who rail against technical constraints because they limit their scope for blue-sky thinking, I’ve always believed such constraints foster creativity and innovation. Those who believe otherwise are limiting their ability to innovate.

In The Innovator’s DNA, Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen wrote about imposing constraints, as follows:

“Ask ‘what if’ questions to impose constraints. Most of us constrain our thinking only when forced to deal with real-world limitations such as shrinking budgets or technology restrictions, but innovative thinkers do the opposite. … Questions that artificially impose constraints can trigger unexpected insight by forcing people to think around the constraint. … Asking questions that place constraints on solutions forces out-of-the-box thinking because it ignites new associations.”

As Tim Brown of IDEO wrote in discussing the experimentalism of design thinking:

“Significant innovations don’t come from incremental tweaks. Design thinkers pose questions and explore constraints in creative ways that proceed in entirely new directions.”

Overcoming an irksome technical constraint can really spur your imagination and creativity, so you end up pursuing a variety of feasible design solutions that you’d never have explored if your first idea had been feasible. Thinking outside the box may also engender an innovative design solution, and the resulting experience outcome is often far superior to that of your first easy, obvious design solution that was thwarted by a technical constraint.

Business Constraints

In contrast to technical constraints, business constraints can be a double-edged sword when it comes to innovation. Just as with technical constraints, business constraints, or requirements, can foster creativity and innovation—especially when they derive from the needs of users, customers, or the marketplace or from technology innovations that have the potential to drive new opportunities for business success.

In my On Good Behavior column “Design Is a Process, Not a Methodology,” I wrote at length about business constraints that can foster innovation. Here I’ll consider business constraints from a different standpoint. Sometimes, we need to look beyond constraints that are limiting our thinking. The authors of The Innovator’s DNA wrote about eliminating constraints, in addition to imposing them:

“Ask ‘what if’ questions to eliminate constraints. Great questions also eliminate the constraints [we] unnecessarily impose on our thinking due to a focus on resource allocations, decisions, or technology limitations.”

Sometimes an organization’s leadership and culture impose unnecessary constraints that impede employees’ ability to innovate. While startups typically have creative, innovative cultures, most mature organizations have left behind the ways of doing business that originally made them successful. They’ve evolved into what Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble refer to as Performance Engines, in their book The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge.

Typical goals for a Performance Engine include reliably delivering quarterly profits, focusing on short-term rather than long-term goals, reducing project timelines and costs, and ostensibly, increasing worker productivity and efficiency. According to Govindarajan and Trimble:

“The greatest strength of a Performance Engine—its drive for repeatability and predictability—also establishes its greatest limitations. By definition, innovation is neither repeatable nor predictable. It is exactly the opposite—nonroutine and uncertain.”

Because the cultures of such organizations are optimized for operational performance, their innovation efforts often fail to achieve the desired results. An organization’s inability to innovate constrains its growth and, thus, reduces its valuation on the stock market. Even worse, its products become vulnerable to disruptive innovations from other companies, which could ultimately drive the organization out of business.

Nevertheless, for an organization whose goal is to innovate, it is essential to reconcile the incompatibilities between Performance Engines and Innovation Teams. Both need to work together for innovation efforts to succeed. However, mature organizations typically struggle in attempting to operationalize innovation.

Innovation Teams within large organization sometimes have an ivory-tower mindset can be inimical to innovation. If they fail to engage with the Performance Engine and execute operationally, they won’t be able to deliver innovations successfully to the marketplace.

In a conversation with Bruce Nussbaum of Bloomberg about operationalizing innovation, Jeneanne Rae of Motiv Strategies said:

“How do you make your company into a systemic innovator? … Leadership is engaged to the point where they say they want it, but disengaged to the point where they provide the resources to get it. … The leadership doesn’t get it enough to enable it, to make it go. There are incredibly talented, courageous people who beat their heads up against the wall because they can’t get the resources they need.”

While being constrained in terms of resources, budget, and schedule may sometimes spur creativity to a certain extent, being resource starved stifles creativity and innovation. Leaders whose ambivalence and lack of clarity results in their conveying such mixed messages to their team engender conflict and cultural dysfunction within their organization that will ultimately cause its failure.

Companies that fail to invest in design innovation are being incredibly short sighted. As Jim Nieters and I wrote in our Leadership Matters column “Envisioning Experience Outcomes”:

“Achieving the intended, highly differentiated experience often requires innovation—and, thus, a greater initial investment of time and money in a project—but it also creates significantly more value for customers…. Differentiation is all about value creation.”

Design Constraints

Sadly, design constraints can sometimes be greater obstacles to design innovation than either technical constraints or business constraints. Such constraints often take the form of mandated design standards that may be outdated, of low quality, inconsistent, or incomplete; that are unsuitable for a particular project or platform; or that do not meet the current needs of an organization in some other way. Thus, overzealous design governance or an inflexible demand for consistent adherence to standards can be a powerful deterrent to forward progress—let alone design innovation.

There is a more reasonable alternative that actually fosters innovation. Because of the ever-evolving nature of UX design, adhering to the fundamental principles of good design is key to successful design innovation. In the Ask UXmatters column “Fundamental Principles of Great UX Design,” I wrote:

“When we’re called upon to solve design problems that we haven’t solved before, design principles provide a sound basis for devising innovative solutions. For example, in recent years, we’ve seen many new trends in technology products—such as cloud computing, the proliferation of mobile devices and tablets, big data, the Internet of things, and wearable computing. All of these trends have required us to look at design afresh and come up with new interaction models, design patterns, and standards—many of which are still evolving.”


If we are to succeed as design innovators, we must take our inspiration from myriad sources, including constraints. I hope this article has convinced you that technical and business constraints may potentially be the seeds of design innovation rather than obstacles that could prevent your innovating.

Through design innovation, you can help your organization to differentiate its products in the competitive marketplace—or even create disruptive innovation—and contribute to sustaining your organization’s long-term success. 


Brown, Tim. “Design Thinking.” (PDF) Harvard Business Review, June 2008. Retrieved May 30, 2016.

Dyer, Jeff, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen. The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.

Govindarajan, Vijay, and Chris Trimble. The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2010.

Nussbaum, Bruce. “Operationalizing Innovation—THE Hot Topic.” Bloomberg, September 28, 2005. Retrieved May 30, 2016.

Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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