Do Less: Embracing Constraints in UX Design
May 14, 2018

As a custom app development shop, our answer to client questions is almost always yes. Can you build social login? Yes. Can we add @mentions? Yes. Private Messages? Yes. Camera effects? Yes. Yes. Yes. Software development in 2018 is more powerful than ever, and so is the temptation to add all sorts of bells and whistles to your app.

But should you? No.

Because what you don’t build is just as important as what you do.

The concept of oppositional forces is pretty common in other design disciplines, but much less so in UI/UX design. For example note the deliberate use of negative space in these popular logos, including FedEx’s famous arrow.

Music is another example, where the silence is every bit as important as the sound itself.

In the world of UX design “negative space” takes the form of functional constraints, or all the things you can’t do.  Perhaps the best illustration of this is Twitter, which famously decided to limit messages to just 140 characters. Over time this seemingly arbitrary constraint became the critical seed for a massively popular communication platform. Because make no mistake, we all WANT to write longer messages. But Twitter’s UX forced us to play by their rules, and in doing so created something unique.

Facebook offers another great example of leveraging UX constraints. We all know the story- Facebook began as a small shrub living in the shadow of the social networking juggernaut MySpace, which Rupert Murdoch bought for $580 Million in 2005. But Myspace is now essentially worthless while Facebook is valued at $500 Billion. What’s fascinating from a UX standpoint is that Facebook didn’t beat MySpace by doing more, they won by doing less. Specifically, there were two critical UX decisions generally accepted as the reasons why they won the social network war:

• Facebook did NOT allow everyone to sign up. At the start they limited accounts to college students only, which gave it a critical sheen of exclusivity and maturity just as MySpace was being overrun with younger kids and spammy content.

• Facebook did NOT allow the ability to customize profile pages, allowing for a consistent and clean UI that stood in stark contrast to MySpace’s abrasive user-generated layouts.

Instagram offers a more contemporary example; at first I found it frustrating that when re-opening the app, it ditches what you were previously looking at and auto-refreshes to more recent content. For example if you scroll down 20 pictures, when re-opening the app it will jump back to the top of those 20. But over time I came to realize that NOT saving my location and refreshing the content was causing me to compulsively check the app by feeding my “seeker” brain with new content every time.

Another fascinating Instagram constraint is the inability to create web links. Hyperlinks are a fundamental currency of the internet, and yet when commenting on Instagram, their UX team has made a very deliberate decision to prevent users from including linked URLs in comments. The only hyperlinks you can create are #hashtags and @mentions. And consider the consequence of that decision: it prevents users from leaving the app and forces the social engagement to remain very basic, both of which work towards supporting Instagram’s primary identity as a lightweight picture based experience.

And that’s an important point, because the key to leveraging constraints in UX design is to do so in a manner that strengthens the focus on your app’s core identity.  Constraints that work against your core value proposition will be damaging, but constraints that pull users back into your sweet spot are invaluable to your success. A great example of this two-sided UX coin is Snapchat, which became the hottest new app in town by introducing a wonderfully simple constraint: disappearing messages. In a world of oppressively persistent social media, where mistakes we made 10 years ago float into our job interviews, Snapchat offered an oasis of consequence free pictures and video. It was brilliant, and the platform took off like a rocket.

But over time temptation crept in, and Snapchat couldn’t resist adding new features that directly contradict the temporary messages which defined their identity. Take for example the “Memories” section which saves your old Snaps so you can repost them again. On the surface this may seem like a neat new tool, but if we dig a little deeper, what is the Memories section doing to their core value proposition of not saving messages? It obliterates it.

I could elaborate further (public stories!) but the bottom line is that over time Snapchat added new functionality that undermined the key ephemerality constraint that defined their platform. If you go find a millennial and ask them why they like Snapchat, most likely they will mention Snapchat’s awesome face filters, because the mental model of disappearing messages has been almost entirely eroded. Certainly they won’t know why the logo is a ghost. And not coincidentally, Snapchat is currently in crisis- numbers have leaked showing adoption has started to flatline. The easy explanation is to blame Instagram for brazenly ripping off Snapchat’s stories, but that view overlooks the many ways in which Snapchat removed its own key constraints and evolved itself into basically the same service as Instagram. Instagram could never have competed with Snapchat if the playing field was privacy and disappearing content.

There are many more examples of this, including Twitter’s recent decision to double their character limit to 280, but I’ll take my own advice now and wrap this up. The key takeaway for UX designers and product developers is to ask yourself: What are my key constraints? And do I offer any functionality that could be removed to improve focus on my product’s core value?

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