The Design Process: What To Do With All Those Constraints

You know the feeling. That sneaking suspicion. The breadcrumb-of-a-hunch teetering on the cliff of your subconscious. “I’m missing something. I’m missing something.” That nagging little voice.

Chapter 1: The "Missing Something”

No matter who you are — a designer, CMO, product manager, admin— problem solving is an integral part of your day. We do it without realizing it.

Have you ever stopped to think through HOW you think through problems? I’m getting a little “meta” here, but stick with me.

Here’s how I arrived at my question. I became frustrated one day…with myself. I felt trapped in a cycle.

I was coming up with the same old answers to the same problems, and I was bored out of my skull. My cognitive habits were fueling this boredom, even though I didn't HAVE to do things the same old way. 

It was just easier. 

Boredom is in the DNA of disenchantment, unhappiness and apathy — silent killers of effective problem solving. So, I took a moment to reflect on HOW I deconstruct problems and find answers to tough questions. That’s when it hit me like bad burritos on the drive home. I WAS missing something. Many somethings. And it was my own fault.

Chapter 2: The Obnoxious Realist

No matter how unsexy the label, I’m self-aware enough to accept that I’m a staunch realist. Yeah, sometimes I kill my own buzz. What's worse is that this mindset was fueling a very bad habit: Vetting my ideas against parameters before giving those ideas a chance to grow into something meaningful enough to evaluate.

These parameters — or limitations, constraints — ranged from external factors, like a client’s budget or project timeline, to deeply internalized anxieties, like fear of being cliché or laughed at. Fear.

Vetting ideas against parameters can be a good thing; in fact, it’s necessary to ensure we’re moving forward with solutions based in reality. But here’s the kicker: We need to vet those ideas against constraints at the right time. Otherwise, we’re not giving them a chance to land and take root, which is really important when we’re solving complex problems with so many possible “right” answers. Because you don’t just want a right answer. You want the best answer.

There are many right answers to a single question. Where there’s no formula to follow and many paths to “right,” it’s important we don’t let mental habits and outside constraints narrow our view of the problem. We have to remain open to crazy new possibilities, and then use constraints to scale
the solution to reality.

That means smothering the knee-jerk, reactive voice that says, "No, that will never work." And instead making room for, "Well, maybe..."

This is harder than it sounds, so I came up with a trick: I lie to myself. (For just a hot minute. Or few minutes.)

Chapter 3: Learning to Lie

I learned to lie to my realist self. When I’m faced with a challenge, the first thing I do is convince myself to believe things that are in no way based in reality. Hang with me. Here are those Five Lies.

  1. I have no budget to work within.

  2. I have no deadline.

  3. There are no organizational politics to consider.

  4. I have no technology restraints.

  5. I have no personal success metrics.

CRAZY, right? And totally not reality. But that's ok, for the time being. This forces me to put aside my personal baggage to make room for Two Truths: 

  1. Don't waste time looking inward at my own vulnerabilities.

  2. Always look outward to whom I’m ultimately serving: the end user, the customer, the humans who will be experiencing whatever it is I’m creating.

Alright so why all this ethereal nonsense?

Here's why:

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Chapter 4: Widening the Aperture

In order to build the appropriate lens through which to solve a problem, we must remove the limitations that narrow our view of the problem.

Believing the Five Lies and internalizing the Two Truths can help us avoid getting trapped in designing solutions that are retrofitted to customer needs. This doesn't mean we ignore the reality of our budgets, technology constraints and timelines. It just means we don't let constraints limit the scope of the problem and possibilities. 

If we let constraints shape the lens through which we view the problem, we not only fail to see the realm of possible solutions,  we're in danger of changing the shape of the problem itself.

Changing the shape of the problem is much more dangerous than choosing the wrong answer. Wrong answers to the right problem will always teach us something.

This is much easier said than done. We are humans. Flawed humans easily persuaded by competing motivations, intrinsic biases, unsubstantiated logic...and our own version of reality.

Try the lies/truths trick to get out of your own way and get to the right problem, and therefore a solution to test, even faster.

The rest is just baggage.

Elements pulled from original Navigating How Humans Think talk.