Good product design necessitates constraints. Here’s how you employ them to assist users in making better long-term decisions.
"Constraints are powerful cues that restrict the range of options available. Even in a fresh circumstance, the intelligent application of limitations in design allows individuals to quickly discern the best course of action."The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman
The importance of constraints in product design cannot be overstated. Consider Chipotle’s menu (burrito/bowl/salad/tacos), which has improved sales by assisting customers in avoiding the “paradox of choice.” Or, as an example of a hardware maker assisting customers in driving more safely, a car furiously honking when you start driving without a seat belt.
Many digital goods have a clean, basic aesthetic design (one type of restriction) on top of a completely unrestrained, vast mass of functionality below. When it’s as simple as adding a few lines of code to add a new feature to a digital product — and when people indicate they want it — why wouldn’t you do it?
You could decide not to include it because the advantage is just temporary. This leads us to an especially intriguing sort of constraint: those that cause users to be dissatisfied in the near term but help them make better long-term decisions. In this piece, we’ll look at four digital goods from the hiring, gaming, investment, and publishing industries that achieve exactly that.
Lever is a software-as-a-service solution that assists teams in making better hiring decisions. Lever’s default settings for interview comments on job applicants are extremely opinionated and limited.  Lever asks the interviewer to provide comments on the candidate when the interview is over. In the default approach of soliciting input, there are two limits that have made me uncomfortable as an interviewer — but have also helped me make better judgments.
Lever: The Group-Think Constraint
First, each applicant must be graded on a scale of 1 to 4 (“strong no”), with 1 being “strong no” and 4 being “strong yes.” In most businesses, 3 denotes “yes, I support employing this individual,” whereas 2 denotes “no, I do not.” There is no “neutral” grade on the even-numbered scale. Because there is no neutral assessment, the interviewer is forced to favor one of two possible outcomes (hire or fire); this escalates the stakes.
This takes us to the second stumbling block. I don’t always have a strong opinion on the candidate in this high-stakes situation, when I have to “take a side” as an interviewer. I’m unsure, and I don’t want to “get it wrong” by being the lone panelist with a different rating from the rest of my colleagues.
I’m unsure, and I don’t want to risk “doing it wrong” by being the lone panelist with a rating that differs from the rest of the group. In certain cases, I’d want to examine how the other panelists assessed the candidate and compare my score to theirs. But Lever forbids you from doing so! Even if you’re the recruiting manager, the scores of other interviewees remain hidden until you provide your own evaluation.
Many interviewers are uncomfortable with this design, yet it leads to better recruiting judgments. In Noise, Daniel Kahneman and Cass Sunstein examine how aggregating individual assessments might lead to better outcomes, but only if the information flow is controlled to guarantee that opinions are genuinely independent.
Wordle: The Binging Constraint
Wordle is a game that requires you to guess a five-letter word. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever It was designed in October 2021 by a single developer (Josh Wardle) as a gift for his spouse, not as a business venture. In December and January, its popularity skyrocketed, with millions of users by late January.
“Making Wordle I specifically rejected a bunch of the things you’re supposed to do for a mobile game,” [game creator] Wardle told NPR. They didn’t include push alerts, allow users to play indefinitely, or incorporate other features that are routinely utilized nowadays to entice users to play applications for as long as possible.
Wardle said the rejection of those engagement tricks might have fueled the game’s popularity after all — “where the rejection of some of those things has actually attracted people to the game because it feels quite innocent and it just wants you to have fun with it.”
Dropbox Paper: The Tweaking Constraint
Dropbox’s Paper is a document creation and collaboration tool that looks a lot like Google Docs or Microsoft Word. When I first tried Paper in 2019, I was surprised to see it missing one of the things I’d come to expect in a writing tool: the option to pick a font. To create a margin. Page numbering (or even to have pages).
Paper’s severely restricted formatting possibilities
The only thing I could do with Paper without these formatting choices was… write. The absence of functionality forced me to focus solely on the task at hand: writing clean and succinct words. This was frightening at first. When I encountered a snag in my writing, I had grown accustomed to tinkering with the formatting. However, there was none.When I used Paper, however, there was no such tweaking to distract me. I was just battling with a half-completed paragraph. I grew to like this imposed concentration over time; knowing that I couldn’t modify the layout, even if I wanted to, was liberating.
Biases affect all of us. They’re often shortcuts we use to make difficult decisions feel less difficult. They’re sometimes games we put on ourselves to rationalize short-term pleasures that come at a cost in the long run.
This is referred to as “quick thinking” and “slow thinking” by Daniel Kahneman; it’s easy to rely on mental shortcuts (fast thinking), but we tend to make better judgments when we slow down and consider things through. Some product designs make use of quick thinking. For example, Netflix’s “autoplay next episode” function generates a lot of short-term user interaction, but it might make you cautious of the service in the long run.Other goods, such as the ones mentioned above, take a different approach. They assist users in slowing down, thinking more deeply, and making better judgments. Short-term customer pleasure may suffer as a result, but the profusion of successful products that accept such limits (including but not limited to Lever, Wordle, Vanguard, and Dropbox) demonstrate that it may be a long-term winning approach.