Constrained Freedom

The first thing I though when I started running my own business? “I’ll never have to go into an office again! I can work from home in my PJs and watch Full House reruns every single day for the rest of my life!”

A few months in, I was showering as soon as I woke up, getting dressed, and getting out the door to go work from any coffee shop or shared working space that would have me. I never wanted to watch another episode of Full House again.

The reason? The freedom of doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, got to be overwhelming. Without some routine, without structure or constraint, I lost motivation, my productivity slacked, and my stress level skyrocketed.

No Rules. Just Right?

A world without restrictions or constraints sounds pretty great, right? Maybe so. But I’ve yet to find someone, anyone, who truly craves complete and total freedom.

This same rule applies to the online tools we use and interact with daily:

Twitter limits you to 140 characters. If they changed this, if they allowed you to type whatever you want and as much as you want, would you still use it? Probably not. The allure of Twitter is it’s simplicity and “restricted” UX. The minute it opens the floodgates to a ton of profile customization; The second they lift the restriction on the number of characters, it becomes the next Myspace. Twitter forces you to say a lot, without saying a lot. It’s constraints have made it into what it is today.

Facebook doesn’t allow everyone to be friends with everyone. You have to accept friend requests. There are rules. There are constraints. Otherwise, all of our exes would be writing to each other on our walls. Imagine how totally awesome that would be! 

Instagram, one of my favorite and most-used iPhone apps, has built it’s entire model around constraining the options of it’s users. Giving them some freedom, but reeling things in and keeping their options and interface ridiculously simple.

This article by Nate Bolt over on TechCrunch explains how Instagram’s contraints are a key contributor to it’s success:

“It’s funny how hard it is to pick an interesting image from a giant grid on a web site. It’s also funny how many images we look at each day. What’s not funny is how much all that digital viewing numbs our senses and sucks our souls. I’m speaking in terms of science, of course. But when you display one image at a time in a series that’s essentially customized, based on time, something profound happens. More weight and significance is placed on each image, just because you have to consider it, at least for a split second, in your feed. Instagram forces you to focus.

It might seem trivial, but showing one photo at a time is a design decision that creates more value for each image, and enhances your viewing experience. Plus it doesn’t hurt to have the images trapped inside a beautiful iPhone screen. It almost doesn’t matter who you follow—their photos probably look better one at a time. From a UX perspective, we keep learning that interfaces with constraints are successful, and it seems like such a straight-forward principle (140 characters, ahem), but it’s kind of worthless on it’s own. Obviously you can’t introduce constraints without other elements, which is why this is the last point. There’s something enticing about knowing that most Instagram photos are created on the iPhone, since it introduces a NASCAR-like equality. That makes it fun to see what other people can create with the same technical constraints you have. Photography has always been all about the equipment, and not at all about the equipment. Knowing millions of people are creating with roughly the same camera and app as you makes it exciting creatively. So constraints, combined with quality and an audience are what makes Instagram so addictive.”

The truth is, we want to be constrained. We need rules. We seek structure. It’s not about being held back – it’s about avoiding complete and total chaos. A person wandering through life with no direction, no sense of purpose, no structure, ends up wandering aimlessly, never really accomplishing anything.

Freedom, yes. But constrained freedom. Without a few rules here and there, life would be pretty chaotic and confusing.