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Thinking Inside the Box

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Great solutions can come not from freedom, but from constraints.

Tech marketing hyperbole usually conjures up images of limitless freedom. No boundaries! Infinite creativity, fueled by the online collective consciousness, all  at your fingertips!

The reality is that even when presented with endless possibilities, people tend to do the same things, in the same places. We gossip, share photos, or watch movies (a century-old medium). Simple stuff. For the most part, we’re not crowdsourcing baby names via Foursquare. Human desires don’t require massive computing power, and won’t fundamentally change with the latest iPhone. But they can be amplified.

Which is why I believe that great solutions can come not from freedom, but from constraints. Not from thinking outside the box, but within it—and a small box, too.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then limitation is the father of innovation. Classic example: Twitter, originally an SMS-based microblogging platform, was a great invention for people intimidated by full-blown blogging. But SMS splits messages after 160 characters—not a great user experience. Twitter skirted this issue with its now-famous 140 character limit, and voila: people fell in love, because it not only made posts easier to write—it made it easier to read lots of them.

This one-two invention/innovation punch appears again and again. Facebook,  the antidote to MySpace’s spammy ways (Invention), grew by an invitation-only model cribbed from HarvardConnection.com (Limitation)—and stumbled onto a prime college demographic hungry for attention. YouTube made posting videos easy; its ten-minute limit, originally put to discourage piracy, inadvertently created a new short form perfect for addictive hyper-channel-surfing. And Instagram drives an ever-growing album of push-button simple Photoshop masterpieces with its fast, mobile-friendly 612 pixel size restriction.

Working in Aikido-like harmony with one’s limitations, instead of fighting against them, has become so successful that today’s innovations are being launched with constraints deliberately built into them. The social network Path limits users to 50 friends. Most cameraphones have few if any exposure settings. And Apple’s iconic iOS relies on a stripped-down, idiosyncratic interface. “Less is More” has never been more important for people craving simple utility. No one wants to reinvent restaurant reviews; they just want to find great food and Yelp about it afterward.

There’s also a practical reason as to why this minimalism is the new black. It’s far easier to launch something stripped-down than release a huge, complex beast based on the nervous best guesses of expert opinion. Instead, startups are building small, launching quick, and then simply observing. Only once patterns of usage emerge do they begin adding features. It’s a builder’s philosophy that recognizes (with a certain amount of humility) that we often have less-than-perfect notions of what our customers actually want—that it’s far more difficult to predict (or worse, engineer) human behavior than it is to study, codify, and amplify it.

So think of the proverbial box not as a box, but as a drum. What existing aspect of human nature could be made easier, or more enjoyable, for more people?