The Palm Pilot Story

When the Palm Pilot was launched in 1996 it was hailed as a futuristic marvel of engineering. Though extremely low tech by today’s standards, it was a genre-defining device, and set the stage for the modern smartphone.

And for that, we can thank Jeff Hawkins’ little block of wood.

Hawkins was Palm’s co-founder and chief technologist. A decade before the Pilot’s launch, he had designed another device, the Gridpad, which, while technologically advanced, failed in the market because it was simply too big and unwieldy. And so, to ensure his latest creation would be the exact size it needed to be, legend has it that went into his garage and cut a block of wood small enough to fit into his shirt pocket. In meetings, he pulled it out and looked up pretend phone numbers, and mimed writing things down on it.

He made it known that no designs for any device could be bigger than this single block of wood. And this constraint, rather than limit his design and engineering team, inspired them to rise to this challenge of size and ultimately create the wildly successful Palm Pilot. Of course, ultimately the PalmPilot — and the company that launched it — did go on to fail, thanks to behind-the-scenes machinations and buyouts. But that doesn't change the influence the PalmPilot exerted over future iterations of hand held devices.

It may seem odd that constraints would give rise to such creative problem solving. It’s common to think that creative pursuits -- art, music, writing, design -- flourish best unfettered by rules and free from constraints or guidelines. After all, they seem so free-form and dependant upon sudden inspiration. And don’t creative types shrivel and die under the heavy weight of boundaries and limitations?

This certainly seems like sound reasoning at first blush, but as it turns out, the opposite is often true: Creative pursuits, when done well, aren’t actually amorphous free-for-alls. There are rules to any art, and you can’t break them unless you master them. Not only that, but as counterintuitive as it seems, limits can actually inspire creatives, who tend to relish a challenge.

Limits as Inspiration

This idea is backed up by science. The Harvard Business Review reported that a study conducted by the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Social Psychology proved “that tough obstacles can prompt people to open their minds, look at the ‘big picture,’ and make connections between things that are not obviously connected. This is an ability called ‘global processing,’ which is the hallmark of creativity.”

And this “global processing” ability holds true in design as well. The famous designer Charles Eames described constraints as not only beneficial, but integral to design: “Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem—the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible—his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time and so forth.”

How does this apply to your product? Well, think of a great product vision as merely a system of constraints. Design principles are the fences that contain the product team's execution. Best practices encourage certain tactics and discourage others. These necessary constraints are there to keep your vision focused, but allow you to exercise creativity and problem solving within those boundaries.

You might fear that this is limiting, but it’s quite the opposite. Having those constraints in place is your assurance that your vision will remain focused and on point. Without them, you could run around in circles and achieve nothing. After all, the Palm Pilot wouldn’t have been the tiny marvel it was without constraints.

Another case in point: the relative fates of Facebook and Friendster. In his book The Science of Growth, Sean Ammirati recounts how Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once wrote the word “Growth” on a board. Anything that any engineer or designer proposed, he said, must promote growth, or it would be thrown out. Contrast this with Friendster, where founders seemingly put no constraints on anyone on the team. Ammirati quotes then-president Kent LIndstrom, who said “They were talking about the next thing. Voice over internet. Making Friendster work in different languages Potential big advertising deals. Yet we didn’t solve the first basic problem: our site didn’t work.”

By creating that constraint -- all things must serve growth -- the Facebook engineers had to make sure that first and foremost the site worked and did the job it was meant to do; i.e., allow people to connect with their friends. Any other idea must creatively work within that constraint as well. Friendster, by creating no constraints at all, meandered all over the place, and eventually failed.

Ammirati also compares YouTube and its former competitor, Revver. Both companies were using MySpace as a platform for their video uploading service. MySpace blocked 3rd party advertisers from videos on their site, and while YouTube played ball within these constraints, Revver did not. Unlike YouTube, Revver refused to block these ads and Myspace shut their widget down. The result? To the casual viewer, it simply seemed as if Revver’s widget didn’t work. As Ammirati points out, “You need to operate within the constraints of the platform you are leveraging.” Rather than adapt and find creative solutions to this constraint, Revver dug in its heels and lost the video uploading game.

The lesson in all this? Constraints, in the form of design principles and best practices, are the manifestation of your vision, and clearly establishing them -- and being adaptable and able to adjust when one isn’t working -- is the best to make sure your vision gets translated to your product, and the public As Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer said, “Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity loves constraints, but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible.”