The Physical and Psychological Constraints of Designing

Designing is an art and if you are a designer, you need the time, freedom and your space. Since it is a creative process, you will have to put in a lot of effort. There will always be the trial and error methods that you need to be following. Ideally, there should be no constraints when you are in the process of designing. However, these constraints help the designers in bettering their work. The constraints in design can be explained as a way of limiting the user actions in a system. They do restrict the actions, which are performed by the users, thereby enhancing the usability of the design and at the same time bringing down the chances of any sort of operational mistakes.


There are basically 2 categories of constraints: the physical constraint and then the psychological constraint. Actually, these physical constraints bring down the sensitivity of the controls and it stops any sort of undesired action, whereas the psychological constraints will help in the intelligibility of the design, which will make it much more intuitive.

A Look at the Physical Constraints

This basically refers to the ability of constraining the user’s action by making use of a physical object; it can be either virtual or actual. The physical constraints are classified into 3 and they are barriers, paths and axis.

These barriers generally redirect the user actions or sometimes it absorbs them. The barriers will slow down or stop any sort of the user actions, which are not suited for a good experience. A classic example of having a barrier is this dialog box with a comment like ‘if you are sure of performing this action’. This is one of the best examples.

The paths generally block the user action to linear motion. This is done by using the channels. These paths are especially useful in places where the control is relatively small. A simple example for this will be a volume bar that is found on the iTunes interface. There is no possible way to misuse this kind of module.

Axis lets the user’s action into a sort of motion that is rotary. It has a lot of advantages; some of them is pretty good and enables the control to be infinite in terms of length and also can exist in a small space. One classic example is the rotate tool that you find in the reflect dialogue box in Photoshop. You will be given the choice of rotating the object to 360 degrees with this axis control, which will guide your every movement.

An Insight into the Psychological Constraints

The psychological constraint is basically the way to limit the user actions by making use of the way the users perceive their surroundings. There are basically a few means of putting psychological restraints into practice. The 3 methods are mapping, symbol method and conventions.

These mappings generally impact the behavior of the user by bringing up a perceived bond between the components of a design. An example for this is given here. A big chunk of radio buttons kept close to a variety of choices depicts the relation between two of these elements. Mappings are actually helpful while illustrating the potential actions for the user-based appearance and the position of the controls.

Symbols actually set the communication via text, sounds or in the form of icons. These symbols are very handy when you are trying to categorize or clarify or even when you are cautioning the users about some actions. One ideal example of symbols that is used for the constraint in design will be the kind of error sound, which a computer makes when some entry is not valid. This acts as a source of warning to the users.

Cnvention Constraints

The convention constraints make the users act with the help of learned exercises. An example for this is picturing a red button right next to the green button. It makes the job easier for the user to decide what he needs to be doing.

Constraints can be seen as a problem by many as it limits the actions of the users; however, you can approach it differently, and try and aim at improvising the available options. If you properly understand and implement the constraints, it will help the users to engage in your popular design with minimal or no error; thereby, it creates a much effective and wonderful experience. There have been a lot of people who have problems with these constraints; however, if this is approached with a broad mind and a little more tactfully, you will realize that constraints are actually useful for designers. They can help you in many ways.