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Designing a cloud storage service: pen or pencil?

Embracing limitations by design.


I’ve always been fascinated by limitations in product design.

Not design limitations, these are set by someone else, even if this is the laws of physics or humans. But limitations by design: the ones you decide to put in place, even if you don’t have to.

Take pens and pencils. Pens have a design limitation we are all familiar with: What’s written in ink is nearly impossible to erase. Pencils don’t have this limitation.

On the other hand, the decision to sign contracts using a pen and not a pencil, is a limitation by design in the contract signing procedure: the involved parties could obviously use pencils, but they don’t like the erase feature.

From an entrepreneur’s point of view, design limitations are usually considered an opportunity: Overcome the limitation, and your product will offer a new feature that no one else could offer until now.

Ink can’t be erased? You invent the erasable ink, or the correction fluid.

Limitations by design are a totally different beast. They are design choices that seem to take some functionality or freedom away from the user, but they are actually there to provide more freedom or functionality in other ways.

A good example in the tech industry is Path, a social network, where you can’t have more than 150 “friends”. They don’t do it to limit their users, to give them less freedom. To the contrary, their intention is to increase “the comfort to share personal moments”. The (artificial) maximum number of 150 friends, is not there to limit but to give more freedom.

In the real world, a design limitation often turns out to have side effects so interesting and valuable, that is later treated as a limitation by design.

I don’t know the facts for sure, but I’m pretty sure Twitter’s 140 character limit was actually a design limitation: The initial version of the service relied heavily on (SMS) text messages and text messages can’t be longer than 140 (8-bit) characters. It turned out that not being able to write long texts lead to a new “format”, what we call “microblogging”, that appealed to many users and developers: In retrospect, one could argue that even if Twitter didn’t have the design limitation introduced by text messages, they should have invented it, as a limitation by design.

Which leads us to one of my favourite mind games: Pick a service or a product and try to think what would happen if you introduced an extra limitation —by design.

What if there was a photo sharing service that allowed you to upload only one photo per day —or only very small pictures or only very large pictures? What if there was a commenting system that made comments public after a very long period, like a day or more after they were posted? An email service where all emails are deleted 3 days after they are sent —or one that will send all emails delayed by one or more years? A word processor that only gives you a couple formatting options and nothing more? An e-shop with only one product per day, or one with only ten items per day?

BTW, most if not all of the above already exist. Some of them are successful, others not —but that’s beside the point.

It’s an interesting exercise: once I set an artificial limitation, I start to explore how this would affect the product. Would it become more appealing to some users? Is there a group of users that actually need it? Would this limitation allow developers to do things they couldn’t do before? Would it allow the product to be offered at a significantly lower price?

Truth be told, I usually just get a useless or inferior product. But some times the result is unexpected —and even when it’s not, it’s a great starting point for brainstorming.

Take for example cloud storage.

When we use a service like Dropbox or Box, we expect to be able to add, update and delete files.

What if we were not allowed to delete or update files? It doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? Why on earth would someone use such a service?


On second thought, this service could be useful to anyone looking for a way to store documents that shouldn’t be altered. People do it everyday: They print agreements and contracts, and sign them in an effort to make it difficult or impossible to alter them. Also archivists are constantly on the look for services that will preserve data: If they could carve them in stone, they probably would —and they are grateful to older civilisations that did.

And… this is exactly what we are building: a long term personal digital archiving service. People will be using longaccess.com to store documents, photos, videos that they want preserved for decades —in most ways, the opposite of deleting or replacing.

So, yes, this “limitation” will be one of the most important features of our product: you will not be able to delete or alter your files.

To put it in a different way, in a world where all cloud storage services resemble pencils, we decided to create one that writes in ink.

[*] Photo by Theilr

[**] This article was originally posted on Medium.com. Read, comment or recomend this and the rest of my articles published ther at medium.com/@vrypan

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