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Internal vs. External Constraints

Internal vs. External Constraints

author: Lee Buttolph

I notice that Twitter is finally abandoning their 140 character constraint.

I have been saying for a while that the 140 character constraint is one of the reasons Twitter has taken a beating lately.  It is what I would consider an internal constraint.

There are two types of constraints that a business can have: internal and external.

External constraints are constraints that are thrust upon a company.  The company has no (or little) control over the constraint.  The company must build their product and systems around that constraint.  They must learn to live with it.

An internal constraint is different and there are two types: good and bad.  Internal constraints are constraints that a company places on themselves.  They are artificial.  Good internal constraints are those that are put in place to keep a company focused.  Only doing x type of products but not y because y will distract from doing x to the best of company's ability.  Bad internal constraints are those constraints that a company puts on themselves that only ends up ticking off their customers.  What immediately happens when you hard code into a website the ability to pick 3 choices?  Your customer asks for 4 choices.  Build the system to handle an infinite number of choices.

Back to twitter.  When they started, they faced an EXTERNAL constraint where text messages that their system worked almost exclusively upon were capped at 140 characters.  They had no choice in the manner than to also cap their messages at 140 characters.

As technology changed, Twitter moved away from text messages as their messaging platform to the website and smartphone apps.  This turned their constraint into an INTERNAL constraint.  The questions is whether it is a good or bad internal constraint.

The 140 characters are a combination of good and bad.  Good because people liked the brevity and the headline nature of it but bad because their customers got very frustrated when they needed 141 characters.

Unfortunately, by opening up the 140 characters it makes them more like Facebook with their long form posts and because they waited so long this was even more of a problem.  If they had killed the internal constraint years ago they wouldn't have ceded so much ground to Facebook.

So remember, watch out for those bad internal constraints that cause distress to your customers.  Remove them and your customers will be happier for it.