Making design decisions

Decisions. They happen to all of us. Design is usually considered a creative process based on analysis alternatives and previous decisions. In a way it´s like playing chess. (Every solution can create new problems.) What is good, effective design be based on? How can we come to the ideal design solution of a product or design problem?

When you bump into a question, when you don’t know which widget to use, what works best for the user/business, or need buy-in. This post can help. We’ll refer to questions, issues as design problems.

There are always times were you are challenged with a problem. You could spend a lot of time on all sorts of problems. Macro problems are those of design strategy. Micro problems are those of tactics. All solutions to micro problems should not detract from the overall strategy.

Gut feeling/instinct

Genius design. Good designers make good guesses – they have a good hunch. They make an educated guess.

This is the fastest method for coming with a solution. It costs less than investing in research and testing. It is also the first step: in your first iteration, and the first few iterations following it, you almost only rely on this method for all design decisions.

  • Use logic, cognitive walkthrough [..], intuition and common sense, you will be able to make good design decisions.
  • Use conventions and think ‘where have I seen this feature before’; if you can’t think of anything, try to break the creative block by thinking outside of your field (in the physical, mechanical world) apply parallel thinking to think of analogies/metaphors. If that doesn’t help, look at the  ‘Get examples’ section below for more ideas.

Further reading:

The bad news

The Descriptive Theory tells us that we justify our decisions in order to avoid regret. What you do when you make a decision is satisficing: “making the best decision we can given what we can know at any given moment”. Almost every decision is questionable and doubtable.  No matter how much of an expert you are, your gut feelings remain objective opinion, unless or even when backed up by:

  •  a more formal body (expert opinion)
  • group of semi-experts (subjective opinion)
  • tested resource (research)

For some high-detail (low-level) first iteration design issues, you might want to refer to those.

The good news

As you gain professional experience, your intuition, or gut feeling, your ability to make good decisions in a Blink [..] with good accuracy will increase. You must trust your instinct of making good assumptions (80-20 rule and Blink). If you fail at this, you will not be speeding up the overall design.

The problem is not well understood until after formulation of a solution. Remind yourself, therefore, that a bad decision is better than no decision at all. We have to make “good enough” decisions all the time (see 80-20 rule) and every decision is a compromise. So make those gut decisions in your first iterations, and for your first visualisations (sketches/prototypes), and in times of increasing pressure (deadlines). In the worst case, if your gut fails you, learn from your mistakes  – it will be a learning experience for you and your gut!

Finally, rest assured that there is no right answer! (see )

How to improve your gut feeling

  • Age?
  • Design experience
  • Isolate yourself from distractions. Turn on headphones (classical music?) or lock yourself in a room?
  • Set up feedback-cycles for yourself (Blink)
  • Meditation (awareness, bring decisions into conciousness through visualisation (or words?), relaxation, incubation, concentration, focus, improve your memory)
  • Chinese proverb: learn and you will remember, but teach/blog and you will understand!  (or something like that)
  • Give critique  (link)
  • Actively surf and live mindfully in the world (look at the world through your usability glasses every day with anything that you do or use)
  • Remind yourself conciously about your previous experiences
  • – blog what you have done,
  • – log a screenshot of every iteration and before you start working on the next iteration, note what didn´t work in the last and what you have changed in the next (rationale, before and after comparison)
  • – find a way to structurally/systematically capture your design experiences
  • Jog!  (see scrum wiki)
  • Take a break or micro-break
  • Sleep over it…
  • Don’t overthink a problem or you break the flow. But do take an extra second or two when you decide on decision.

Of equally importance: get creative & innovative!


When going in more detail, when evaluating a solution once your gut feel is satisfised with it. Maybe then it’s time to think more deeply, to explore the “what-if’s” and your (mental) check-list (link) of what makes good IxD.

Gut versus think. It’s rapid feel versus slow considered thought out decisions. Some problems deserve more than gut feel.

  • But “When you start becoming reflective you lose the flow”  [Blink]
  • I share the opinion that for knotty problems, slowing down, taking a second or two extra “for issues where a solution is NOT immediately apparent”  [1]
  • Most IxD problems are of that nature: wicked problems.
Wicked problems
From [1]. According to Conklin, the four defining characteristics of wicked problems are:
    1. The problem is not understood until after formulation of a solution
    2. Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.
    3. Constraints and resources to solve the problem change over time.
    4. The problem is never solved.

Think it over

Every time you feel you’re taking too much time mulling over a decision or puzzle, toying in circles and overthinking a design problem, try this:

-Consider the importance

  • how critical is this feature, or the design thereof, to the overall user experience or business goal/KPI?
  • will the product fail to meet the goals if I don’t fix this design issue correctly?
  • how much relative attention does this particular issue deserve? do I need to go into such detail level now? can we park the issue and work on another first?
  • how does this issue fit in the larger context of design strategy, purpose and goal for this product?

-Consider the urgency

  • how much time can I spend on this puzzle?
  • by when do I need a final answer on this issue?

– Consider the generic applicability

  • if I get the ultimate answer for this issue, could I re-use that solution knowledge confidently?

-Consider the budget

  • could user testing answer this question for me? could I do quick, low-budget usability testing or get critique?
  • is there time for creating persona’s, even rough ad-hoc/assumed personas?
  • can I perform full quantitive/qualitive research myself?
– Try different perspectives
  • go radically different way, then lay the two designs next to eachother and say what is good and bad about each
  • Question every element. Simplify.

Bottom line

  • remember that some problems solve themselves: …the solution could come to you in your sleep, while solving other problems, or while jogging or relaxing, under the shower…go do something else
  • is me spending time answering this issue worth the return in investment in time? (“The Utility theory says that each decision has associated costs and benefits to be outweighed.”)
– Question the fixed
A Product Manager helps “create[s] the conditions for [problem] focus by giving the designer boundariespriorities and resources.” [2]
But look for “moonwalking bears”. Critically question what’s going on: the requirements, the constraints. Are they valid, or should they be taken lightly with a big bag of salt? What is the underlying reason for that requirement? Why am I working around these icons or images, this navigation and how “fixed” are they really?

Get examples


Competitor audits, case studies, patterns, best practice and other trusted sources.

Competitor sites, books, design patterns, existing software. Google images, not just interfaces  (e.g. type “my products” when you’re looking for an innovative product overview page)

Though you don’t have to re-invent the wheel, you don’t want to copy bad behaviour either. Be vigilant of blindly applying convention, take advice with a grain of salt. Be critical but trust the instinct of others.

Research it

Or rather: find research about it.

“Research is a tool, not a methodology. Research is more about filling in the gaps in the designer’s knowledge than an activity to be done for its own sake.”

Proven best practice, proven results (clear before/after changes)

  • User research. Do users have behaviours, motivations, expectations that make this decision a bad choice?
  • Is it culturally appropriate? For example Yahoo! China

Every design issue can raise questions: is this the best design? Every design is different, just like every designer will come with his own solution. At times, research resources (used with vigilance, see research validity checklist) may come in handy and give that extra convincing power (“One research study shows that…”) or buy-in.

The bad news

Even with user research, we might still be guessing here.

The good news

Intuition is the most powerful tool and often the most effective. Especially when choosing which UCD method or research technique to apply be creative. Even Jared Spool (SXSWi 2009) questions sticking to one method, it is more effective to set up a constant feedback loop with your user-informants or allies/collaborators (= those in close contact with users ).  Even analytics and data may give us a distorted vision on things. The button with the

Discuss it

Talk about it. Think a solution out loud, be abstract or concrete. Find it on a usability/web design forum. Ask people what they think of it, like the forums on

A collective (subjective) gut feeling is better than an objective one, but you know the context better.

The bad news

Time: It takes time to find or describe your post.
Cost: Most forums are free.
Overall rating: Talk about what you’re trying to achieve and where you’re struggling with anyone. They come often with questions you are blind for.

Google it

Chances are somebody has crossed the same question you are having. The great thing about doing a Google search is that it will be a combination of what you´re looking for, while inspiring you with closely related.  (lateral thinking)

How to improve your searching skills

  • Master Google (book), know the Google tricks (Google search engine page, search wiki blog 4 it)
  • Exploit the power of other search engines.

Test it

(usability testing or A/B testing, etc.)

Measure it

Data from web analytics (Google Analytics etc) > learn how to read and use these metrics to prove your points!

Overall neccesities

  • Flow!
  • A focussed/clear mind, be it sane or insane. Unconcious competence.
  • Paper and pen
  • A fast and stable PC and broadband internet connection

Further reading  [1]  TIP



One Response to Making design decisions

  1. […] reading Making design decisions Setting contraints and worrying about […]

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