The Different Ways to Design

by March 2, 2010

In his presentation about Designing Firefox, Alex Faaborg outlined two distinct approaches to design:

  1. Focus on user-research to find out what people need/want. The downside of this “user testing” model is that users can lead you astray. For example, if you ask everyone what their favorite color is the average will be gray.
  2. Bring a specific vision to life through an impression of the user you want to have. The downside of this “strong designer” model is if designers don’t know what they are doing, it could be a disaster.

Author of Designing Web Interfaces, Bill Scott, contacted me recently to suggest a third model of doing design: quantitative analysis driven mostly through rigorous A/B testing (exemplified by Amazon and Netflix). My first response was "I don't think Alex considers that doing design" but the actual situation is a bit more nuanced.

In fact, I believe there are actually three main ways to make software user interface decisions: Designing, Optimizing, and Managing. Each of these models can “move pixels” on the screen but not all are explicitly design-driven. Depending on the model a product team is most comfortable using, expectations of design professionals and their output can vary. As a result, it may be useful for interface designers (be they visual, interaction, or information focused) to consider the prevalent model on their team and act accordingly to either shift or meet expectations.

  1. Designing: decisions are evaluated by how well they contribute to an integrated “human-centric” experience. This is the model most designers crave because it leverages their ability to empathize with their target audience and think holistically.
  2. Optimizing: decisions are made based on explicit testing of isolated variables to drive very specific behaviors. Designers create variations of a control that are evaluated systematically. The elements that perform best likely become part of the user interface.
  3. Managing: decisions are reached through discussion or debate. In this model, designers represent the collective decisions of groups within the product by laying out what everyone agreed to.

While all of these models may be in use at the same organization, perhaps even on the same product, I think it is useful for designers to be aware of the distinction so they know how to operate effectively. Most organizations skew pretty strongly to one style of decision making or the other. However, a healthy integration is where the magic happens.