An Event Apart: Anatomy of a Design Decision

by May 25, 2010

In his Anatomy of a Design Decision presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA, Jared Spool outlined the five styles of making design decisions and their value along with some tips for making informed choices in Web design.

  • Design is basically a process of making a bunch of decisions and trade-offs. The decisions we make have a profound impact on what we create. How do we decide which path we go down?
  • Unintentional design happens when you were paying attention to something else (like the system or process). It works when our users will put up with whatever we give them; we don’t care about support costs or the pain from frustration.
  • 37 Signals designs products for themselves. They use them everyday and fix what annoys them. This is self-design.
  • Self-design works well when there are enough people like you to use your product, you don’t mind excluding others, and you use your product everyday like your users do.
  • When we have to design for people who are not us, we can move from self-design to genius design.
  • Genius design: When we’ve previously learned what users need. Works when we already know user’s knowledge, previous experiences, and behavior of people; we are solving the same design problems repeatedly.
  • When you need to design something you’ve never designed before need to move to activity-focused design.
  • Activity-focused design: start with the activities people need to do. Works when we can identify users and their activities; we need to go beyond our own previous experiences; innovations can come from removing complexity.
  • Experience-focused design: there’s a difference between being usable and having a good experience. Experience is the gaps between the activities. Works great when we want to improve our users’ complete experiences, in between the specific activities; we can be pro-active about the designs; game-changing innovations are the top priority.
  • Need to figure out how to make design decisions on a project. Which approach are you using is step one.


  • Step two is how do we go about making decisions. Rule-based or informed.
  • Design style guides and guidelines never work. In a rule-based world, we don’t want people to think. Informed decisions require thinking.
  • Rule-based decisions fail on exception cases. Informed decisions work with both normal and exception cases. How do you inform decisions?
  • A process is a series of steps to get things done. If you got something done, you had a process. Process just happens and it is lost afterwards.
  • A methodology is a formalized process. Can be informal (hey that worked) or formal (written down and practiced).
  • Dogma is an unquestioned faith independent of any supporting evidence. People get really emotional about dogma.
  • Techniques are all about practice. The first time we do things we suck at them, but we get better. Techniques are what make up a process.
  • Tricks are things we do to just to get things done.
  • Techniques are the building blocks of a process. They need to be practiced in order to be mastered and require trial and error. Tricks are quick and easy and perhaps not the best way of doing things but they “just get things done”.
  • Best teams did not have a methodology or dogma, but everyone had techniques and tricks that the whole team knew.
  • Assumed that teams with dogma or methodologies would be high performing but instead it was the teams that relied on tricks and techniques that delivered great designs.
  • Design patterns are more aligned with tips and techniques. Style guides are more aligned with methodology and dogma.
  • Usability testing is just watching someone use something. You are seeing a design through someone else’s eyes. Get exposure hours for everyone responsible for design decisions.

Applying Different Styles

  • Going from unintentional design to self-design requires eating your own dog food. Going from self-design to genius design requires exposure to users through usability testing to grow experience. To go from genius design to fields studies. To go from activity-focused design to experience-focused design, you can rely on personas and patterns.
  • Every style of decision making has its purpose. Great designers know which style they are using and use the same style throughout the entire project. Great teams ensure that everyone uses the same style of design decision-making.
  • The more advanced the style, the more expensive it is. Most agencies don’t go beyond genius. You need a lot of people with different skill sets.
  • You need to know which decision style you’re using: Unintended, Self, Genius, Activity-focused, or Experience-focused.
  • Encourage informed decisions and avoid rule-based decisions.
  • Techniques and tricks are more effective than methodologies and dogma.
  • Choose the right techniques and tricks for your next decision style.
  • When you don’t know what you are doing, chances are you are doing it wrong.