5 Design Decision Making Styles

The best designs come from not one, but hundreds of well-made decisions. The worst designs arise out of hundreds of poorly-made decisions. All that stands between you and a great design is the quality of your decisions. Where do they come from?
Jared Spool

From choosing a typeface to deciding on consistent button colors. How do you make design decisions? What kind of designer are you?

About a month ago I came across a video of a presentation given by Jared Spool, Anatomy of a Design Decision. The video below is a little over an hour long and has some good information about how we make design decisions.

5 Types of Design Decision Styles

In comparing different companies that build great user experience and those that try to, but don’t quite deliver, Jared’s firm identified the following types of design decision styles.

  • Unintentional — design that just happens
  • Self — designing for yourself
  • Genius — designing for others based on experience and research
  • Activity focused — design based on the activities users want to take
  • Experience focused — designing for the overall experience

Any of the above can be a legitimate way to design a website. As with everything, each has its pros and cons. What’s important is to know which style of design decision making you’re using on a project and to be consistent with that style for the entire project.

Random pattern of circles

Unintentional Design

Unintentional design is what evolves when no conscious design has been applied. It just happens, usually when you’re designing something else.

For example you know you need a web page with a form so you build the form. Then you realize the page needs some navigation so you add a few links. After that you notice there’s plenty of room on the page so you add a sidebar and add some new information.

The overall design ultimately just happened as you built each of the parts without any conscious thought to the whole.

Unintentional design tends to serve technology and not people. Forms mimic the database. Error messages aren’t especially user friendly.

Unintentional design attempts to be helpful, however it’s reactive to something missing or a problem people are having and it supplies a quick fix.

On the positive side unintentional design is the least expensive way to design. You just make something work and in some cases it really doesn’t matter if the user interface isn’t great. You might be training people to use it for example.

I’m sure many of us have used unintentional design when a client calls with a request to add a new feature or page, but wants to keep cost as low as possible. You design and build what they absolutely need at the expense of design unity.

Man taking a picture of himself in sideview mirror

Self Design

Self design as the name implies is when you design for yourself. You design with the idea that you are the typical user of your product or interface and the understanding that there are going to be others like you.

You create the best design for you knowing that others like you will also find it to be the best for them.

To work, self design requires

  • A large enough group of people like you to become a market
  • You have to use the product everyday so you can find and fix errors

Self design seems to fly in the face of understanding our audience and designing for them, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. Assuming the above conditions are true, you are your audience so designing for yourself is designing for your audience.

The downside of course is that everyone isn’t like you and in designing for yourself you exclude many people who might be interested in your site or product. You aren’t going to please everyone with self design, but you will please yourself and you will please a smaller group of a total market that is similar to you.

Model of Albert Einstein

Genius Design

Sometimes you aren’t the typical user of your design, which is where genius design comes in.

You begin by defining and researching your audience. You likely do usability testing during the design process and study your analytics after the site is built and adjust. All your design decisions are based on the people who are going to use your design.

However after running through the above again and again you no longer need to do all the research. Some perhaps, but not all. You eventually gain enough experience and knowledge to trust your instincts.

Naturally for genius design to work you need a lot of experience, which you might get working predominantly in one industry.

If we take on enough clients I think we all become genius designers to some degree. Even if we aren’t always working in the same industry there are almost always commonalities from site to site.

Additionally as we learn design principles we gain knowledge that should transfer from site to site.

After you’ve solved the same problem over and over you should have some ready made solutions for the next time you need to solve that problem.

Pieces on the activity game board

Activity Focused Design

Of course there will be times when you’re designing something you don’t have experience with.

Activity focused design is based on research focused on the activities people will need to perform using your designs. You need to figure out who your users are, and then come to understand the use cases they might take, perhaps creating personas (PDF) along the way.

You do this on an abstract level. You aren’t concerned so much with how the design will look at first. You’re more concerned with removing complexity and making things simple and usable. The design is always driven by user actions.

Activity focused design works well when:

  • We can identify our audience and their activities
  • We can’t rely on our previous experience
  • Simplicity leads to a better design

The goal is to make sure everything works and our users can quickly and easily perform the tasks they need to complete.

Let's talk about user experience

Experience Focused Design

Experience focused design is about designing what happens in between activities in addition to designing the activities themselves.

Everything is tied together to tell a story.

In the video Jared offers the example of a man who was looking for the Wii at a time when it was out of stock. He found it online at the Best Buy site, which told him one was available in a nearby store. He placed the order which he could pick up in an hour. All the activities on the site were done well.

Unfortunately the Wii wasn’t available at the store when he arrived and he was unable to get a refund since online is a different division than the particular store he was in. Even though all the activities were designed well, the overall experience was a poor one.

Experience focused design is best for when you want to improve someone’s entire experience with your brand. You want to be proactive with your design, anticipating how to provide a consistent and great experience.

Naturally this is the most expensive type of design as it takes a lot of time to understand and design all the details that make for a great experience. It requires more work across all parts of your business.

It’s also something that can’t generally be outsourced. No one will ever know the details of your business and customers as much as you and your employees do.

Design decision making graph

Rule Based and Informed Based Decision Making

In studying all of the 5 types of design decision styles, Jared’s team came to realize that within these styles most decisions were either rule based or informed based.

Rule Based Decision Making

Rule based decision making comes out of creating style guidelines, a list of absolute rules based on research that everyone and everything needs to follow.

However there are few if any absolute rules when it comes to design. Following a strict set of rules doesn’t necessarily make for better design.

Style guides can work short-term as long as they keep the design conversation going. You are thinking about design in the act of creating the styles after all. Absolute rules generally don’t work well to create great design long-term.

When you think about it there’s a good reason absolute rules aren’t a good way to make design decisions. The intent of the rules is to prevent you from thinking and having to make a decision. The idea is to just follow the rules.

Rules also don’t work well for exception solutions. They tend to be what works best for the least common denominator case or for the average.

Rules can be a fallback when you need to do something, but don’t quite know how to do it. Rules can provide for a quick and workable solution, but they’ll seldom lead to exceptional design.


Informed Decision Making

On the other hand informed based decision making requires thinking. It requires you ask what the right design decisions are over and over again. As a result Informed design works better with both normal and exception cases.

This brings up the question how do we inform design?

Everyone goes through a process when designing. You may only use the process once, but still you had some process to get from point A to point B to finished design.

If we graph things (scroll up just a bit to see the image above) we have process in the center. On one side of the process we see rule based design. We have methodology which is a formalization of process for more efficiency.

Further away on the same side we end up with dogma, which is an unquestioned faith independent of supporting evidence.

On the other side of the process we have informed based decision making. First we see techniques. Techniques are things you learn to do well over time with practice. Techniques are design patterns and snippets.

A little further we encounter tricks which are techniques used not quite the way they were intended. They work though, and get the job done.

Jared’s company found the more successful designers and design teams used informed based design. Techniques and tricks proved to be more effective than methodology and dogma.

The best design teams build rich toolboxes and just as important understand how and when to use those tools.

Additional Resources

While writing this post I’ve come to realize Jared’s presentation is one he’s been giving for awhile now at different conferences and that many others have offered a summary. Here are a few I found.

If you search for any of the 5 styles you’ll find plenty more.

Bar chart of design decision styles


When you’re designing a new site you’re inevitably using one of the 5 styles for design decision making. Each style has a purpose and can be an effective way to reach a design solution.

The style you choose ultimately dictates the design you end up with. Again design is the sum of all the decisions made in solving a problem.

The best designers always know which style they’re using to make decisions and make sure they’re consistent in using that style for the entire project. They also make sure everyone on the team is using the same decision style.

The more advanced the style, the more expensive and difficult to complete, though the better the resulting design. Design agencies can only go as far as genius design. Activity and experience focused design requires an in-house team.

Within each style of decision making you’re best to use informed decision making as opposed to following a set of absolute rules. Learn techniques and tricks in order to build a working toolbox and understand how and when to apply the tools you’ve collected.

Which of the 5 styles of design decision making do you typically use? Do you bounce back and forth between several? Does your portfolio represent your style of design decision making?

« »

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *