The Anatomy of a Design Decision – Design Decision Styles

By Jared Spool


When can you trust your gut and when can you not trust your gut about a decision? All designs are comprised of many, if not thousands, of decisions. The aspect that makes a designer great relates to his/her ability to make a gut decision in an effective manner.

Unintentional Design

  • When the design happens on its own, where the underlying architecture, systems, and business dictate what the final design looks like. The user is not considered.
  • Works when:
    • Users will put up with whatever we give them (small user count, infrequent usage, unique interaction, etc. warrants no need for intentional design decisions)
    • We don’t care about support costs or pain from frustration
  • Transition to Self Design – “Eating your own dogfood”

Self Design

  • When we design something for our own use
  • Works when:
    • Users are just like us
    • We regularly use it like our users do
  • Transition to Genius Design – Usability Testing

Genius Design

  • When we’ve previously learned what users need
  • Works when:
    • We already know their knowledge, previous experiences, nuances, subtleties, and contexts
    • We solve the same design problems repeatedly
  • Transition to Activity-Focused Design – Field Studies

Activity-Focused Design

  • When we’re designing for new activities unfamiliar to us
  • Works when:
    • We can easily identify the users and their activities
    • We need to go beyond our own previous experiences
    • Innovations can come from removing complexity
  • Transition to Experience Design – Personas & Patterns

Experience-Focused Design

  • When we’re designing for the entire experience
  • 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

Informed Decisions vs. Rule-Based Decisions

  • Rule-based decisions rarely work in the long term. It is often better to inform the reasoning behind a design decision as exception-cases always surface that do not work within the rules. Being informed on the decisions behind a design, enables a solution for an exception-case that is aligned with original intent.
  • Rule-based decisions typically prevent thinking whereas informed decisions require thinking.
  • Create a Pattern Library as opposed to strict style guidelines. This Pattern Library becomes the path-to-least-resistance and holds the documented “snippets” that are used for a certain design/widget approach. If a new solution is needed (exception-cases are inevitable), the implementation needs to be added to the Pattern Library.


  • Every style has its purpose
  • Great designers know which style they’re using
  • Great designers use the same style for the entire project
  • Great teams ensure everyone uses the same style
  • The more advanced the style, the more expensive
    • Agencies can’t go beyond Genius Design
    • Activity-focused & Experienced-focused must be done in-house
  • The more advanced the style, the better the design
  • Techniques and tricks are more effective than methodologies and dogma