SXSWi: Anatomy of a Design Decision

Session: Monday 14 March 2011

Speaker: Jared Spool (@jmspool)

Slides were available to SXSW attendees by emailing with the subject: SXSW Slides.  I haven’t received my set yet! :)

This session was a very thought-proking presentation by Jared Spool, that focused on breaking down decision making styles used in design, and how it affects the type of solution that is designed.  It then made me question the type of designer I want to be, and how I can get there.

Here are my notes on the session, but much of the session involved some great “you had to be there” style examples – I was too engrossed to take details notes of these examples!

The language of design decisions

Spool begins the talk with a discussion about the language of design decisions: The question he poses: What’s the the language that’s used to describe the decisions that we make?

He takes us through many design examples – all pointing to the fact that with every design, there are hundred of little design decisions that are made.  There are a variety of choices we make as designers. The choices we make take our designs one way or another.

Spool then asks: How do we describe how we make our choices? And mentions that this is something we never actually talk about.

Spool and UIE have been looking at patterns about how we make design decisions, and they found 5 types of design decision styles.
1. Self design
Spool used the example of Jason Fried (37 signals) – he has a very strong design philosophy — his design decisions are about what works for him. Everything is about how HE would use the design.  Spool mentions that this is a typically shunned in the UX world. But the fact that it works.

It’s called self design, and it can work so long as two conditions exist:
1. There are a ton of users just like you.
2.  You have to use the product everyday. It’s called dogfooding. As long as you use it everyday, things in the design will frustrate you, just as they would frustrate your users.

2. Unintentional design
This is what happens when design just happens on its own – when we focus on the architecture and not on the output.
This works when:

  • Our users will put up with whatever they give them
  • We don’t care about support costs or pain from frustration.

Spool mentions that for most design, we can pin point the style of design it is.  To get from unintentional design to self design, just start using the product. But this is often a huge jump.

3. Genius design
On discussing “genius” design, Spool provides the example of David Poteet of New City Media.  They are a company that specialises in educational sites – and they have gotten to a point where they know so much about their users, that they can reuse much of their learning.

This is when we know the users so well that we already know their knowledge, previous experiences, and contexts.  We solve the same problems – but  we are designing for people other than ourselves

4. Activity focused design
Spool takes us through some examples of activity focused design.  This is where you are designing for something we’ve never designed for – when we are designing for new activities, and new users.

5. Experience focused design
It’s about the space between the activities, the merger from one activity to the next.

Spool uses the example of designing for Neo-natal care unit.  You could start in activity based design, but you really need to be in the shoes of the nurses to truly understand the experiences you need to design for.

Overall, experience focused design is hard to do.

How we make decisions
Spool then takes us through Rule based decisions vs Informed decisions

The problem with these rules is that they don’t work
Design style guides and guidelines never work.

Spool states that the purpose of rule based decisions is to prevent thinking.  Informed design requires thinking. But it gets us to better designs.

The issue is when we get to exceptions:

  • Rule based decisions fails on any exception cases.
  • Informed design works on both typical and exception cases


The process spectrum

In their studies they found the following spectrum:

Spool mentions that tricks is when we use a tool not in the way that it was intended. But the thing is, we use tricks all the time.

In their studies, they expected to see amazing companies to have a methodology and dogma.  But they found the opposite:


The best companies, they didn’t have any methodologies or dogma.
And the struggling companies were the ones that kept trying to put in the methodology and dogma.  This is rule based.

Techniques and tricks are using in informed decision making.  The best teams spend at least 2 hours every two weeks watching someone use their design – and this includes even the indirect people on the team.

The difference between rule based and informed based is getting information into your process.

So what design decision making should we use?

We can choose the style of design decision making we  use.

Every style has its purpose – There is a place for each style of design.


  • Great designers know which style they are using.
  • Great designers use the same style for the entire project
  • Great teams ensure everyone uses the same style. Including the executives and influencers
  • The more advanced the style, the more expensive it gets

According to Spool, they’ve found agencies can’t go beyond genius design. Because to produce a great experience, it has to come from in-house. Agencies can help with some of the issues, but they can’t run the show.  Spool believes that activity focused and experience focused must occur in-house.

The more advanced the style, the better the design.

So what kind of designer do you want to be?


Overall, I found this to be a very insightful session.  At Massive Interactive, I’ve found that I’ve personally struggled with understanding our “methodology” – but using Spool’s language for design decisions, I would say our team is very accustomed to practicing informed design, rather than rule based design.  It’s interesting to understand the nature of decision making from this perspective.


Hopefully those that were not at the session can gain enough insight from these notes to think about their own process and decision making style!


  • Bob Calder

    Perhaps we discourage self-design in students early on because they complete course work with shortest path & satisficing. This may stay with us to some extent.