An Event Apart Minneapolis: Jared Spool, "Anatomy of a Design Decision"

All of the presentations at An Event Apart Minneapolis were fantastic, but I probably laughed the hardest at Jared Spool’s presentation on the “Anatomy of Design Decisions.” The cursed airlines had delayed Dan Cederholm’s flight to Minneapolis, so Jared was called upon to do Dan’s presentation on CSS3. Or so Jared joked.

Jared had created slides on the fly about that as well as highlighting the best Twitter avatar of all of the conference attendees, that of Stan Grabowski. I had the pleasure of meeting Stan at the conference: he’s a great guy and also has a pretty awesome logo.

I digress.

The spontaneity of these slides kicked off what was a great user experience for those listening to Jared’s presentation. It was highly enjoyable and funny, but the concepts presented were also thought-provoking and digestable. I am also attending (and helping to plan) a fall conference in the fall for the National Association of Government Webmasters, where Jared will be one of our keynote speakers. Conference attendees will be in for a real treat.

Anyhow, Jared explained how anatomy is looking at internal structures. Design decisions have an anatomy as well. For example, the New York Times very thoughtfully made the decision to not underline links on their site. On the other hand, somebody made quite different decisions with Be warned: looking at this site may make your eyes bleed.

Throughout the presentation, Jared gave a ton of examples of what are perhaps gently described as “iffy” design decisions for websites. The point is that the difference between great sites and sites that look flat-out crazy is the decisions the designer makes.

Self design

To explain one way such decisions can be made, Jared treated us to a celebrity death match between 37signals’s Jason Friend and Don Norman, Jakob Nielsen’s business partner. No blood was spilled, quite thankfully.

37signals has the philosophy that they’re not designing for others, they’re designing for themselves. Don Norman calls this arrogant.

However, Jared pointed out that this philosophy is really self design, which is when we design something for our own use. This works great when users are just like us and we regularly use the creation just like users do. Self design typically focuses on how to handle complexity and create ease of use.

The crucial factor is that for self design to be successful, there must be a critical mass of users who are just like you. If so, great! If not, other design styles might be necessary.

Unintentional design

It is really impossible for me to convey to you the humor and excellence of the analysis Jared shared of some really bad interaction design examples. His point, though, was that if you see something that is hard to use or confusing, remember that was a design decision. Maybe not a good one, but a decision.

Untintentional design just happens on its own. Or at least it seems that way, with the lack of thoughtful decisions apparent in the designs. This works great when users put up with it and don’t really have any other options. It is also a real winner if the designer doesn’t care about increased support costs or the frustration of their users.

Genius design

Jared presented these different design styles as bars on a chart, with each taller than the next. Unintentional design was a small bar on the left, with self design higher and to the right, and then genius design, a bit higher yet. The appearance was similar to cell phone signal strength bars. Each style builds upon the previous style and moves beyond it.

Genius design is designing for users beyond ourselves.

He gave the example of a web design company that focused on schools. They had done a number of different sites for various schools, and so they began to see the commonalities between what various schools needed on their websites. Thus, they were able to become “geniuses” for school website design. Even though they were not a school, they learned what users need.

If you want some phone, look at a bunch of different school sites and see how often you see the common design style known only as girl under tree. His examples, one after the other, were pretty amusing.

So, genius design works great when we already understand the knowledge, experiences and contexts of our users and are solving the same problems over and over again.

While self design works when there are a lot of users out there just like us, genius design is necessary when we are not like our users, but we understand those users very well.

Activity-focused design

However, sometimes we don’t understand users very well, because we are designing for something that has not been done before, and these new activities are unfamiliar to us. Activity-focused design works great when we can easily identify users, their activities and can go beyond previous experiences. Activity-focused design innovations can come from removing complexity.

Activities versus experiences

Jared showed us a map of Six Flags. The rides stood out on the map in three dimensions. They looked fun!

Compare that, however, to a map of Disney World. On a Walt Disney World map, the rides do not pop out. This is because Disney World is not about the rides. It is about the experiences people have between the rides. Don’t get me wrong, the rides at Disney World are often a blast. But rides alone do not explain why people obsess about bringing their children to see people in “creepy costumes,” as Jared put it, and plan their trips around whether or not they can get breakfast reservations for their kids, where they will be scared by those people in creepy costumes. The experience is key.

As another example, Best Buy was doing some user testing where users ordered Wiis online, back when they were in very scarce supply. The activity of purchasing the Wiis online and reserving them for store pick-up was just great. However, when the users went to the store and were told they could not pick up their Wii, because all the Wiis in the store had sold out, the experience sucked.

Experience-focused design

Experience-focused design fills in the gaps between activities and instead designs for the entire experience. This works great when we want to improve the user’s complete experience sin between specific activities. This requires being pro-active about designs and making game-changing innovations a top priority.

Making design decisions: Rules or informed decisions?

Rule-based design

In rule-based design, guidelines are created, such as style guides, so that unintentional designers can accidentally create great designs. The problem is that design style guides and guidelines never work: People stop using them. Rule-based decisions are intended to prevent thinking. This might work if there are never exceptions; however, there are always exceptions. (Except when there are not.)

Informed decisions

On the other hand, informed decisions require thinking. This works with both normal and exception cases. If you get people more informed, you get better designs.

Decision scale

Jared showed us a horizontal line. In the middle of that line was process. A process is writing down the series of steps necessary to get something done.

To the right of that on line was a methodology, which is a formalization of a process.

Even farther to the right of that is a dogma, which is a methodology taken to a very strict level. Think TSA. With all of Jared’s travels, he has discovered that yogurt is a gel and cream cheese is neither a liquid nor a gel. So, yogurt is incredibly dangerous to have on a plane. Cream cheese? Perfectly safe. If suntan lotion is in a plastic baggie, it is safe as can be. If it is not in a bag, it becomes very, very unsafe. Thus, a dogma is an unquestioned faith in something independent of any supporting evidence.

Just to the left of a process are techniques, which are really the building blocks of process. A recipe tells you all the steps you need to take to cook a dish. Each of those steps requires using separate techniques. If you understand how to do each of those techniques very well, there is a good chance you can cook something that tastes great, even if you don’t know the exact recipe.

On the far left side of the decision scale are tricks, which are things we do because doing things the right way would take too long. If a plumber comes to your house, do you ask him what his methodology is? Very often, he will pull out a particular tool and just get things fixed, because that is a trick he has found to solve similar problems in the past.

Rule-based design relies upon methodology and dogma. Informed decisions require the use of techniques and tricks. Pattern-based design is informed design.

Moving between design styles

Jared showed us his cell phone signal strength bar chart again. Arrows with labels went from each bar to the next:

  • From unintentional design to self design: Eating your own dog food
  • From self design to genius design: Usability testing
  • From genius design to activity-focused design: Field studies
  • From activity-focused design to experience-focused design: Personas and patterns

Thus, different techniques help take you from one level to the next.

Every style has a purpose. There’s a good reason to use each one. Carefully choose which one you’ll use. Great designers know which style they’re using, use the same style for the entire project and make sure everyone uses the same style.

In Jared’s experience, agencies can’t go beyond Genius Design. Activity-focused and experience-focused design must be done in-house.

The more advanced the design style, the more expensive it becomes. However, the more advanced the style, the better the design, and the more that customers are satisfied.

The key question to ask yourself is what kind of designer do you aspire to be. This is not rocket science or brain surgery. What you do should reflect your decision style. Organizations should use this in determining what type of designers they need. Your resume and portfolio should reflect what type of designer you are.

If you want some homework, Jared suggests a close analysis of

Jared closed by encouraging us to utilize informed decisions and avoid rule-based decisiions. Techniques and tricks are more effective than methodologies and dogma.

My take

I have to confess that I didn’t grasp the strengths of activity-focused design as well as I did the others. I wish “Genius” Design had a different label, though I confess I’m at a loss for an alternative.

In my own work, I am trying to do more to understand users well in an effort to find out what activities they are trying to accomplish to make sure those activities are carried out as smoothly as possible. I confess that I am a huge fan of Disney World, so I have a deep appreciation of the benefits and the challenge of creating great experiences. I also love Apple, which I think also excels at experience-based design.

I also prefer learning techniques and tricks where necessary, and sometimes find it challenging to formalize that knowledge into clearly-defined processes. However, while it would be wonderful if everyone just understood the same techniques I do, it is often the case that there are those who really do need things clearly laid out as a process, because employing those techniques is just not a part of their skillset. Everybody has different skillsets, and often people need to interact with content creation on the web and yet do not necessarily need to know the entirety of the skillset necessary to create complex interactions on the web on a regular basis.

I had an interesting conversation with somebody at the conference who was working with a client that wanted their site turned over to them to control after it was completed. I don’t think this particular site had a content management system, and the client requested a full set of instructions for how to take care of the site. The designer at least thought: “So you want me to teach you to be a web designer?” That’s the challenge: how do you put the web in the hands of those who do not know all the secrets of the web, and who do not need to all the secrets of the web. A good content management tool can help with that, I think. I’ve been using Drupal a lot for that purpose recently.

Anyhow, I digress. Overall, the presentation from Jared was great, both in the way it was delivered, and the way it made me think about the work I do, and how I do it.