Many years ago I attended a talk by Jared Spool, where he introduced this way of thinking about design decision styles: 1. unintended design, 2. self design, 3. genius design, 4. activity-focussed design, 5. user-focused design. It resonated a lot with me and I find that awareness of this has helped me personally. It has often made it easier to get everyone on the same page and to make better decisions. I want to highlight this framework here in case someone else also finds it useful.

Note: the featured image is of Dieter Rams.

1. Unintended Design

This is the undesigned stuff. No one sat down and decided this is how it should be. It just ended up being this way. And no one is empowered to optimize it yet. This is the ‘cheapest’ form of design style. Not having one 🙂

Unintended Design happens when the team focuses on the act of development and deployment without any consideration of what will happen when people try to use it. Not all unintended designs are bad—some can be quite usable. It comes down to a game of chance. (Think of the old maxim, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every so often.”)

Jared Spool
Instructions papered on to a hard to use gas station pump
Keyboard not found. Press F1 to Resume

2. Self Design

This is when you decide you are the customer. You are designing for yourself and for people just like you. This is the fastest and cheapest way to get results from your design process as it can reduce a lot of overhead. But there’s a big risk to this style. Many people often realize too late that they are not the customer and that it’s easy to end up with blind spots. And the costs of recovering from those can be quite high.

It works best when the team members really are the primary users of the application. For example, many in-house bug tracking systems are self designed and quite good. They do exactly what the team needs without a lot of fuss.

Jared Spool
Building a tiny home for yourself to live in. But will someone else buy a replica or will they want their own customization?

3. Genius Design

This is a variation / evolution of the previous design style and it is a short-cut to the next design style. This style only works when the team members have prior experience designing for a problem in the same domain, similar user profiles, and have gone through the feedback loops, the bruises, the surprises etc and come away with real wisdom. This can work quite well, for example, in an agency that is focused on a vertical. But it’s important to have the humility to know when a design problem is different from prior expertise. However, this form of design can be efficient and cost effective whenever it can be used.

Genius design works well with very experienced team members. If you’ve already designed five different shopping carts, each complete with thorough research on the users and their scenarios and follow-up work to see how well the designs met expectations, then designing a sixth shopping cart without all that rigorous research will probably produce great results.

Jared Spool
A wedding planner designing the “perfect” wedding for a client. The “seen-it-all” style of design can be very efficient and produce great outcomes for everyone.

4. Activity Focused Design

Let’s say we have no background in medicine. And we have to design a note-taking app for doctors. The way to build that out properly will be to first understand the tasks we are looking to enable / augment and to understand all the activities we are designing for. This requires investing in research and there is a higher cost associated with this style of design. It’s important to note, however, that doing this process several times over can then enable the Genius design style at some point.

Teams need this style when the activities are new or foreign to the team members, and can’t rely on their own experience, like when using the Genius Design style. Often the research utilizes activity-based techniques, such as workflow diagramming and task-based usability testing. These simple techniques can provide important insights that improve the design decisions.

Jared Spool
A smartphone app for diagnosing cataract “in the field” in India. Need to really research the entire workflow and do field testing to get it right.

5. User-Focused Design

This is the highest touch style of design. Here we go beyond the “what the user is trying to do?” and get into the “why?s”. We invest in understanding the holistic context of how the design fits in with the overall goals and needs of all the stake-holders. It helps unearth insights that would otherwise be impossible to know. It creates an opportunity to leapfrog the problems we are trying to solve for and come up with a design that is more powerful and longer-lasting than the previous style. e.g.

People bought the milkshake in lieu of a bagel or doughnut because it was relatively tidy and appetite-quenching, and because trying to suck a thick liquid through a thin straw gave customers something to do with their boring commute.

Harvard Business School

This design style is the high-end approach and is necessary if the team is looking to create an excellent experience overall. To do that, the team will use user-focused techniques, such as field research and robust persona creation, ensuring the team understands the contextual nature of the users’ experience.

Jared Spool
A commuter buying a milkshake, because it’s the only food here that’s compatible with their long drive ahead.

When to use what?

The examples above lay out some of the pre-conditions that have to be met for a certain design style to be useful. In practice, I have found, that the styles often get mixed – sometimes even within the same project. It all depends on the overall complexity, the current focus, and opportunity costs of the reversible and irreversible decisions.

But being more consciously aware of the style being used can help avoid surprises and make teams more succesful.

Here’s a more recent example of what happens when the design process breaks down as incremental changes add up to larger problems that sometimes go undetected until it is too late.

How a 50-year old design came back to haunt Boeing with its troubled 737 Max jet (LA Times)

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